Article and Photo by Shia Kapos, CRAIN'S Chicago Business
On a recent spring day in their Lake Bluff headquarters, Tony Terlato and son John Terlato, two of the family owners of Terlato Wine Group, are in the midst of a tradition—taste-testing. But instead of sampling wine, they're analyzing canned tomatoes from the San Marzano region of Italy.
“Look at this one,” Tony says, peering into one of 17 bowls of tomatoes on the kitchen counter. “The tomatoes are different sizes. The sauce is watery and,” he pauses, “there's still skin on this tomato.”
John Terlato shakes his head at the unpeeled tomato, a sign of inconsistent quality control. “It's out,” he says and, with a flourish, pushes the bowl away.
While many fathers and sons find time to share Father's Day, the Terlatos do it every day running a company that produces and imports wines, owns vineyards and now makes premium-priced packaged foods such as tomato sauce under the Terlato Kitchen brand.
After the Terlatos slurp tomatoes, chef Colin Crowley prepares dishes from their finalists. The brand that wins the Terlatos' favor will be purchased in bulk and used in dishes prepared in their corporate kitchen and, paired with wine, served in lunches for the company's executives, their friends and clients.
The official tomato tasting started in 1995, when the Terlatos moved headquarters into Tangley Oaks, a mansion built by meatpacking mogul Philip Armour.
But tastings have been part of the family since Bill Terlato, CEO of Terlato Wine Group, and brother John, vice chairman, were kids. “We would taste-test everything,” John Terlato says, from hamburgers and steaks to tomatoes and breads. They also taste-tested wine, Tony Terlato adds. “We put a little water in it when they were young.”
The practice started, John Terlato says, in distribution, when he and his brother and father tasted wines produced by others to determine what would sell best in Illinois. They did the same kind of tasting when they opened their importing company.
“It's about training your palate,” says John Terlato, 54, who is teaching his three children—ages 13, 11 and 7—how to do it. Bill Terlato, 55, has three adult children, two of whom work in the industry. Jo Terlato Giannoulias is a regional manager at the company.
Jobs in the family business aren't a given, says the family's patriarch, no matter how good they are at taste-testing. “They had to work outside the company before they worked here,” says Tony Terlato, 81, who grew up in the wine and spirits industry. He worked in his father's liquor shop and went on to work in his father-in-law's wine business, Paterno Imports. Later renamed Terlato Wines in 2007.
John Terlato remembers when he started tasting. “I was only able to taste maybe 20 wines. After a while, my palate got tired,” he says. He's got much more stamina today. Recently, he and his father tasted 88 wines from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. “It's fast and intense and you have to stay focused. It's a discipline and you develop palate memory.”
The Terlatos take specific notes. A wine might not just have a tropical taste—it's defined more carefully, like mango or pineapple, he explains. Between samples, they nibble on a cracker or drink water.
It's a similar process in tasting tomatoes, John Terlato says while he and his father dip spoons into the bowls lining the kitchen counter. But in spite of their years of experience, he says there's one thing that still can do them in: “having a cold.”