Sitting at the bar at Striper Bites on a Monday, Paul Cullen looks like a guy who has it all. He’s a bit older than his days prowling stages across the world as a touring bassist for the iconic band Bad Company, but his excitement is measurable.
And who could blame him? References to “wine, women and song” date back hundreds of years and nearly always describe the good life. So it stands to reason that Paul (and wife Bonnie, the ‘woman’ in that phrase) would be extremely pleased, as his recent venture, Unplugged & Uncorked, marries his renowned acoustic music with his new wine label, Sonata.
And how did he get to this point in time?
“In Bad Company, I discovered Chateneauf-de-Pape and the Rhone Valley,” said Cullen. “Because of that, I’m kind of a Rhone guy: Syrah, Zin, Cab Franc. So I started there. Then after I moved here [to Rehoboth Beach], I started going to Tutto Bene, Johnny DiLeo’s [former] place, trying different wines. I developed a passion for it when I started really getting into cooking, using my grandmother’s recipes, that sort of thing.”
Cullen gives a lot of kudos to his mentor, Steve Kogler of Teller Wines in Lewes.
“We tried this great Chilean Merlot in Florida called Santa Ema. We came up here after having it down there, and we went into Teller Wines. We got to meet Steve and Leslie, started buying our wine from them, and they got the Santa Ema in for us. So we developed a relationship with them, went to tastings. I’ve learned so much from Steve.”
After developing his passion, Paul then pursued the marriage of music and grape.
“I got the idea of Unplugged & Uncorked, where I could play wine parties,” said Cullen. “I was in Florida on a golf trip with my friend John, and we went to Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse where I had a bottle of Seven Deadly Zins. It was so good, we had two or three bottles. On the back of the bottle were poems, so I emailed them and told them how much we enjoyed his wine.”
A return email from the winery gave Paul another idea.
“I took it upon myself to take those poems and write a song called Seven Deadly Zins, which they enjoyed,” noted Cullen. “So they came here, and I set up some tastings for them where I played some music. I helped them get some wine placed here locally in stores and restaurants. But they didn’t get that I could be an ambassador for them, or maybe they did, but didn’t have the time to pursue it.”
Soon after, another opportunity appeared.
“Then I hooked up with St. Supery and their sales rep here. I did a lot with them. Flew out to California, played their winery. But again, the higher-ups didn’t get what I could do for their wine. So again, I helped another winery get wines placed and got some more exposure to the business.”
Finally, Cullen found what he was looking for with Portifino Wines, an Italian importer.
“I was in Nage one night with my wife, Bonnie. I met the owner of Portofino. We talked about his business and my music. He must’ve asked around about me, and the next day I got an email from Ernest, his partner in Florence asking if I wanted to be a wine rep for them. And their web site talked about “groovy Italian wines” which has music built right into it. They’re great, great people. To this day we are still close friends. Got to go to Italy, learn so much from them. I did that for about two years.”
Following that period, Paul was recruited to help open a new Italian restaurant in Millsboro called Luca, which taught him a great deal about wine buying from the restaurant perspective. Meanwhile, the idea percolated between Paul and a friend that maybe a wine label would be the way to go. The idea was sparked by a growing trend among wine buyers at the beach.
“When I was a sales rep for Portovino, people were going into stores and restaurants and asking for ‘Paul’s Wine,” said Cullen. “They weren’t asking for the brand names, just ‘Paul Cullen’s wine.’ So I said to John, ‘we gotta get our own wine.’”
With his experience in the industry, Paul found the process of creating a wine company to be relatively straightforward.
“We formed a corporation here in Delaware, sent all of the paperwork in, got our TTB license in January,” said Cullen. “We started tasting wines, having tasting parties. Found a great winemaker (Drytown Cellars) and tasted a lot of his wines. The Rosso came on the last tasting, and it was an easy choice.”
And so today, wine lovers can begin to purchase the Sonata Bianco and Sonata Rosso. Cullen beams when talking about the crisp, clean Bianco (a Pinot Grigio) and the smooth Rosso (a Zinfandel/Syrah/Cab Franc blend).
“I’m so proud. I’ve had many ideas in my life, and it’s so nice to have the same feeling that I have with my music,” said Cullen. “I took something from an idea last August to being able to drink it today. It’s great. And it’s also a local company. It’s a Delaware wine company. It has the credentials of being a California wine with awesome grapes, but it’s a local company. “
As if that wasn’t enough, Cullen released his newest album, “11 Sundays,” last week to accompany the new wine label. (Sample Paul’s music at the end of the post.)
“I was tasting the wines while I was writing the music,” said Cullen. “And the reason it’s called ‘11 Sundays’ is that I wrote the songs on Sundays. I’d wake up each day, write a song and post a snippet of it to Facebook. On the Sundays I didn’t do it, I had people who were like, ‘Paul, where’s the song today?’ So I knew I had something, and I’ve always like the number 11. So it all fit.”
Paul looks forward to adding layers to his music and his wine, combining them in new and different ways as time goes by. But for now, his is definitely the face of a guy who’s discovered his passion and is prepared for the journey.
I’ll drink to that.
For more on Paul Cullen, visit PaulCullen.net.
And here’s some music from Eleven Sundays.