Mark Carduner, winemaker and co-owner of Working Dog Winery in Robbinsville, New Jersey comes from a family of entrepreneurs. His grandparents, originally from France, started a wine and liquor store in 1953. We talked to Mark about his family’s legacy in wine and spirits retail and how it shaped him as a winemaker and businessman. During his tenure in the retail business, he witnessed the shift from the cocktail consumption to wine coolers and on to entry level wines, predominantly from California. The Carduner family shifted their buying alongside their customer base, following Robert Parker into Bordeaux during his rise in the early ‘80s; then expanding asthe world of wine opened up including higher tier iconic California wines, Burgundian classics, and selections from up and coming regions like Chile and New Zealand.

Your family owned a wine retail store in New Jersey for decades. What’s the history?

MC: My father and grandfather built the business in 1953. My grandparents came to America from France in the 1920’s seeking the American dream. My grandfather, Jean Carduner, bought the property in East Windsor, NJ, a largely agricultural community. The property had a tiny liquor store that sold predominantly beer and pint size bottles of hard alcohol. My grandmother ran the store during the day, while my father and uncle delivered milk for Decker’s Dairy in Trenton. The original property also had two houses on it and eventually my grandfather had them lifted and moved to another location. I spent the first ten years of my life in one of them. Eventually they started developing the property, adding two stores at a time and creating a strip center.  Although we no longer have a liquor store, the family still owns and maintains the shopping center.


When did you begin working there? What was your first job?

MC: I had a formal ABC permit at 16 in 1977. At that point my job was to stock shelves, fill the refrigerator boxes and carry packages out for customers. I was a regular kid- a baseball and soccer player just having fun working with my dad and grandfather and making some extra money. As I got older, I started working more hours and took on more responsibilities. I learned more about the business and the products. From the time I was 18, the legal age to consume alcohol at the time, my grandfather taught me about wine. As a Frenchman, he drank wine every day and he always shared a taste, as well as his knowledge of wine. You could say that my love of wine began with my family and spending time with my grandfather. 

What type of customer did the store target or attract? Was it primarily a local wine shop? 

MC: The town has changed over the years and the consumer’s needs along with it. Originally it was an agricultural community with very simple needs. As the town grew, the population developed into a commuter district with single family neighborhoods being built everywhere.  We began selling the mixings for cocktails, such as Martinis, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds along with early Napa wine brands, like Louis Martini, Robert Mondavi, and Joseph Phelps.  I remember being in high school and watching the product mix change. There were a lot of European entry level wines at $3-4 a bottle that started taking over a greater portion of our shelf space. Increased advertising as well as a cultural shift to drink more wine caused wine sales to spike. In the late 70’s, brands like Blue Nun, Riunite, and Lancers dominated the landscape. In the 80’s, the California wave began with Sutter Home, Glen Ellen and Gallo taking over the Spanish, Italian, French and German sweet wines.

Our consumer base was changing rapidly and we changed alongside them. The community was throwing cocktail parties and wine dinners. We curated wine selections for weddings and other special events. We were a very consumer focused shop and we adapted to the changing trends. As the clientele demanded more premium wines we increased the size of our temperature and humidity controlled wine cellar.  

How did you see the consumer change overtime?  And in what ways? Any specific examples you can share?

MC: From the beginning of the ‘80s to the middle of the decade the consumer changed drastically. It wasn’t just 50 year olds drinking Chardonnay anymore. People getting out of high school and college were drinking wine – and interested in learning about it. It was amazing in a matter of 10 years how quickly the backbone of the industry changed. 

My parents and grandparents were very involved in the New Jersey Liquor Store Association and often went to trade shows, wine tastings, and national conventions. My grandfather was a board member of the liquor store association and my family was always very involved in the New Jersey retail community. 

In 1980 wine was maybe 10% of sales and by 1985 it was 50% of our sales. 

What were the most popular categories of wine that you sold, and how did you see that change overtime?

MC: Initially it was Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay. As all these wineries were popping up in Washington and California and trying to differentiate themselves we saw things like Fumé Blanc (Mondavi’s highly successful oaked Sauvignon Blanc) blow up. By the mid-80s White Zinfandel dominated, alongside Riesling, and California Cabernet & Chardonnay. 

I made an enormous financial commitment, following Robert Parker’s lead, by getting on board with the famed 1982 Bordeaux vintage and buying futures in top Châteaus like Mouton and Margaux; you name it, we bought it. I got in a tremendous amount of trouble with my father, being 23 years old and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on these wines. 

I was buying at a huge discount because those wines weren’t popular yet. I had the client base because these customers were working in New York City, making a lot of money, and we were their trusted local wine purveyor. I took a huge bet on that vintage and Bordeaux – and just like it made Parker’s career, it was a resounding financial success for us. It also cemented our status as a knowledgeable shop that brought not only trends; but high quality, investment grade, collectable wines to our consumers – at a great price.

By the ‘90s the wine world blew up with brands and places like Penfolds in Australia, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa. Everybody was competing for shelf space. It’s still along the same track today. But some things never change –  Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are still personal favorites and big sellers.

What were the most profitable wines that you sold?

MC: The wines we bought direct to retail were naturally the most profitable. But importers like Kobrand Wine & Spirits and bigger brands like their Burgundian brand Maison Louis Jadot brought representatives to the store and we used that as an opportunity to educate and show our consumers what else the world of wine offered. Those relationships with importers, distributors and the suppliers themselves – were the most profitable and in some cases spanned generations.

Did you always sell local wines?  If not, when did you start selling them and why?

MC: We did sell local wines. In the 1970s I remember a large stack display from Tewksbury Winery. My grandfather had a good relationship with someone from the winery and we always kept that in stock. In the ‘80s we didn’t have as much local wine but then in the 90s, Unionville Vineyards had a fantastic Australian representative who came in with their wines for us to try. There was always a Riesling, a crowd-pleasing rosé, a red table wine, or a Chardonnay.

How did consumers react to local wines? Were they hand-sold only? Did they require sampling or they didn’t move?

MC: I would say because they were sharply priced, people would buy them to try and then come back and buy more, they were easy to get behind. The winery representatives were there behind the brand and it was generally an easy sale. We didn’t have to push people to buy it. 

How did your career in wine retail inspire you to start a winery?  

MC: I didn’t have any interest or plan in starting a winery when this all began. It was just growing grapes and seeing where things went. Just like on the retail side, the winery side has a lot of great trade events with an endless amount of education. I could sit at seminars forever and listen to people and learn. Everything you learn you take right back and put into action. It was fun to see things changing quickly as far as my techniques of making wine. We had an amazing community with about 10-15 wineries all starting around the same time, learning together, and making great friendships. 

Did you consider starting or investing in a winery in another region initially? If so, what made you make an investment in the NJ wine industry?

MC: I’m a Jersey guy at heart, I have a very tight knit family. I can’t imagine picking up and starting a winery someplace else. I’m all in on New Jersey wine.

How do you think your retail career and experience selling to consumers affected your success at Working Dog Winery?

MC: We’re just really comfortable talking to our customers about wine. It is just a beverage. When I got started 40 years ago it was generally thought that wine drinkers were privileged and aloof. There was an unwelcoming aura about wine in this country even though it was the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the world. Our country was slow coming around to wine. We sold so much everyday wine, as well as Bordeaux futures. It’s the same thing at our winery. We could be selling a $40 or a $15 bottle of wine. It’s gaining people’s trust with a lower priced bottle of wine and then gradually moving up to the more expensive bottles of wine. 

NJ is in the top ten wine consuming states (ranks #6), and punches well above its weight per capita. The state is known for its highly engaged, educated wine consumers. Do you see the same NJ-based high tier, wine collectors buying into the local wine scene? 

MC: I do. I can’t believe it. It’s awesome. Of course not everyone – some won’t even taste NJ wine – they are just never going to believe that a bottle of Cabernet Franc from New Jersey is going to be good in 10 years. And for those people nothing I can do will convince them. But increasingly they are in the minority – people will bring in a back vintage bottle of Sangiovese  just to share it with the staff because they feel pride in getting behind the brand. They feel like trailblazers, and they are the core of passionate people that form our loyal customer base.