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July 20th, 2013

Falstaff on the Beach

BY Christian Ford

What I was trying to do was research a story different than this one.

On the muddy beach that is the Puget Sound Restoration Fund’s maritime twist on CSAs — namely a Community Supported Shellfish Farm — I was mingling as the supporting community members wrapped up up their volunteer work and collected the dozen or so oysters that were their due.  That’s when Betsy Peabody, the Fund’s puckish director, tapped me on the shoulder.  “Would you like to meet one of our six-dozen oyster members?”

Now, when someone offers to introduce me to a self-evidently Falstaffian figure, I pause what I’m doing and politely say, “yes.”

I found Paul Zitarelli standing in spattered boots beside a large orange plastic basket filled with what you could describe as a bushel of oysters.  Like his bounty from the beach, Paul is imposing in scale, or rather he would be if not for a (deceptively) sleepy-eyed smile and a boisterous sea of gray frosted curls that — uncannily and surreally — reminded me of a moon-themed birthday cake I encountered when I was five.

You can learn a surprising amount about people by waving a microphone and asking them to spell their names, and what I discovered is that — seventy-two oysters notwithstanding — Falstaffian gluttony is not what Paul Zitarelli is about.

What do you do with six dozen oysters?  “Well,” he laughs, “we usually have a party.”  Paul and his wife Kelli only recently relocated themselves to this island, a 35-minute ferry ride from the city.  “We have a lot of friends on the Seattle side of the water and it’s been a great way to bribe them with seafood to come over.  I own a wine shop in Seattle, so we usually have a big magnum of crisp white wine and we shuck oysters, eat some raw, fry some in panko and have an oyster party.”

We chatted for a few minutes and then it was time to decamp the beach.  But something had caught my attention and it was this: how did Paul, a one-time mathematician, become a purveyor of wines?  Later, when I researched Paul’s shop,  Full Pull Wines, the paradox deepened.  What I found was a totally novel (to me) way of selling wine.  What’s more, only four years after opening, Full Pull was on track to sell somewhere between 50,000-100,000 bottles by the end of 2013.

Clearly, another conversation was in order.

So back to the beginning, which in Paul’s case means Philadelphia.  He grew up in a house “obsessive about education” as he puts it, with his mother teaching Spanish and French at a high school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and his father doing parallel work in mathematics at Temple University.  It was a happy childhood, but early on, there were signs that Paul’s iteration of Zitarelli family obsessiveness had a different slant.  “I used to freak my family out … I could not only remember what I had ordered at a restaurant a year and half ago, but I could remember what my mom and dad had ordered, what my sister had ordered.”  Food, from the very beginning, was high on Paul’s list of fascinations.

But childhood ends and when Paul entered college, he followed in his father’s footsteps into mathematics.  (It’s characteristic of Paul that when he mentioned this to me in our conversation, he didn’t bother to tell me that “college” actually meant “Harvard.”)  The curriculum of Applied Mathematics included such things as statistics, computer science, engineering and of course math.  Nevertheless, there were signs of ambivalence.  “It was a total copout of a major.  It’s broad and shallow.  It touches on a lot of different topics, none of them in great depth,” he laughs.  “You can do a lot of things mediocrely.  It’s a great degree,” he says with no sarcasm that I can detect.

After graduation, Paul did a lot of nothing in particular as he wandered through his 20s, worked a series of jobs, applied mathematics as he could and got married.  Then, in 2004, his wife Kelli was accepted to graduate school in Seattle.

When people think of the Pacific Northwest, they’re likely to think of rain, music, software, big trees.  However, when Paul arrived he saw something different:  wine country.   True, the Cascades aren’t Napa, but for Paul it was a chance to get out and explore, to see winemaking firsthand and “pretty quickly, I went down the rabbit hole.”

Paul had always been interested in food, but, more than that, Paul had always been just plain interested.  Applied Mathematics might have been “the most liberal science degree you can imagine,” but his college choice wasn’t about being a slacker.  It was about giving tools to an intellect that was as omnivorous as his diet.  For a dyed in the wool generalist like Paul, wine turned out to be the point of perfect equilibrium.  “It ties in culture and geography and history and geology — all these different topics — and they combine into this one glass of wine that also has aesthetic appeal.”  The astonishment of a decade-old discovery is still in his voice.  “I was completely hooked.”

But what did that mean for an Applied Mathematician newly ensconced in the Pacific Northwest?  For Paul, it turned into the sort of double life usually reserved for comic book heroes.  By day, he was a mild-mannered numbers guy, plying his trade doing things like working for the Washington State Ferries system, mathematically modeling boat wait-times.  But off the clock, was obsessing about wine to the point that he began writing a blog about it.

It was a rough start.  “The first stuff is absolute dogshit,” Paul says.  “It’s… bad.”   Still, he kept at it, working out a style and voice.  The blog, he would come to understand, was the big experiment, a test to see if anyone out there would care about what this particular mathematician thought about wine.  People did.

It was the beginning of the end of Paul’s wanderings in the desert of applied mathematics.  The solution to the equation he’d spent his 20s trying to solve — what do I want to do with my life? — was here.   “I wanted to taste a lot of wine, write about the ones I cared about, and be able to support my family doing that.”  Now, the question was how.

There were anti-examples, like stints at a brick and mortar wine stores.  In one way, it was genuinely exciting to earn your pay working with what you loved. But Paul — to his own way of thinking — simply didn’t know enough about the wine on the shelves to really be of service to the customers.  He confided his concerns to the owner of one of the places, who conveyed some time-honored wisdom to his apprentice:  in wine, if you can’t wow ‘em with wisdom, baffle ‘em with bullshit.

“And I hated that, hated that!”   You can still hear the affront of the moment in his voice.  “I firmly want to be in the wow ‘em with wisdom camp and fight against the evil forces of baffling with bullshit.”  It was the glimmering of another theme that lead to Full Pull wines.  “Wine,” says the son of two teachers, “cries out for education… in part because, for whatever reason, it tends to attract a lot of BS artists… so there’s always plenty of room for real education.”

So that’s what he did with his wine blog.  The written voice that Paul was developing was refreshingly informal and inviting and yet gently authoritative.   They say that an author should have a specific audience in mind, and Paul, without ever really intending to, started writing to a younger version of himself, “this person who really, really cares about what they eat and drink but doesn’t know exactly how to access that information.  Wine especially, it can feel like an overwhelming topic.  So, (I try) to talk to that person and calm them down and say, okay, don’t focus on this other crap.  Here’s the one thing today that you should be thinking about, and tasting and trying.”

It struck a chord, and the ranks of his readers swelled.  The wine blog was giving him confidence that he had something to contribute and also demonstrating that he had the ability to connect with the public.  There was only one problem, namely that he had a career in Applied Mathematics.

So he put the brakes on it, and entered the University of Washington’s MBA program.  The goal was to take two years off of mathing and figure out how to create a business that would pay him to write about wine.  “And,” Paul points out, “to do it with very little money.  Sounds like the business plan of a mentally ill person.”

After the first year of business school, Paul found himself a summer internship with Amazon.  They must’ve seen something they liked, because, by the end of the summer, they had offered him a job.  It was one of those moments you know is a turning point in life.  One one hand, there was the Amazon job, with a big signing bonus and a “giant” salary.  The other hand held another year of costly MBA school in pursuit of a wine business which was still no more than a notion and one that, as noted, was likely crazy.

But there was another force at work here:  France.  The random confluence of events meant that Paul and Kelli found themselves mulling the Amazon offer while on vacation in the Maritime Alps.  It turned out to be “an interesting place to (mull), because we were just basically plying ourselves with wine and enjoying all the food and culture that goes around wine.”   During a long hike through the sylvan glades above the village of St. Etienne de Tinee, Paul finally knew what he wanted:  No to Amazon. Yes to the unknown.   Kelli — who would be the financial anchor of the family if Paul made this choice — agreed.  They’d give it two years.

So Paul went back to his second year which, wouldn’t you know it, began in the fall of 2008 and the start of the Great Recession.  “I remember coming back… and being in a lounge with TVs on and all the dudes who were way more focused on finance and wanted to go into finance careers — they were just staring at the TV with slack-jawed horror, because they were…  preparing to be interviewed for jobs that were clearly being eliminated before their eyes.  That was quite something.”

It was terrible timing.  But Paul had some things going for him. One was that he didn’t need venture capital; he was looking for a way to swing the business with his personal savings.  Then, of course, there’s the fact that alcohol is the official drink of hard times.  Not only do a lot of sorrows get drowned, but Paul noticed more and more intimations that people were doing their “eating out” at home and that meant drinking more wine at home, too.

“I remember thinking, the bar is so low right now, if this business can succeed, or even come close to succeeding…”  Still, Paul needed a way of doing business.  He found it by listening to the readers of his blog.

When Paul had  first immersed himself (so to speak) in wine, he encountered a very specific kind of frustration. He’d read about a certain wine and, intrigued, go in search of it.  More often than not, it would be a wild goose chase; by the time he found some place that carried the wine, they would have sold out of it three months ago.  Even when he succeeded, he was then faced with having to go back and find the article that sparked the whole thing so he’d know why he had this bottle in the first place.  In other words, it was very difficult to close the experiential loop between reading about a wine and drinking that wine.

Now, in the comments to his wine blog, he was seeing the same frustration in his readers.  What’s more, he’d sometimes get the question, “That wine sounds interesting, do you know where I can get it?”  Suddenly, Paul could see an answer to the fundamental question: “How do I start a wine retail business with no capital?”

The plan was this:  Paul would write several email “offers” a week, his readers would request the bottles that struck their fancy and then, when the bottles arrived at the warehouse, they could come and pick up.  This “delayed gratification model” solved multiple issues at a stroke.  Instead of a storefront in a well-trafficked neighborhood, Paul would find cheap warehouse space in Seattle’s industrial SODO district.  Because he’d only be open one day a week — for pickup — he wouldn’t need any employees and what’s more, he’d have time to get out to eastern Washington and Oregon to visit the wineries, so the writing would be good.

But, perhaps most of all, this would allow him to create a kind of retail time travel.  Paul would make purchasing arrangements with wineries, but he wouldn’t bring in the wine and pay for it until after his customers had already bought it on the basis of the offers.  Paul felt fairly confident that he could convert a reasonable proportion of his blog readers into customers, but to make the plan work, he’d need to get the wineries on board, too.  “In the early days, prelaunch, when I did a trip (to the wine country) nobody — nobody —  knew who the hell I was.  It was a challenge just getting appointments. It was a challenge having people no-show.  Everything about it was a struggle.”

But struggle doesn’t mean stop, and in 2009 Full Pull opened.   At long last, Paul had what he had dreamed of — a way of making a living writing about wine.  But it’s one thing to write for the joy of it, and another to know your all-or-nothing gamble will sink or swim based on how people respond to what you write.  “In the early days, I was terrified.  I had this vision of this neverending calendar, out to infinity, that needed to be filled with wine offers.  It was so intimidating that I used to have mild panic attacks.”

Overhead was nothing more than rent and utilities, but even with that, Full Pull was losing money month by month.  Still, Paul and Kelli were prepared for this — it was part of the plan, so to speak.  It was also a time for working out the kinks, learning what kinds of wines sold, discovering that there was a surprising appetite for higher-end wines.   Poet Yehuda Amichai once pointed out that suffering is always precise while joy remains strangely blurry and so it is that Paul never noticed the exact moment when he “stopped being terrified all the time that I’d made a mistake and frittered away all our savings.”  By a year after opening, he was enjoying writing the offers and — even though profit hadn’t yet come — he and Kelli could see it on the horizon.

In the second year, it all settled into the rhythm.  Tuesday became the writing day, where Paul would brew himself a huge pot of coffee, settle in the living room with the cat at his side and do the research, crank out the words for the entire day.  One Tuesday it struck him: “Man, I’m living the life now — the writing’s coming easily, I’ve always wanted to do it and I am doing it.”

It was a moment that echoed with one long past, when his first job out of college put him with a teacher placement firm in Massachusetts.   Every year the firm would take its employees on a multi-day retreat in New York’s Adirondack mountains.  One of those days was unprogramed, a time when you could do whatever you wanted.  It was at the end of that day that Paul heard a nasal Bostonian bray:  “Zitarelli!”

Paul’s boss, a great patrician of a man, was bearing down on him.

“What did you do with your day?”  It wasn’t so much a question as a challenge, but Paul had the answer.

“Oh man, Jim, it was a great day.  I went on a hike, I swam in a lake, ate all this great food, drank all this good wine…  just a perfect day.”

The Boss eyed him.  “Well, Zitarelli?  Here in the Adirondacks, we call that a full pull.”

The phrase had always stuck with Paul as the way to capture a really perfect day and so when it came time to name the new venture, it was christened Full Pull Wines.  It was a reminder of what the point of the business was — “to facilitate those kinds of days for people.  I think that wine has a role to play in that, in the easing of suffering, promotion of joy…  and besides, it rhymed.”

It must have been the right choice.  Now in its fourth year, Full Pull is booming along.  Paul now puts out six wine offers per week, he has two employees, and Kelli only has to parachute in to help when they have so many customers on pickup day that the register gets swamped.  What Paul didn’t anticipate is how thoroughly his model attracts people who are genuinely engaged.  “For people to get five or six emails a week and not hit the spam button somewhere, they definitely have to care about it.”  Pickup day is filled with conversations, feedback on previous offerings, or suggestions for future ones.   It’s social as much as business because Full Pull’s members are a dynamic, opinionated group, “who care about what they’re putting down their gullet.”

Now that Full Pull has matured into something that doesn’t keep Paul awake at night, he’s starting to look forward.  What’s next, however, isn’t simply about expansion.  His real dream is for Full Pull to become “the beating heart of wine education and appreciation in Seattle.”  Towards that end, Paul is working towards the coveted “Masters of Wine,” the Wine Spirits Education Trust degree that is functionally a Ph.D. in the field.  It’s not an easy task.  “I may or may not get there,” he says.  But even if he doesn’t, he’ll be content because he will have earned a certificate that will allow him to teach.

It’s an ambition that brings Full Pull full circle to where Paul started, in a house obsessive about education.  “I always admired what both my parents did, I always loved the idea that you don’t learn things for the sake of learning or for the sake of lording them over other people.  You learn for the sake of spreading the things that you care about and showing other people why these things are so cool and interesting.”

Paul is careful not to cast what he does in a rosé-colored light.  “It’s not wine journalism.  Any time you’re selling what you’re writing about, you lose a bit of purity.”  But I think that understates both what he’s accomplished and what drives him.  The business is real, and needs to be real, but it’s utterly in the service of Paul’s innate sense of curiosity, excitement and the fundamental quality of welcoming that suffuses his writing and work.  Long after dismissing my initial Falstaffian expectation, I realized that I hadn’t quite got it right.  There was a streak of Falstaff in him, but Paul Zitarelli’s gluttony is a gluttony for sharing.

The very last question I ask Paul is the most clichéd.  What’s the Full Pull Mission Statement?  After all, he went to business school, there’s got to be a mission statement.  Paul actually digs it out of a file to see what it says.

“The mission of Full Pull Wines is to facilitate happiness, which we will achieve by turning wine-likers and agnostics into wine-lovers through education, experimentation and rich description.”  Paul pauses, and the mathematician in him pauses too, tallying the ambition against the reality.  At last, he nods to himself.   

“Not too bad.”


Paul at play by Christian Ford
Paul playing at work courtesy Full Pull Wines