A flight of wine wisdom from “Wine Guy” Jeff Cox

Jeff Cox
Photo by Meryl Schenker.

 

Let’s raise a glass to Jeff Cox. Since 1999, PCC’s “Wine Guy” searched out great vintages for the co-op and supported great vintners, literally helping set the standard for what we drink. A “passionate, engaged and dedicated ambassador of Washington state wine,” as Seattle Magazine once said when naming Cox wine steward of the year, he’s built a top-shelf legacy with endeavors like PCC’s private label wines and partnerships providing good taste and value. For years his Sound Consumer columns painted a delightful, erudite picture of wine and life.

As Cox develops a business and leaves his staff position at the co-op, he’ll retain a legacy on PCC shelves. An ongoing partnership with Chinook Wines has raised more than $61,000 over the past decade for Long Live the Kings (LLTK), a nonprofit dedicated to research and conservation efforts to restore wild salmon and steelhead. LLTK receives a $2 donation for every bottle of Chinook’s Long Live the Kings Yakima Valley Red or Yakima Valley White sold at PCC. Every bottle sold of Power Winery’s Badger Mountain Vineyards cabernet or chardonnay sends a $2 donation to the Washington Farmland Trust, formerly the PCC Farmland Fund, which as of 2020 had raised more than $340,000 to preserve farmland.

Cox promises he’ll still be tasting good wine at PCC — just from the other side of the table — with successor Peter Boeger, who has worked closely with Cox for years and will bring in a new era for the department as its Beer, Wine and Spirits manager (see this story for how they worked recently developing a PCC blend with Sagemoor Vineyards). Cox spoke recently with Sound Consumer managing editor Rebekah Denn; here are some condensed highlights of their conversation.

 

What’s so special about wine?

As Chuck Reininger of Reininger Winery in Walla Walla said a few weeks ago, wine is the umbilical cord from dirt to your glass. When somebody grows grapes well, and then makes wine scrupulously — modestly — rather than trying to master the Earth, acting as an accomplice — this magical thing happens where the dirt talks. The place talks.

You hear people talk about terroir and wine. And there’s that note of interpretation that comes from the human intervention in it. But I’ve noticed over the years, that the people who make wines that are the most expressive tend to be people who are very modest, even humble, because there’s this idea that there is this thing that that’s bigger than me, and what I need to do is just try to aid and abet its journey to being in a bottle.

What’s next for Washington wines?

I think there are wonderful things happening in Washington wine and the best is yet to come. The Washington wine industry is relatively young. Its first roots were 50, maybe 60 years ago, that’s a young industry. It was very, very small for a number of years and then started to grow rapidly. In terms of a human growing up, I think the Washington wine industry as a whole is probably right now in its later adolescence or its young adulthood, where it’s starting to blossom into realizing its capabilities, realizing its own identity — and I should probably say identities, because not every place in the state is the same. There’s an embarrassment of riches here. Not an embarrassment, just a trove of diversity, and as people figure those things out and develop them, you’re going to see so much fascinating stuff happening.

How about European wines?

Dollar for dollar, a person can drink far better buying from Europe than from the U.S. Generally, the people that we’re working with over there own their own land, have owned it for years. They’re generally not buying grapes from somebody else, which (would add) another whole set of markups. That’s not to say that Northwest wines aren’t a great value, but it’s just a different business model.

European wines are a completely different world: different continent, different climate, different dirt, different culture(s) – multitudes of ’em – different styles. Another whole universe of flavors and approaches to wine to wrap one’s palate and brain around!

Do you worry about climate change?

Oh gosh, yes. I think everybody is, especially my friends in Europe. We work with a lot of people in Languedoc, and there’s been practically no rain there for the last year or so. I talked with my friend Cecile (Chassagne) on the phone the other day and it was I think 89 degrees in Gigondos (France). That’s a place in the world where it can get warm, but it shouldn’t be 89 degrees in March. Harvests are earlier. Sugars are higher, which means higher alcohols, less time for fruit to hang and for flavor development. People are doing an amazing job of managing those things, but there will come this point where things can’t be managed. It’s astounding, but there’s a growing wine industry in England. Thirty years ago, one never would have thought that such a thing could be.

You’ve been at PCC for 25 years?

I don’t know how that happened. I was supposed to be here for two or three years while I got ready to go back to school. I had just finished getting my bachelor’s degree in French literature and I was going to decide between doing something really marketable like Comp Lit or possibly critical theory. I remember my parents saying, “what are you going to study?” and I said, “I think I’m going to major in French Lit” and it’s like “What are you going to do with that?” But it’s probably the best decision that I’ve ever made, because it’s all about reading books. And reading books is getting ideas.

How did the wine fundraisers begin at PCC?

Years ago, there was a man named Mickey Dunn who works at Powers Winery, one of the first organic vineyards in Washington. (Founder) Bill Powers is legendary for having once said, “If you can do a good thing, you should do it.” Mickey would do these promotions from time to time where for every bottle sold they would give $1 to a charity. Back in ’07, Seri Sedlacek, who now works at our West Seattle store, was working for Powers and cooked up the idea (where) $2 from every bottle sold would go to the Washington Farmland Trust. Mickey, who was at Powers at that time, thought that was a great place to support. I heard the idea, and I can take no credit. It was like swinging at a good pitch, that’s all I had to do. I think the first vintage hit the stores in ’08 and it’s been one of our most successful programs over time. Not long after that Chinook Wines came to us, they had been associated with Long Live the Kings for quite a while and said why don’t we take $2 from every bottle and give it to Long Live the Kings? (See more here.)

What does PCC seek out in a wine?

What I started to discover early on was just through my own palate, and it was “Why is it that this guy who’s independent makes something that just tastes more honest than this guy over here who has a team of marketers, a team of sensory analysts and all kinds of tools at his disposal?” And then you think “Okay, why does the Top 40 song on the radio sometimes not sound as real as something that you hear live? Because it’s played with, it’s produced, it’s manipulated.”

At PCC we have a mission to be honest with people, and it’s not just following a set of rules that say that we do this, or we do that. I think there’s a principle of being honest and doing the right thing under all of that.

We’re not big enough to have everything. I once heard somebody say if you try to be everything to everybody you end up being nothing at all. Collectively, at PCC, we’ve concluded that if we’re going to stand on principle, we also must stand for a level of quality. So, we seek out wines that are balanced, that aren’t overripe, that don’t have flaws. It’s like going to a musician who knows how to play their instrument in tune, we don’t want to hire bands here that can’t sing or play in tune.

The three things that the co-op operates on are quality, character, and seeking out things that are well-made, well-farmed. We try to favor things that are grown and are expressive of their place, that aren’t manipulated by artificial means into tasting (a particular way). It’s sort of like the difference between vine ripened tomatoes and hothouse tomatoes. We want the equivalent of vine ripe.

What else should we know?

Latino people, Hispanic people, immigrants, are the backbone of this industry. The wine industry — the agriculture in the state — would not exist (without them). What’s cool now is watching the people who have been there all along take over positions with more and more responsibility. There are lots of (Latino) winemakers now. This industry just owes them so much, beginning with respect.

 

PCC wines

See PCC’s wines

Want a firsthand look at PCC’s wine, beer and spirits philosophy? Visit any store and talk with the talented staff specialists, or sample wines at our regular store tastings. Read our co-op standards for wine, beer and spirits. Among its value options, PCC also offers a 10% discount when any four bottles of wine are purchased together.

 

Wine industry tributes to Jeff Cox

Jeff Cox’s contributions are appreciated throughout the wine industry. Here are just a few tributes:

Paul Zitarelli, Full Pull Wines:

Usually, Jeff and I would find ourselves on the same side of the table; both buyers for our respective businesses. But occasionally I would make an appointment to sample Jeff on some of our private label wines to see if they would be a good fit for PCC. At one of those appointments, I turned up a little early; early enough to see Jeff working through a set of samples. Not wines, but instead every alcohol buyer’s worst nightmare: ready-to-drink canned cocktails. But instead of being cynical or dismissive, Jeff was giving those canned mai-tais and negronis and margaritas the same care and attention that he would give to a Grand Cru Burgundy. Tasting slowly, evaluating carefully, jotting thoughtful notes. That episode always stuck with me as an example of Jeff’s consummate professionalism.

The most extended time I got to spend with Jeff would come during a series of Octobers when we would both judge the Great Northwest Wine Invitational competition down in Hood River. Sometimes we would arrive early enough to meet up at Double Mountain Brewing for pizza and sour ale. I remember I was always a jumble of nerves from the three or four hours of I-5 driving between Seattle and Portland. Meanwhile, Jeff was always serene. One time, I asked him how he managed that drive, and he said — oh, I don’t take I-5. I take the long way around and stop a few times to fish the Klickitat along the way. The extra hour was worth it to him, yes for the fishing, but also, I think, because Jeff is an inveterate aesthete; the beauty of the route was more important to him than the speed of arriving at the destination.

 

Barbara Gross, Cooper Mountain Wines:

Jeff Cox’s transformative contributions to the wine trade have reshaped the industry, particularly in championing family wineries and sustainable farming practices. His dedication has not only influenced my own winery profoundly but also serves as a beacon for the next generation of winemakers. Amidst a landscape of consolidation, Jeff’s advocacy for community and integrity stands as a testament to his unwavering commitment to the essence of wine culture. Thank you, Jeff, for your remarkable chapter, and here’s to eagerly anticipating the next. You are one cool human, sir.

 

Françoise Antech Gazeau, Domaine de Flassian

Jeff is an incredible person I had the chance to meet more than 15 years ago in a wine fair. Since then he has always given me good reasons to go on with my job of winemaker, and to wake up in the morning trying to create incredible wines that feel deeply rooted in my land.

He is a real poet and can talk about my terroir with words much more impressive than mine! His French is very literary and he speaks sometimes like Victor Hugo or Verlaine.

He is a real wine lover; always curious, open minded, permanently searching (for) what a combination of terroir, wind, sun, sea, mountain, grapes and people can create.

He is also a very good buyer, trying to find the best exclusivity and the best value for authentic Vignerons for PCC! He is above all a beautiful person, human and loyal.

 

From Kent Waliser, Sagemoor Estates:

I first met Jeff in 2018, I believe quite by accident. I poured some Sagemoor Riesling for him and the wine was corked. He was gracious enough to let me visit and bring wine into headquarters to try again. He landed on the Sagemoor Estate White Blend, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Since 2019 the Estate White Blend has been a staple at PCC. He never bought a bottle of our Riesling….

At that time, I was self-distributing in Seattle. It was a start-up for Sagemoor making wine under our own label. Before 2014, we did not make wine under our own brand, we only sold grapes. It is safe to say without the support of Jeff Cox and PCC, our little wine project may not have got enough traction to continue the pursuit.

To say I am grateful is an understatement. I stand in awe of his process, loyalty and pursuit of wines that speak differently of place and people.

Also in this issue

Introducing the eighth cooperative principle

There’s a new addition to the seven ideals governing how co-ops work.

Celebrating 30 years of the fun, funky Fremont PCC

Learn the fun, funky history of PCC’s “Center of the Universe” store

Hop Frog Farm’s Microgreens Shape Sustainable Agriculture

From compostable packaging to Salmon Safe harvests, these microgreens are preserving land and improving the environment.