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St. Petersburg Times

April 24, 2011

Tampa vintner, Bern’s Winefest newcomer uncorks a dream

Nicholas Allen, left, and his chief winemaker, Luc Morlet, toast at SideBern’s during the Bern’s Winefest. Allen’s family owns French wineries; his company is based in Napa Valley.

Nicholas Allen, left, and his chief winemaker, Luc Morlet, toast at SideBern’s during the Bern’s Winefest. Allen’s family owns French wineries; his company is based in Napa Valley.

TAMPA — Soon enough, Nicholas Allen will learn whether the four years he has spent trying to break into the wine business will pay off.

But for now, looking out over a sea of friendly faces at the 14th annual Bern’s Winefest on Sunday, the former Tampa real estate broker could only smile.

“This is sort of a dream realized for me,” said Allen, 37, during a seminar launching his new California wine label, Carte Blanche. “I’m a little overwhelmed.”

A few days before, in his first media interview, Allen said he frequently hears the old saw about how to make a small fortune in the wine business: Start with a large one.

He says he doesn’t have a large fortune but does enjoy a few advantages over your average Tampa real estate guy interested in starting a luxury-priced wine label.

There was the advice and support from the sommeliers at Bern’s Steak House and SideBern’s (and a huge wine cellar to explore). There was Luc Morlet, one of the top winemakers in the world, who agreed to join his team.

And there was his family, which just happens to own two of the most important wineries in France.

His great-grandfather, Clarence Dillon, bought Chateau Haut-Brion in 1935 (a first-growth winery operation where grapes have grown since the 1400s), and in 1983 the family company, Domaine Clarence Dillon, bought Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion. It’s the kind of pedigree that opens doors and draws wine lovers.

He grew up on the family farm in New Jersey, and fine wine from the family cellar was part of every celebration. He moved to Tampa in 2003 to be near the family of his wife, Teil.

Kevin Pelley, wine director for SideBern’s and its wine store, says he initially knew nothing about Allen’s wine background. He was just a regular customer who knew and loved wine. “He’s really down to earth,” Pelley said.

The Bern’s wine experts cheered him along as he planned Carte Blanche, gave him a prime perch at Winefest and made room on the shelves.

Allen is producing “microcult” wines, meaning they are limited and expensive. There is a 2008 cabernet sauvignon (300 cases), a 2008 chardonnay (200), a 2008 proprietary red (125) and a 2009 proprietary white (125). The proprietaries are special blends from Napa and Sonoma vineyards where Allen’s company has long-term commitments (he doesn’t grow grapes). They are priced from around $50 to $125 a bottle.

The wines are so new they have not been rated. So it will be an anxious few months ahead for Allen as the small but intensely interested (and opinionated) world of luxury wine lovers takes its measure of this new label. Morlet has had some wines with stratospheric scores, and Allen can only hope some of his magic rubs off on Carte Blanche.

Kurt Cuccaro, co-owner of Mazzaro’s Italian Market in St. Petersburg, was there as Allen and Morlet poured samples for eager festgoers inside a crowded tent. He liked what he tried and ordered what he could for the store. “I think they’re definitely geared toward the American palate,” Cuccaro said. They are riper, fruitier, not as earthy and dry as the Old World wines Allen’s family produces. Having Morlet helps, Cuccaro said. “He’s a name. You have to kind of be into wines to know who he is. He has a cult status.”

Allen told the seminar that he is running a 4-year-old startup and has four years to break even, “if I ever do.”

Tom Scherberger can be reached at or (727) 893-8312.