Lions Gate Cellars

Sonoma County region

Lions Gate Cellars’ initial production is scheduled for around 2,500 cases

Lions Gate Cellars is a relatively new venture that resulted from the fact that one of the owners of Lions Gate, Greg Smith, recently chose to leave a successful winery business after almost twenty years.

It seems that almost two decades ago, Smith and his former partner Mike Duffy whom he had met while playing softball in Sonoma, decided to go into business together. The two started a venture known first as Fitch Mountain Cellars in 1984 and later in 1985 as Optima Cellars. The operation gradually expanded and kudos started adding up for the new operation. Optima used Alexander Valley and Sonoma County as a base for its wines and started producing a series of releases that had many California wine purists wagging. Optima not only produced some of the usual Bordeaux varietals but also threw in a few surprises, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel to name just a couple.

Things moved along and the business grew quite steadily. By 1987, Optima was producing over 1,200 cases and the future looked bright. In1989 Optima became a bonded winery and as such in control of its own future. Chardonnay was added and these releases again received high accolades from both the wine the trade and the writing community.

But gradually throughout the years, Greg Smith became unhappy with the direction the winery had taken. By the turn of the century, Greg finally confronted Mike Duffy and indicated he wanted to end the association. Duffy agreed to his demands and Greg Smith was bought out of his holdings in Optima.

“It wasn’t an easy decision for me since I have invested a great deal of time in the project,” Smith recalled. “With the exception of the three years I spent in professional baseball, the wine business was all that I knew.”

Before too long the entrepreneurial bug that has followed Greg Smith throughout his career in the wine business bit him again.

“This time I wanted to be sure of everything, “ Smith recanted. “It all seemed quite perfect. I had gotten to know Milo and his work at Trentadue and what a difference he has made at the place. To say the least I was most impressed. It’s almost as if we were hatched from the same egg. We both felt the grape was the most important aspect of winemaking and both paid it the reverence and devotion it is due.”

Smith was also comfortable with Milo’s easygoing manner and the fact that both were 100% hands on type of operators.

For inspiration, the pair selected the great Lions statues that decorate owner Les Trentadue’s sprawling winery in Sonoma for the name of their new winery project. Lions are the central theme of the Trentadue winery and are found dotted throughout the property.

Lions Gate Cellars’ initial production is scheduled for around 2,500 cases, a figure that can be increased quite easily according to Smith. For obvious reasons, the current wines are being produced at Trentadue where Milo Tcholakov is most comfortable.

“This can easily be a springboard to something bigger and better for Lions Gate,” he predicted. “Milo and I hope this current release will prove to be our mid range product. A higher end spin off in the not-too-distant future is also a distinct possibility.”

Smith has also recently purchased an eleven-acre parcel in the Russian River section of Sonoma that could easily be converted into a permanent home for Lions Gate.

“It’s a fabulous piece of property that I was looking at in the area that I enjoy the most,” he concluded. “It’s also the area of Sonoma County that I know produces the best grapes.”

Chances are we will be seeing a good deal more of Lions Gate Winery and of its owners Greg Smith and Milo Tcholakov. The arrangement seems to match both personalities quite nicely while providing both men with a seemingly perfect vehicle for their labors.

An arrangement made in Heaven?

Quite possibly so. And, isn’t it nice to be in the position of making such a decision?

Gold Medal Wine Club hopes you enjoy these wonderful inaugural releases from Lions Gate Cellars.

Miro Tcholakov - an award-winning winemaker

Bulgarian-born Miro Tcholakov (Meer-oh Choe-la-kawv), has a great deal going for himself, and has managed to fill a great deal of experience into his 37 years. Born in the grape growing and winemaking area of Bulgaria in the town of Troyan, Miro sensed an early calling to the grape and as a youth helped his grandfather work his small family vineyard. Later, he graduated with high honors from the state-run Higher Institute of Agriculture in Provdiv, Bulgaria’s version of UC-Davis. After toiling in the Bulgarian wine industry for a period, California beckoned and Miro came to the United States in 1990 where he was successful in joining David Stare’s noted Dry Creek Vineyards operation in Sonoma County. He began working at Dry Creek in the cellars and was soon promoted to cellar master and later Assistant Winemaker. His approach is truly as classic as is his wine style. ”To me the vineyards come first,” he remarked, ‘It is all important to know the vineyards first. By knowing them and realizing what their capabilities are, I think it is possible to get the most out of the crop.”

Three years ago, Milo was made winemaker for historic Trentadue Winery, a position he still enjoys, and one that give him a great deal of flexibility. At Trentadue, he makes all the decisions regarding their wines that have won recent high acclaim.

Does the prospect of venturing into his own business phase him’

‘A little,” the soft- spoken Tcholakov admitted, ‘But I’m not afraid of venturing out into the business end of the wine industry. I have a great partner in Greg (Smith). I’ve seen what others can do and I know we can do as well or even better.”

Even though Miro Tcholakov embraces his origins and a classical approach to winemaking, he realizes that modern technology has its place in the real wine world. ‘I learned a great deal at Dry Creek and now at Trentadue,” he added, ‘whatever it takes to produce the best wine, I’m willing to do. I believe we have already achieved a great deal and will become even better.”

Milo’s commitment however, begins and ends with the wine. ‘I follow its progress from the vine, through crush, fermentation, racking, barrel work, blending, filtration and bottling. Then it’s out of my hands.”

Greg Smith is experienced practically every aspect of the winery business.

Greg Smith is 54 years young and has experienced practically every aspect of the winery business. Even though he first envisioned a professional baseball career (three years in the California Angels farm system as a pitcher before blowing out his arm), Greg practically grew up in his parents’ retail store in Canoga Park (Southern California) where he feels he learned the basics of the business. Greg later toiled at the wholesale level of the business for winery giant Heublein in their United Vintners Division. His career took him to renowned Sonoma winery Lytton Springs where he was the assistant wine maker and ‘glorified go for” for several years. For almost the past two decades, Smith actually worked dual jobs, as sales and marketing director for Mazzoco and also as co-owner for his own successful venture known as Optima Cellars.

‘I’ve always had the penchant for working hard,” Smith explained, ‘and I am fortunate for being able to become familiar with practically every aspect of the wine business. To this point in my career, you name it and I’ve done it.”

After an unhappy ending to his first attempt in the winery business at Optima Cellars, Greg is delighted with his new partner in Lions Gate Milo Tcholakov. ‘Even though Milo is a good bit younger,” he stated, ‘I get a wonderful feeling of stability about him. I like his approach to the grapes that basically mirrors my own philosophy. We both place the grape first and the manipulation behind. It’s almost as if he stepped out of a vineyard novel written decades ago.”

With such laudable mind-set already present, Lions Gate Cellars seems poised for a neat run ahead. This time though Greg Smith thinks he has the correct combination to make things work.

Gold Medal Wine Club members can concur by giving these new wines from Lions Gate a decided thumbs up!