Warren Porter found himself stuck in his career during the turn of the century. After spending 20 years working in telecommunications and living a wonderful lifestyle, he realized it no longer made him happy.
Porter began to analyze his options and decided it was the perfect time to make a career change. He decided to seek a new profession in one of his two passions: golf or wine. Unfortunately, Porter’s golf game wasn’t PGA Tour material, but his knowledge of wine — and the ability to increase it — was high.
In 2004, Porter launched Iron Gate Wine in Toronto as a premium wine storage facility. The first few months were difficult with the company starting from scratch, but like a good wine, it took time for things to develop. Before long, Iron Gate Wine was working with a variety of clients from all over Canada and the US. Today, Iron Gate Wine is involved in wine storage, retail private collection sales, auctions, and is the go-to company for clients looking to buy or sell rare wine.
Warren, you decided to pursue a career in one of your two passions. Why did you choose to go into the wine industry instead of joining the PGA Tour?
With my game, the PGA tour was never an option unless it was a job as a club cleaner. Essentially, when I wrote that in my bio I was pointing out that my goal 15 years ago was to find something I enjoyed and sought to make a career out of it. It’s the old adage “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. I was approaching 40-years old, working in the telecom industry and I felt stuck in a career that I could earn a good living from, but never really loved. I needed to find something that charged me up each day. I thought to myself that I enjoyed wine, I can learn about it my whole life, and I saw an opportunity in wine storage that didn’t exist in Toronto at that time… so I dove in.
How did you begin Iron Gate Wine and when did you know this was a project you wanted to devote your career to?
We started with a simple wine storage facility in a fur coat vault in Toronto. It sounds strange but wine and fur need the same storage conditions. High security, high humidity, dark and cool temperatures. I thought that if I could start with low overhead and a long runway I could manage until the clients came. If I knew how long it would take I probably wouldn’t have done it. Wine storage is like opening a bank with no history or brand. You’re asking people to place thousands of dollars in assets in your care. That’s a tough sell and I think the first client didn’t show up for about a year. After that it was a slow, steady climb to be a trusted provider of storage services to the wine community in Toronto. With 15 years under our belt the toughest part is behind us but those were lean days.
Around 2008 many of our clients were asking us to help sell their wine typically due to changes in their life, their palate, or simply the desire to pare down a bit. We struck relationships with auction houses in New York and Chicago because you could not legally sell in Canada. The problem, however, was that the auction market wasn’t strong so their returns were less than expected. Because of that we began to find retailers in the US and Hong Kong that would buy or consign the wine at a fixed price, removing the risk of auction. This turned out to be far more preferable to our clients. Then a few years ago we considered getting a wine retail license in New York state with the help of an American partner. We applied and were granted a license which allowed us to effectively sell private collections from Canadians through the US. This is now the majority of our business.
So to answer your question in a long winded way, I knew this was what I should devote my career to when I saw the tremendous lift in our company from making that one change.
Some amazing, rare wines have come through the doors of Iron Gate. In fact, some of the wines Porter and company have seen are the only ones available in the world. As Porter says, these wines are true works of art and they will never be replicated again.
As a storage house for wines and an auction house, some extremely expensive wines have come through your doors. Can you tell us about some of the incredible wines Iron Gate has had in its collection?
We recently sold a six litre, 1979 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache to a lucky buyer in Asia. I’ve never seen one like it and it might be the only one left in the world. At the moment, we also have an 1869 Chateau Lafite Rothschild on the website. These are pieces of history and yet they’ll be consumed. It’s really amazing when you think about it.
We’ve seen almost every wine imaginable and they all have a story. I often see amazing wines in the cellar of an estate and think “when were you going to drink that and why didn’t you?” It gets you present to the fact that life is short and unpredictable. Make a point to open the crazy good, ridiculously expensive wines with great friends. The memory will be worth more than the wine ever was.
What is the Iron Gate VIP Membership and what do members get when they join?
Our VIP members get access to new collections a couple of days before they’re released to the public. Many wines we get in are very rare and very limited numbers, so early access is important. We also give free storage for up to one year to our VIPS.
There are a lot of different opinions on what makes a great wine. Porter is quick to point out that a great wine is always down to the person drinking it and their own personal preference.
Warren, what makes a great wine?
That’s a matter of personal taste. We all like something different and a palate will change over the years. Most enthusiasts we deal with move from simple, big fruit wines to subtle, more complex wines over the course of their life. It’s very similar to art. In general, though a great wine is a combination of terroir, climate, varietal and the winemaker, all blended together.
As an entrepreneur, you followed a career path into one of your two passions. What advice would you give to someone that would like to do something similar and work in an industry that truly appeals to them?
First, I would caution them that when your passion becomes your job it can easily stop being your passion. That’s not a guarantee but it is a risk. In the wine business, many people think it’s glamorous and we’re tasting all the time. The reality is we have the same challenges and hard work as any other business, but we do get to try wine that most people do not so in that way we’re very fortunate.
All that said, I’m still an advocate of working within an industry you have a passion for. Even if it doesn’t set the world on fire you’re still doing what you love. There’s nothing worse than struggling at something you really don’t care about.
Porter stresses that wine investment isn’t for everyone. Just because you enjoy drinking wine, it doesn’t mean you should put your money into buying up a number of limited vintages. There are some things that need to be taken into account before taking the plunge.
Can you tell us about wine investment? How lucrative can this be for those who get involved with it?
Like any investment you really need to know what you’re doing or have a highly trusted advisor. Just because you know something about wine doesn’t mean you know about investing in wine. If you follow the indexes you’ll see that wine traditionally performs very well and often outperforms other investments but there are factors you need to consider like storage, insurance, breakage, etc., that don’t exist in other asset classes. The other thing is that not all wines appreciate. Like cars, some go up in value and some drop as soon as you drive them off the lot. In general, buy the best wines from the best vintages from the best sources and hold them in bond so you can trade them without tax. That’s overly simplified but a good rule of thumb.
It is said there is a lack of a secondary wine market in Canada where Iron Gate is located. Can you tell us what this means and how Iron Gate Wine addresses this situation?
A secondary market means a number of options to buy and sell wine collections. This doesn’t exist in Canada with the exception of one small government sanctioned auction in Ontario. That lack of a market created an opportunity for us to assist clients in selling outside Canada and our buyers have confidence in knowing that the wine has not changed hands numerous times. Provenance is everything.
So our US company sources wine from Canadian collectors with the help of our Canadian operation. Assisting that, I have been in the business long enough to either know the collection first hand or know people who know the owner. We only source from the best conditions and history.
Warren, what is next for Iron Gate Wine and what can wine investors expect from the company?
We’re going to keep growing slowly and steadily with a strict focus on making sure we’re providing white glove service to a discerning clientele.
The luxury of our business is that our clients, if satisfied, will continue to buy wine from us throughout their life. If we take great care of them, back up what we sell and offer incredible wines at a competitive price, they’ll stay with us and tell their friends. That’s all we ask.
Do you ever regret following your love of wine rather than playing golf?
I can still golf, but I just can’t make a living at it.
Warren, what is a day in your life like?
Frankly, like a lot of people, most of the time is on the computer and the phone. My role is overseeing many aspects of the business but I have an incredible team of people and I don’t micromanage.
I play a balancing act of making sure we have enough great wine to satisfy our clients and then making sure we have enough clients to buy these great wines. Unlike many other retail businesses I can’t easily source quality products, so we have to always be looking.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I’m an open book so there’s not much. I guess maybe that while I socialize quite a lot, I prefer my alone time over almost anything.
What makes you smile?
I ride around Toronto on a vintage 1963 Vespa with my dog Molly in the sidecar. The reaction from people when they see Molly in her doggles is amazing and really makes my day.
What scares you?
The responsibility of knowing that my employees, investors and partners depend on me to make the right decisions.
Do you have any hobbies?
Mostly travel. I enjoy seeing parts of the world that are off the beaten path and experiencing different cultures.
Which historical figure do you most admire?
Probably Winston Churchill. I’m fascinated by the bravery of the people who fought in the great wars and those that lead them
Can you share your favorite quote with us?
“The measure of a man is how he responds when things aren’t going well.”
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Only to thank the community of clients, friends and family that have supported us to create a great young company. We couldn’t do it alone.
Iron Gate Wine is now over a decade and a half old. Despite a few teething issues in the beginning, it has become the go-to storage and re-selling brand in Canada and the United States.
Porter has truly turned his passion for wine into a career. It may have taken him two decades in an industry that didn’t make him completely happy, but without that career decision, Porter wouldn’t have founded Iron Gate Wine and made so many clients happy.
For more information on Warren Porter please visit:
Retail Wine Sales
Wine Storage & Services
Images credit: Mondo Lulu