In world of wine, accidents can be a good thing

Food Accidental Wine
Accidental Wine founder David Forbes, referred to as the "Grape Wrangler," fills an online wine order at the Accidental Wine warehouse in Los Angeles. Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Accidents happen, the people at the Accidental Wine Company like to say. Good thing for them that they do, too, or the Accidental Wine Company would be out of business.

Every time a delivery person, a vintner or wine distributor drops a case of wine and one bottle breaks, staining all the others, the sound heard in the minds of the people at Accidental Wine is not that of glass shattering. It's more like the "ka-ching" of a cash register going off.

Accidental Wine rushes in and buys up the remaining blemished but otherwise unbroken bottles that a retailer won't touch. Then it resells them over the Internet for a third to half off the price.

"We never know when an accident's going to happen," says Janice C. Lee, who carries the dual titles marketing director and master imbiber with the company she helped found two years ago. "We never know what quantity we're going to get."

But get them Accidental Wine does. Everything from France's most famous Bordeaux wines, which can go for hundreds of dollars a bottle, to acclaimed vintages from California's Napa Valley, to more modestly priced but still enjoyable selections from places like Australia, New Zealand and Chile.

That's because, as David Forbes, the company's chief executive officer and grape wrangler, likes to say: "The expensive bottles break just as easily as the cheap ones."

Indeed, sometimes they don't even have to break.

Not that long ago Los Angeles' venerable San Antonio Winery, in business for 103 years, decided to bring out a new label called Windbreak.

"It's an outstanding wine. It's 40-something dollars a bottle," says Forbes, holding a Windbreak pinot noir.

But for some reason — and in retrospect it doesn't take too much imagination to guess that reason — the name Windbreak never caught on. The winery has since changed it to something more marketable.

In the meantime, the winemakers didn't want to dump their leftover stock, so they sold it to Accidental, which is packaging it with two other similarly priced vintages from other winemakers and selling all three for a total of $68, about half the price.

Then there was the Argentinian winemaker that produced 150 cases of a pinot noir before noticing someone had spelled it Pinor Noir on all the labels. Bob Castellani, president of importer-distributor Specialty Cellars quickly put in a call to Accidental Wine, which scooped up the bottles and resold them, with a note to consumers that it really was pinot noir they were getting.

"It worked for them, it worked for us and it certainly worked for their clients, who got some great deals," Castellani said of Accidental. The company, he added, is the only one he knows of in its niche market.

Because Accidental, like Forrest Gump with his box of chocolates, never knows what it is going to get, consumers who buy through its Web site can't order specific brands of wine. But they can specify what kind of wine they want, a chardonnay, for example, or a merlot. Likewise, if they hate zinfandel or chianti reminds them of that creepy scene in "Silence of the Lambs," they can say so and they won't get any.

The company came into existence, its founders like to say, over a bottle of wine.

Forbes, a friendly, white-haired man of 64, had honed his wine-drinking tastes over numerous lunches and dinners when he was president of Orion Pictures. Lee had done the same while in the marketing business, where she met Forbes when his company was a client.

Somehow, Lee noticed, whenever Forbes was playing host he always managed to pull out the perfect bottle of wine for the occasion. It turned out he had a friend who was a wine distributor who was passing along bottles he couldn't move because the labels were damaged.

When the man retired, Forbes momentarily panicked, thinking his wine pipeline had been shut down. Then, over a meal, he says, it was decided that he, Lee and Forbes' son, Micah, and daughter, Kelly, would go into business.

"We must have had a thousand names for the company," says Lee.

"None of them good ones," Forbes adds.

Then one day Forbes' son was sitting in freeway traffic that had been backed up for miles by a crash when the thought occurred to him: "Accidents will happen ... "

Soon after, the four had set up their headquarters in a small, chain-link-fenced section of a 1.5-million-square-foot warehouse on the banks of the concrete-lined, anything-but-scenic Los Angeles River.

There, as forklifts whiz by carrying all kinds of stuff, the four pore over computers, answer phones and package bottles of wine.

Forbes declines to reveal Accidental Wine's sales figures but says in its two years the company has grown rapidly.

"We just happened to get in at the right moment," he says as he stands between shelves crammed with bottles of wine. "Since the economy dropped, what we're seeing is that people are looking to drink wine at the same level they did before, but not pay the same price."

Which keeps him and his partners busy.

"We try to sample everything — and that's hard," Forbes says, laughing.

Really, it is hard, he adds with a straight face. Over the past two years, he says, he and his partners have probably sampled thousands of wines.

"At the beginning it seemed like a lot of fun. But after awhile you start thinking, 'My God, I've got to do this three more times this week?' "