Master Sommelier John Szabo was the first Canadian to add the “MS” after his name in 2004. He’s seen the hospitality business from all sides, importing, teaching, writing and speaking, consulting and judging internationally. He was listed as “Canada’s best-known sommelier” in Meininger’s Wine Business International.
The future ‘king of Lambrusco’ speaks to Monarch about his unusual journey into wine, shaking
up the wine space, and creating an affordable luxury lifestyle brand that is cool, sparkling, and
red all at the same time
When a tech savvy, imaginative and resourceful music engineer, venture capitalist and personal
advisor to celebrities with no connection to the wine industry steps into the wine space, things
are bound to be a little different.
Inspired By Cakebread
This is the story of Chris Lyons, who’s improbable path into winemaking was first inspired by a
sip of 2000 Cakebread Cellars Napa cabernet. That first nip, proffered by a kind patron while
Lyons was waiting tables in an Atalanta restaurant to fund his college education, was a world
apart from his “mom’s wine out of the fridge”. The interest it sparked was immediate. “I had no
idea that wine could taste that good”, he recalls. “It was fascinating”.
From that moment on, Lyons, who has always followed his passions, and more importantly,
found ways to turn his thoughts into real missions and create businesses out of them, turned his thoughts to wine. Recognizing the foreboding complexity of the wine world – the thousands of inscrutable labels and foreign grapes and places, it became his mission first to understand that world, and ultimately become a translator of it, building his own brand that would be accessible to all.
Wine is Storytelling
His research into the industry at the time revealed that there was only a handful of black
vintners in America. But rather than look at that as a barrier to entry, for Lyons, it spelled
instead opportunity for more stories to be told, and alternative perspectives to be shared. “As a
vintner, you’re really telling a story through your wine, he says. “Your grapes, the profile of
your wine is a story, how you demonstrate your brand and articulate it to the world is a story,
and the quality of your wine is also part of that story. I wanted to introduce a new conversation
into the wine industry, and do it in a way that was representative of who I am.”
Lyons aimed to weave his eclectic background with experience in music and entertainment,
technology and arts, into his wine story, and use his profile as a successful black entrepreneur
to reach a new and broad segment. His accomplishments in these varied fields has made him
into model to follow and inspiration for others, and has led him to be featured in spaces such as
Iconmann, an enterprise committed to, “positively transforming the dialogue and imaging of
black males through content and community engagement.”
Going Against the Grain
For anyone on the outside looking into starting a wine business, it would seem the easy starting
point would be a well-known region, a trendy grape, an already-popular style. But with Lyons’s
uncommon modus operandi, in hindsight it seems almost inevitable that he would land
somewhere totally unexpected on planet wine: the rolling green hills of Emilia-Romagna and….
“I do things against the grain and I don’t like competition”, he says. “Competition is for losers”.
Lyons spotted an opportunity in this obscure corner of Italy where off-dry, sparkling red wines
are made from a native grape called Lambrusco. It’s hardly a household name in America, so
the space was wide open to conquer. But it’s also a wine with the potential to be universally
loved. “’Cause, who doesn’t like a nice sparkling?”, he asks rhetorically.
He cites an encounter with a sparkling Australian shiraz that put him on the path.
“It blew my mind! I had no idea that you could have red wine, sparkling wine and cold wine all
at the same time. I was like, I need that!”.
The Italian Lifestyle
But Australia seemed too remote, so Lyons began searching for another place to make sparkling
red. California, where he was living at the time, was too common he felt. “Everybody makes
wine in California, there’s nothing unique about that.” So, Lyons looked to Europe, where many
popular brands in the black community and the world at large originate (he mentions LVMH,
Gucci, Fendi, Zegna). He loves French wines, but turned instead to Italy. “I felt that Italian wine
was under-represented”, he says, (while declaring 2010 Brunello di Montalcino as “perfection
in a glass”, a highly rated vintage to be sure). And considering his aim to have his brand fit into
an appealing lifestyle model, Italy fit the bill. “Who doesn’t love the Italian lifestyle?”, he
rhetorically asks again. “It’s a great place to hang out.” And when he learned that sparkling red
Lambrusco had been historically produced in Emilia-Romagna between Parma and Bologna, he
had found his niche.
If Lyons has his way, he’ll build a global Lambrusco brand that will be popped from LA to New
York to Tokyo. Unsurprisingly, Lyons is harnessing technology to spread the word about his
brand, mainly via social media and other online channels, e-commerce and direct-to-consumer
models. “The world is moving so fast and I think that technology is going to be at the heart of
every single industry”, he says, “and my job in the space is to really help pioneer where the
future of that is going as well”. How does he intend to do this? “Follow Lyons.wine!”
Lyons describes his wine as semi-sparkling red, “very much on the drier side”, which at 10.5%
alcohol, can be enjoyed at any and all times of day. He also believes that Lambrusco can be, “a
strong gateway into many other verticals”, alluding to plans to expand the wines range into
other Italian grapes and regions.
In another clever twist, he chose an opaque, matt red bottle, so you have no idea when that
bottle is empty”, he laughs. “It’s almost like a bit of Russian roulette, where you never know
who’s going to get the last sip. So, it always leaves people wanting more.”
But most importantly, Lyons wants his wine, “to be associated with celebration; I want my
brand to be part of that conversation.” Yet at the same time, he wants it to be an everyday
luxury. “You know, people keep champagne in their wine cellar or fridge and never drink it
because they’re waiting for that special occasion. The secret I’ve learned about wine, he
continues, “is that once you’ve opened the bottle, that is the moment.”
That’s great advice.
For more information visit lyons.wine