‘For the first few months we spent a lot of time together praying and talking and looking at Scripture,’ Barrett told me. ‘Both of us have the same convictions about who Jesus is and the centrality of Scripture.’
For the next three years he used his vacation time to make small batches of wine at Hood River Vineyards. He worked from Washington fruit and sold directly to wine shops and restaurants. He was ready to leave the seafood business, though, and in 1993 he found a winery he could afford: a small, chilly shed formerly used for prune drying in the Willamette Valley’s Eola Hills, well off the path of the fledgling wine-tourism industry. Martin Barrett estimates Cuneo Cellars to be one of the state’s first hundred wineries. (Today, Oregon wineries produce 0.64 percent of the nation’s wine, ranking fourth behind California, Washington, and New York).
The facility cost $125,000; Cuneo bought it with money lent by his father-in-law. With Pam and the girls still living in Kent, Cuneo and his son would drive down to the winery, sleep in a drafty loft, and shower in the winemaking room. “Believe me, it was rustic,” said Alex Pompel, a longtime associate of Cuneo’s who now sells wine for Cana’s Feast. “You could tell how personal the wine was to Gino.”
In 1995, Cuneo needed capital to keep the business going. He sought it in the one environment in which he felt comfortable and had contacts: the church. He began to speak and network at Christian gatherings, where he eventually met Martin Barrett. Barrett belonged to an upper-middle-class Salem family (his childhood home is now the governor’s mansion). He had just sold Supra Products, which manufactured the real-estate lockboxes his grandfather invented, and he was looking for new ventures. Cuneo and Barrett attended Trinity Covenant, a strict evangelical Bible church in Salem, and they clicked, though their early conversations were more about Scripture than business. “For the first few months we spent a lot of time together praying and talking and looking at Scripture,” Barrett told me. “Both of us have the same convictions about who Jesus is and the centrality of Scripture.”
The partnership, he says, did not materialize straight away. He and Cuneo spoke for a good six months before Barrett invested, and initially Barrett wanted only to dispense business advice. But the winemaking business was difficult, the Cuneos were barely getting by, and it was clear that Cuneo Cellars needed an infusion of capital in order to grow. “Like all those little wineries, the costs are always twice what you think it is, and the cash flow is always three times as slow as you think it will come,” Barrett told me. In May 1995, he bought a piece of Cuneo Cellars; neither he nor Cuneo will disclose the amount of the investment. Barrett was neither a winemaker nor a particularly big fan of wine; he just liked Cuneo and wanted to help grow his business. He also loved the fact that the reserve wines were called Cana’s Feast. “So many people see—and rightfully so, unfortunately—people who love Jesus as being kind of stiff,” Barrett says. “Unapproachable. It really is fun to be able to open a bottle of wine with folks and have them go, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’”