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Spirits Rising

Terlato Wines makes a bold expansion into the artisanal spirits market.

Bill Terlato

A company built on the pursuit of quality doesn’t enact big changes without careful consideration. A conversation with Bill Terlato at his family company’s headquarters in Lake Bluff, Ill., reveals how the storied wine business decided to start carrying a line of fine spirits—and how the grape and the grain aren’t so different, after all.

When you consider the fact that Terlato Wines enjoys a leading market share of the world’s high-end wines—which is to say, the stuff you want to be drinking—it’s a little surprising that its name isn’t more widely known. Go ahead—check the back of the better bottles in your cellar. From Napa and Sonoma, there’s Chimney Rock and Rochioli; the gorgeous pinot noirs from Sokol Blosser in Oregon; the exquisite dessert wines of Kracher, out of Austria. And speaking of the Old World: Chapoutier and Bollinger (one of James Bond’s preferred bubblies) in France, and (among others) Gaja in Italy.

This list only scratches the surface of Terlato’s portfolio. Over the years, the family-owned business, based on a stunning estate in Lake Bluff, Ill., seems to have been so focused on its pursuit of quality that it hasn’t worried too much about making noise. The beverages spoke for themselves.

The relentless pursuit of excellent product won’t change, probably ever. But this autumn, the Terlato name is likely to find itself on many more tongues around North America. In a bold move, Terlato Wines is entering the high-end artisanal spirits market, with a portfolio including grappa, rum, gin, cognac, single-malt scotch, tequila, vodka and even an irresistible tiramisu liqueur. How did this happen?

“For many years we have been all about wine,” says Bill Terlato, president and CEO. “Someone asked me recently, ‘How do you pick the wines that are in your portfolio?’ And I said, ‘If we wouldn’t drink them we wouldn’t sell them.’ It’s the same thing with the spirits. Everything that’s great in life is distinguishable, and it becomes highly prized. The only way it can command a higher price is if it is different from something else. Great wine is identifiable and distinctive, and I think we’ve done the same thing with our spirits.”

The gin, Langley’s No. 8, provides a useful illustration. Produced by a near-century-old distiller from 100 percent English grain, this London Dry is elegant and aromatic, more than suitable in any of the classic gin cocktails originally designed to mask untoward flavors—a Southside, an Aviation, even a Bee’s Knees.

But in the drinks meant to reveal the expressions of the spirit—a classic martini stirred with excellent vermouth, say, or a gin and tonic—the results are revelatory. The piney juniper is a high clear note above a balanced ensemble led by cardamom and coriander, with a subtle salinity on the finish. You probably shouldn’t, but you feel as though you could drink it all night.

Thus it fits right in with the eminently drinkable, pleasurable range of Terlato offerings. Probably the company’s best known product is the pinot grigio from Santa Margherita, a remarkably consistent, now ubiquitous wine that once was unheard of in the United States. It was “discovered” in Italy and brought here in quantity in 1979 by the patriarch of the family, Anthony “Tony” Terlato, who now serves as chairman. The origins of the company stretch back to 1938, when Tony’s father-in-law opened a retail store in Chicago, a business the young man joined and eventually grew. Now his two sons, Bill and John, divide much of the day-to-day operations, which include wine production, vineyard ownership and development, and oversight of more than 70 brands. “We have four generations in the business now,” Bill notes. “So I am thinking about success as built for decades.”

It was always thus, with this group. Expansion and change have occurred with care, not for their own sake. At first, Bill says, his father was not entirely convinced of the move into spirits. “As traditional as he is, he is also one of the most forward-thinking. He was the first person in the company to have a Blackberry,” Bill remembers. “I was like, ‘Why would you need a handheld thing that types out emails?’ and he said, ‘This thing is gonna be great.’”

The elder Terlato really was convinced about the new division when the selections began to emerge as winners in taste tests. “When he saw how we were approaching it in the same way we do wine, and that people could distinguish the products, and that ours were finishing at the top all the time?” Bill says. “Then he got it. We don’t want to just have spirits—we want artisanal spirits. Handcrafted, family-owned, high-quality. Distinguishable.”