In the winter of 2006, Steve Ward was between jobs and searching for direction. He found himself at dinner with a group of Baltimore restaurateurs and wine experts such as Jorge Ordonez, a premier importer of Spanish wines, and Dan Philips, whose work importing Australian wine helped fuel the explosion in that country’s wines over the past decade.
Argentina, Ward suspected, was headed for similar growth. “In terms of winemaking around the world today,” he says, “I think Argentina is probably the most exciting place.” Wine makers in Argentina are just beginning to implement modern techniques and change the way they make wines, he says.” Combined with the excellent physical conditions, this revolution in winemaking promises enormous potential. In 2007, though, most of the Argentinian wine U.S. consumers had seen was mass-produced and without much personality.
Nobody, it seemed to Ward, had decided to go to Argentina and seek out the finer wines. “What do you think about someone doing what you did, but for Argentina?” Ward asked his friends that night. Their reply was simple, “You should do it.”
So Ward, 39, bought his first ticket to Argentina. There was only one problem: “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.”
Despite befriending importers like Philips and learning from them, the business of importing was still mostly a mystery to Ward. Wine, however, was something he had been tasting and studying for almost 20 years.
At 18, one of Ward’s first jobs was at a wine store in Howard County. From there he moved on to working in restaurants, including the first of Baltimore favorites Spike and Charlie Gjerde. After several years working in finance, Ward returned to the restaurant business when he opened Vespa in Federal Hill in 1999.
It was through Vespa that Ward made the connections with importers and distributors that would be so crucial once he returned from Argentina. However, a solid background in the end product wouldn’t be quite enough to make a skilled importer; Ward had yet to learn the business of modern winemaking.
In 2006, Ward sold Vespa and moved to Napa Valley to work at a vineyard there. “During harvest we did everything, from cleaning out barrels to crushing grapes, really every aspect of winemaking.”
“He really knows the industry from the viewpoint of the quality in the bottle,” says David Schroeder, director of brand management at Bacchus Importers. Bacchus distributes fine wine and spirits in the Maryland, D.C. and Delaware areas and was the first distribution company to work with Ward. “He works hard. He’s articulate and knowledgeable. When someone carries those characteristic traits, you gravitate toward helping him.”
“The logistics of shipping wine around the world are not easy,” Ward admits, but with Bacchus’ expertise, Ward christened his business Oasis Wines and the first of his wines hit shelves and wine lists in Baltimore in August of 2008.
“I think Steve’s wines have been first-rate without exception,” says Bruce Dorsey, owner of Metropolitan Coffeehouse + Wine Bar, which carries some of Ward’s Argentinian finds.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg for the stuff that I found,” Ward says— the search for new wines is continuous. “A big part of it is selection and trying to find really cool interesting things that have real personality and some unique qualities.” That means Ward takes a lot of trips and tastes a lot of wines. Friends like to call him the “International Man of Leisure,” but his trips are as much work as they are fun.
“In the beginning it was really tough because I didn’t know anyone.” With no contacts and little Spanish, Ward had to rely on simple perseverance. “I was the guy who just kept showing up. After about three or four times, the winemakers started to realize I was serious.”
Dorsey got the opportunity to join Ward on one of his trips. “It was work. Driving around to see 10 winemakers, it takes all day,” Dorsey says. At each winery Ward might try a dozen wines before setting off down a dusty country road in search of the next poorly labeled vineyard. For Ward, though, the trips are worth it.
“That’s the thing, to find really cool things that are a good value and get that back here and get that into restaurants’ hands, get it into wine stores’ hands. That’s the broad picture. That’s the mission,” he says with a grin. “I get excited and smile just thinking about it.”
Visit facebook.com/oasiswines. Stores carrying the wines include Bin 604, Chesapeake Wine Co., North Charles Wine & Spirits, The Wine Source and Quarry Wine & Spirits. Restaurants include Woodberry Kitchen, Corks, 13.5% Wine Bar, Metropolitan Wine Bar, The Prime Rib and Ruth’s Chris.