Stephen Bolger believes in the saying “the best wines are the ones we drink with friends,” but he maintains that those wines are even better when made with friends.
Bolger is the founder and CEO of VINIV, a company based in the Bordeaux region of southwestern France that helps customers create their own red wine, using grapes from some of the area’s best-known appellations, including Margaux, Saint-Estèphe, and Saint-Émilion.
Clients from more than two dozen countries travel to the small village of Bages, nestled in a geometric patchwork of vineyards, where Bolger guides them through tastings, vineyard visits, and meetings with local enologists, providing an insider’s course in the vintner’s art and science. VINIV customers, among them heads of state, childhood friends, and an NBA team, choose the grapes (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, or merlot) and the particular vineyards (Bolger has relations with 14), to achieve a desired blend. From initial visit to delivery of bottled wine can take 24 months. The average cost of 288 bottles (one barrel) is around $13,000—a little more than $45 a bottle.
“I love the wine stories clients bring to the process,” Bolger says. “Wine is about sharing, having a story to tell.” But running a wine company was not Bolger’s lifelong plan. The New York City native majored in history, attended law school briefly, then worked in international sales of industrial minerals, with stays in Brussels and Paris. He earned an MBA from the University of Chicago, and led a London-based technology consortium.
In the early 2000s, he and his wife lost their first child, prompting them to reconsider their life path. “I wanted my eye, heart, and head to be on the same axis,” says Bolger. With a deep affection for France—his mother is French, and he spent childhood summers in Normandy—Bolger, in 2009, launched VINIV as the French arm of Crushpad, a California custom wine merchant. When Crushpad floundered, he partnered with the Cazes family, owners of the prestigious Château Lynch-Bages. The Cazeses provided funding, technical expertise, and entrée into the tight-knit Bordeaux wine community. VINIV handles fermentation, aging, blending, and bottling at its own facility in Bages.
Bolger likes to think of himself as both “outsider and insider,” a “linchpin” between two worlds: Bordeaux’s historically private vintners, and his clients. “I’m in the business of making friends,” he says.
(The author, Benoit Morenne, is a Paris-based writer. Image by Vincent Boutin.)