Interview with Rick Dean, founder of Strong Coffee to Red Wine, a wine, food and travel blog
Earlier in the year, I had the good fortune to spend three days in Paso Robles with 20 other wine writers for an invite-only wine education tour. What a TERRIFIC time we all had touring and learning while turning our teeth a ghastly purple-gray. We visited a dozen wineries in 11 sub-AVAs, tasted 60+ wines, experienced workshops and tours galore, enjoyed outrageous food and generous hospitality, and learned from the industry “legends.” This epic tour was all masterfully orchestrated by Fred Swan, of NorCal Wine (we’ll be interviewing him in the coming months), and planned as a prelude to Hospice du Rhône, a biannual celebration of Rhône wines held in Paso.
Hailing from South Carolina, Rick Dean and his husband, Gary, were central to the group of writers, and I was eager to catch up with them again to learn more about their business.
Q: Rick, so great to catch up with you again. I’m so curious about your business. Please tell me about it in a nutshell.
Rick: That is a complex question because my business is an amalgamation of my passion for wine, the sharing of the knowledge gained from that passion, along with helping people make better choices when buying and drinking wine. I call myself a “Wine Explorer” because I am always searching for the next great wine for one of my customers or me. But getting here has been an evolution.
It started in 2017 with a blog, Strong Coffee to Red Wine, that we still publish today. Gary had been working at a wine shop for the past few years while taking a break from his healthcare career. He was tasting 30+ wines every week, would occasionally bring some home, and I would sample all these wines; it was just so much fun. And I said to him, “Gary, you need to write a wine blog.” And he said, “I don’t want to write a blog.” And I said, “But you really should because you’re in this every day.” And he said, “I’ve got enough on my plate. I don’t want to do it. Why don’t you do it?” And I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” So, I started a wine blog in January 2017.
The original goal was to make it revenue-generating. But I quickly learned that wine blogs are not monetizable like other blog genres, at least not that anyone has yet to discover. Fortunately, we both had other careers, so we had time to figure this out.
In April 2018, I began hosting and facilitating wine tastings with great results—for the wineries and online wine shops with whom I partnered. And then, as you know, Covid shut the world down. A winery asked me to help them figure out how to do virtual wine tastings. We did, and that became a thing until October of 2021 when we started in-person tastings again. With Covid came the shutting down of my previous career as a wedding photographer. So, it was time to shift into high gear and make this the career that would take me into retirement. (Yes, I am of that age.)
Since then, I have added concierge buying services for consumers, experiential and educational wine tastings, and wine curation for a neighborhood liquor store that has expanded into wine.
Q: Congratulations! That’s a full plate! Will you please take us through your growth and expansion?
Rick: First, the blog: Strong Coffee to Red Wine. It may seem like a fool’s errand from a revenue point of view, but it is critical to my success. This is my marketing arm and my credibility arm. This has opened many doors to successful wine writers, wineries, importers, distributors and public relations companies in this industry.
At this point, I was tasting wine all the time. The more I tasted and shared with friends (and on the blog), the more folks asked me to share the wines I liked through tastings. So, I hooked up with a specialty online wine store and first tasted Croatian and Portuguese wines. It was a colossal success facilitating the sale of over 100 bottles of wine. I “facilitate” because I bring the customer to the table and feed them. The wine is sold, processed and shipped directly from the winery/store. Over the next 12 months, I offered eight wine tastings, each one more successful than the last. I was thrilled with that because this was a part-time gig to supplement my primary income.
Q: Let’s talk about your wine knowledge and education. Where/how did you learn about wine?
Rick: The internet is a lovely thing and a great resource. That is how I found and then attended the 2017 Wine Blogger’s Conference (now called Wine Media Conference). There, I learned just how little I knew about wine, which I vowed to change as quickly as possible. I also made some great connections at the conference. It was just what I needed then. A few months later, I attended a 13-week Somm School at a local wine shop that was excellent. I participated in the first Wine Writer’s Education Tour (WWET) which was held in Napa a month later. The tour is a three-day intensive deep dive into the AVA, the sub-AVAs and the grape varieties best known within the region—you know, we met during the Paso tour this year.
After attending WWET Napa, I decided it was time to add a credentialed wine education program to my resume. I chose the WSET program because I was not interested in the CMSA service aspect (Court of Master Sommeliers of America). Since, at this point, I had a base of knowledge, I decided to skip the Level 1 certification and took the Level 2 course, which I passed with distinction on my first attempt in May 2019. I also attended the 2019 WWET Willamette Valley tour and the 2022 WWET Paso Robles tour.
At this point, I won’t continue with any other certification programs but will continue to learn by creating wine trips to regions I want to learn more about. In 2021, along with a few other wine writers, Gary and I did a tour of the Lodi AVA, Northern Sonoma County and Suisun Valley AVA. And in October, Gary and I enjoyed a wine tour of Sicily. I want to visit a different wine region at least once a year, if not twice.
Lastly, it is important to stress that learning is lifelong. I will continue to attend WWET programs wherever and whenever they are scheduled. I have signed up for self-guided online classes to keep me up-to-date and current in my learning. I am still determining what will be next, but it will continue.
Q: Excellent! And thanks for that chronology. Let’s get back to your business. You mentioned Gary. What is his role in the business?
Rick: When we feature wines on the blog, both Gary and I taste and discuss. He helps evaluate what wines to include for tasting events and assists with all of the tastings we facilitate. His input into all aspects of the business is very important. He will join me full-time when he retires in a couple of years.
Q: So, this started with your blog and then tastings; what came next?
Rick: Covid, and it changed everything. My primary income vanished. I was planning on retiring from wedding photography soon, but this sealed the deal, and I shut down the business. Wine tastings went virtual and that was indeed a blessing. Everyone was willing to give it a go because we were all in the same boat.
But Covid also exposed an opportunity. Everything went into a home delivery mode. So that is when I started my concierge wine program.
The concierge wine program serves different clients in different ways. Some just like the home delivery aspect. I take one chore off their plate and prevent them from buying grocery store wine. I keep them stocked with what they like—and always include something new that will work for their palate. They love that.
The other type of client for concierge is somebody who wants to explore and broaden their wine palate. Perhaps you dislike Rosé as a category or Pinot Noir as a variety? I learn what it is about the wine that they don’t like and find wines that better suit their palate. Sometimes it’s a matter of quality. Sometimes it’s style. I also introduce them to obscure varieties such as Aligoté, Mencia, Malagouzia or Nero d’Avola. The goal is to open their eyes to new wine experiences.
Concierge clients pay a service fee depending on quantity and frequency. They buy the wine for the same price I negotiated at the store. In the end, I save my clients time and money.
With Covid now a managed illness, I have continued offering concierge services and added several more clients. Wine tastings are in-person again, but with Zoom still on everyone’s radar, we are asking the winery owner or winemaker to join us and lead us through the wines. I host, ask questions and create interaction between my clients and the winemaker/owner as we taste the wines. By adding this element, we have increased sales because the clients feel more connected to the wine. So far, we have worked with small boutique wineries from Napa Valley, Sonoma, Lodi, Paso Robles and Willamette Valley.
I’d also like to expand into Washington state wines. If I can get the wine, I will host wineries from anywhere. I may be working with a couple of wineries in Sicily whose wines are distributed here in South Carolina. They will Zoom in and lead the tasting—just like you would experience if you were in Sicily. I am stoked about that!
Speaking of wines in distribution in South Carolina, I am now working with a wine shop to offer tastings with locally available wines. And that brings me to the last types of tastings that I offer: tastings in client homes with their guests, fundraisers for not-for-profits, and lifestyle events at 55+ apartment complexes and senior centers. Lastly, under the tasting umbrella, I occasionally offer Wine 101 classes and region- or variety-specific tastings for folks that want to start exploring and learning about wine.
Q: I love it! Where do you do the tastings when you are not taking it on the road?
Rick: We created a wine room in our house where I used to have my photography studio. At first, it was the broadcast studio where we led the Zoom tastings. But now, it is where our in-person tastings happen.
Q: How many folks can you host?
Rick: We can comfortably seat 16 people, which is a nice size. That said, sometimes we will offer two different tastings times for the same event to accommodate folks’ varying schedules. So, we’ll do one on a weekday evening and one on a weekend afternoon.
Q: What is Gary’s role at the tastings?
Rick: I typically do the on-the-road tastings myself because Gary is very busy with his healthcare job. When we do the wine tastings at home, Gary’s very much a part of it. He is the Ed McMahon to my Johnny Carson at tastings in the wine room. While I “interview” the winemaker/owner, he keeps me on track and throws in an occasional joke. He also serves all the food pairings that I make.
Q: Tell me about your background, Rick. How did you find your way into this wonderful career?
Rick: My career from the beginning has circled around food. At seven years old, I was cooking my own dinner; by age 10, I was cooking easy dinners for the entire family. At age 15, I worked at a Dairy Queen and stayed there through high school.
When I was in college, I waited tables and bartended, and then I managed a restaurant for a couple of years after graduation. From there, I started working in an international hotel chain’s food and beverage department. That’s how my career started. After the hotel gig, I left hotel F&B for a couple of reasons. Honestly, I missed having weekends free.
I felt like the world was passing me by while my friends were having much fun. So I left it for the rest of my career until now, as I get closer to retirement. Strangely, I started in F&B, and now I am also ending in it.
Q: But that begs the question, why wine?
Rick: The first part of that answer is that I needed to work for myself. It is just who I am. But the more significant answer is passion. I started writing the blog because of that passion, with the goal of making it my job. Once I learned that blogging about wine is not a career move, I decided I needed to find another way to make a living “in wine.” I could not take “It won’t happen” as the answer.
But the odds were totally against me. First, when I started, I was merely a passionate wine drinker. I had zero wine education and frankly knew very little about wine other than what I liked and did not like. Second, I live in South Carolina. I could not be further from the states that are the USA’s wine production centers. So while I could not change the SC issue, I could get educated somehow.
And if writing a blog was not the solution, then what could it be? Ultimately, wineries want to sell wine. Boutique, small production wineries without distribution sell through their tasting room. So I decided to bring their tasting room experience to Charleston. And as you can see, it worked and has expanded to all it is today.
Bottom line, I did not take “no” for an answer until I figured out a way.
Q: Thank you, Rick. Any last words?
Rick: This jump into wine started five years ago and it’s still a work in progress. Honestly, it would have been next to impossible to accomplish without other income. I am still not where I want to be but I am close. That said, remember, I am putting an exclamation point as I end my work life. I will never stop working completely so I want it to be something I love doing.
If I were just starting my career in wine as a 20- or 30-something, I’d probably get certified and move to wine country. But when I was younger, wine was not a part of my family experience, so I had no connection to the industry. It took my whole life to get here and I’m glad it did. I’m really, really glad it did. What I do provides real value to my clients.