Celebrate independents: How the scrappy family winery is coping

cyril chappellet
Cyril Chappellet

As Americans, we cannot escape large corporations. It seems a gloomy certainty that all we love will end up consolidated, monopolized and homogenized to appeal to the widest range of taste. And the increasingly corporate, hegemonic wine business is certainly no exception. We see countless focus group-produced labels on crowded grocery store shelves, wines reflecting neither heritage nor sense of personality, but we consume them like cheap beer at a frat party. According to Wine Business Monthly, roughly 81 percent of total wine sales in the U.S. — in 2009 that equaled 300 million cases — come from labels owned or marketed by the top ten wine corporations. Not that the wine is bad (well, some of it is); it drinks fine, but it lacks romance and soul. And it doesn’t benefit anyone’s family or community — the sales bloat a financial balance sheet and a corporate board of suits. Makes you feel warm and fuzzy, huh?

However, the average consumer wins. This consolidation allows us to drink wine for less than the cost of two Happy Meals and helps us choose by placing cute animals on the labels. But, as Rob Sinskey of Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa put it, “Corporate wine can lack a definitive point of view.” To compete in this jaded economy against massive corporate marketing budgets and cheap juice, family-owned wineries must be nimble, inspired, and most of all, debt free. When Chappellet Winery opened its doors in 1967, 32 wineries operated in Napa. Robert Mondavi – now owned by behemoth Constellation– was number 31. Today, over 400 wineries share the same valley. Early on in this recession, Chappellet began combating the sales spiral by concentrating on the customer — they lowered their prices. “We wanted people to feel the love,” said Cyril Chappellet, 2nd generation winemaker. But they also stayed true to their history. “Families who have been doing this a long time — Bo Barrett [from Chateau Montelena] and Doug Shafer [Shafer Vineyards], for instance — honor the accomplishments of their parents… there’s a lot of heart and a lot of love for the land.”  Austin Hope, President and 2nd generation Winemaker for Liberty School, Treana, Candor and Austin Hope wineries in Paso Robles, echoes that sentiment. He connects with as many consumers and buyers as possible. He’s “very hands on. More fun, less muscle… people appreciate the personal feel.”

Juxtapose that sentiment against another family-owned winery in Sonoma, Jordan Vineyard and Winery, who battles with a different tactic. Wholesalers, the companies who distribute wines, are also dwindling in number but growing in size. That means more brands in fewer hands and less attention. John Jordan, who doesn’t call himself a “wine guy,” spent much of his early career in real estate and business. In 2005, he took over as CEO of Jordan Vineyard and Winery and immediately beefed up the sales force to fill the marketing gap left by wholesalers. “We must fight to get our share of attention,” Jordan said. When I asked him how Jordan Vineyard is faring, he said, “I’m having great time. The recession has been rewarding because I prepared for it years before.” His real estate background obviously aided the clairvoyance.

But the main reason some family businesses compete successfully is low debt and vineyard ownership. Bogle Vineyards, a third generation family-owned and operated winery, owns 1,500 acres and isn’t beholden to a bank. But not all family wineries are coping. Both Jordan and Chappellet see more small wineries belly up across the industry, but strong brand recognition will help some survive the downturn. And, although threatened by the corporate giants with more resources to scream “Buy me!” in the wine aisle, it is definitely up to the consumer to make his/her wishes known with their wallet. Together, we can all keep the spirited, independent wine minds in business.

Recommended Wines

Chappellet 2009 Chardonnay Napa Classic California Chardonnay – buttered popcorn, peaches and red apple, but also some tropical pineapple. Soft, pleasing acidity with a silky, full-bodied mouthfeel. Elegant but not subtle. Sweetness=2. $32. 4 stars.

Bogle 2008 Pinot Noir California


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