When it comes to roots that run deep in the Saginaw Valley, one would be hard-pressed to find a family that over the expanse of four generations can be considered true pioneers - in the sense of accomplishment which that word conveys - than that of The Oppermann Family.
Gustav Frederick Oppermann was born in New York City back in 1863 and moved to Saginaw with his family when he was 2-years old. In 1891 he started The Oppermann Fur Company, which became Michigan's oldest fur house. Deeply involved within the Saginaw community, he also was a founding member of The Rotary Club back in 1914, and gave birth to seven children.
Three dominant interests claimed Gustav's attention - music, painting, and his fur business. Having studied at the National Conservatory of Music, his love for the arts would impact future generations of Oppermanns, beginning with Pat, who founded Radio Center Music Store back in the 1920s - one of the first television and radio repair stores in Saginaw, which was located on Ezra Rust Drive, over by the YMCA. This store also allowed people to listen to music albums before purchasing them and continued well into the early 1970s, when the shift turned to electronics and the store subsequently closed.
Today, the legacy of the Oppermann Family is continuing to foray into fresh territory. Brothers Dave and Nick Oppermann formed the legendary New Reformation Jazz Band and back in the 1970s, and Dave carved a unique trail of his own when he forged a partnership and friendship with noted writer George Plimpton and founded the Nationwide Fireworks Company, which became one of the biggest pyrotechnic companies in the country and staged the fireworks for the Inauguration of Ronald Reagan, among other pivotal celebratory extravaganzas.
And today, Dave's son, Jeff Oppermann is carving unique pioneering trails of his own with Cork 'n Ale, which he started back in July of 1995 after cutting his teeth as a manager at TheBoardwalk party store for five years. Today Cork 'n Ale stands strong and proud as one of the largest fine wine, beer, and specialty liquor stores north of Detroit.
Located at 2940 Midland Road, Oppermann's Cork 'n Ale features over 6,000 wines, 600 beers, and over 2000 liquors, with a significant chunk of its revenue stemming from supplying home brewers with all the ingredients needed to make their own 'private label' libations.
A true wine aficionado with a keen and discerning palate that is always on the lookout for new flavors to court ones taste buds, recently Jeff has embarked upon a new direction with Cork 'n Ale, offering several singular and distinct selections of wine marketed under his own private label that offer superior taste and eminently affordable price points.
According to Jeff, this new branch of private label wines began when he brought a wine maker in from a Washington state winery that had worked for Hogue Vineyards. “This is a very famous vineyard that produces phenomenal wines,” explains Jeff, “So I told him that I wanted to do some private labeling and we started looking at logistics. I found that I could take his wine, which was highly rated and retailing for $18.00 a bottle; and if I bought enough quantity and had them shipped in 290-gallon totes, I could bottle them here in Michigan and sell the same wine for $9.99.”
But equally important to the price points is the quality and distinction of each bottle. “We blended the wine,” notes Jeff. “We started with the Chardonnay and he would send samples, which I would critique. I told him how to blend the wine for me, as some was blended in stainless steel and some in oak. I thought his oak was a little light. But I didn't want it too heavy, so he added a little more from the stainless steal barrel to give it more complexity, depth, and a creamier taste. When we nailed the taste that I was looking for, I ordered 240 cases of Chardonnay and expected it to last a couple years, but we sold it all in 7 months.”
Their first 'blue bottle' label consisted of a German 'Scheurbe' wine, which is similar to a Riesling, with distinct differences. “The Scheurbe is a different grape with a different flavor profile,” explains Jeff. “The producer in Germany said they could make a 100 percent Riesling, but I like the Scheurbe grape better because it's a tad spicier and has a little pine flavor to it and sometimes the Riesling can get a little petrol tasting. The recipe we came up with has a flavor profile for the masses, so we stayed with that formula and I can sell 600 cases a year of it.”
Since these two inaugural Oppermann wines, Jeff has traveled to the Mendoza Valley of Argentina to produce Oppermann's Malbec; has frequented France and Spain, and three years ago traveled to a vineyard in Italy, where he experienced some “incredible tasting wines for four days.” Eventually, Jeff found a company capable of producing a killer Pinot Gricio. “I told them I would take a couple palates of it with no blending and found one that normally goes for $15.00 a bottle that I am able to offer for $9.99.”
Next came the Cabernet. “I traveled to France and found a French winemaker named Jeff Carrell and we had dinner in Paris,” relates Jeff. “He's an upcoming wine maker and very forward-thinking. We developed Oppermann's Cabernet, which Robert Parker - very famous wine critic gave an 88 rating. It's a very high-end wine at a very reasonable price range, so we were lucky to get it. I ordered four palates of that and we're down to our last one now.”
The latest wine to grace the Oppermann Collection is the chardonnay, but in the next couple of weeks Jeff will unveil Oppermann's Michigan Riesling, which he is developing with a winery in the Leeleneau Peninsula of Michigan. Jeff notes that he's ordered 114 cases of it and 28 are already pre-sold. “I'm glad to be working with Michigan vineyard because I believe in supporting Michigan products and this is another way to move some of my sales to Michigan,” he reflects.
Today Jeff is also branching beyond wines to offer his own unique brand of liquor at Cork 'n Ale in the form of Elijah Craig Bourbon. “We got approached by the company itself because we sold so much of it,” Jeff explains. “What they do is take all their barrels from all their floors and warehouses and blend a 12-year old Bourbon. They are based in Bardstown, Kentucky - the heart of bourbon country - and we taste several of the individual barrels. If there's a barrel that fancies our palate, we buy the entire barrel.”
“The current barrel that we just had delivered is a single barrel from a single 12-year old barrel. The first one we offered was smooth and spicy and sold in five days from arrival,” he continues. “By the way, the barrel that we had left over from the first order is sitting at the Midland Brewing Company aging some stout that we are experimenting with. Out of the next batch they produced, we bought two barrels - one is smoker tasking, so we've called it Oppermann's Cigar Bourbon. Barrel number 3 has a low yield and is a spicier caramel style that we expect to sell as fast as the first.”
So how did Jeff get interested in this vocation - was it something he set upon accomplishing at an early age? “No,” he laughs, “it's not something I thought I would do from the get-go. But being in the Oppermann family, there was always a lot of entertaining going on. When I was younger and living in Ohio at the time, you could drink at the age of 18, so that's when I started developing my palate. I spent five years in Germany with the Air Force and then came back to Saginaw. While my friends were drinking 12-packs of American beer, I was drinking Beck's and Carlsberg Elephant brew; and drinking wines.”
“When I lived in Germany in 1986 I tried all the good German beers and wines and enrolled in school fulltime, bought a house, worked at Boardwalk Party store, and basically developed the 'Red Wine Bug' while working there. Once you get this bug you're done and I've always preferred red wine from then on. From that point I started going to all the wine shows and taking trips to California. I've been to Greece, France several times, Portugal, Argentina, and next month will be traveling to Span and then back to Italy in May. I'm looking for wines around the world that cannot be duplicated.”
So with this knowledge, how do Michigan wines compare to other areas of the world? “Michigan wines compare to German wines because geographically you're looking at the same quadrant and climate,” he explains. “We grow the same grapes well that Germany grows well, so we do good with Chardonnay and grapes best grown in cooler climates, like Rieslings. But you can't compare the Cabernet and Merlot to an area like California because of the climate difference. We don't have a hot or long enough season to grow those types of grapes, which require an exceptionally long growing season to grow well with any red wine.”
As the owner and entrepreneur behind one of the top three wine stores in the State of Michigan, what does Jeff feel is the most challenging component of his enterprise? “Without a doubt, having such a large volume and diversity of product, it's keeping the orders together,” he smiles. “We had a lot of growing pains with this business. When we started my wife and I worked 100-hour weeks and had a young child, so we didn't have much of a life. But over the years, with the development of Inventory Management systems, it's gotten easier. But still, wine and beer have a shelf life, so you have to be careful of how much you order.”
“Even today, we are offered so many wines and might try 50 to 60 different brands in a week and only bring in a few that we like. We try them all out before we buy them because it takes the guesswork out for the customer. Out of all the wines we're offered to sell, we might only accept 15 to 20% of them.”
From the legendary inroads made by his Great Great Grandfather in the Saginaw Valley up through the current expeditious inroads that Jeff is forging to satisfy discriminating palates in the Great Lakes Bay region at reasonable prices, the umbilical cord of accomplishment and commerce cultivated and derived by the Oppermann Family is without doubt impressive.
Look for more greatness in the months and years to come.