Page 3 of 11
Steady As She Goes: Staying the Course in a Sea of Change
NM: That's in large part why I felt compelled to sit down with the three of you. It's immediately apparent — coming onto the property and having interacted with you collectively and individually, in the context of the wines — that this is, in many ways, an heirloom. All of it. There's a legacy here that, as you said, was much more the model many years ago, but which has since seen considerable change happening all around it. How has that been for you, to maintain this vision and a sense of tenacity around your business model and philosophy, in light of all the changes going on around you within the wine industry — even among the neighboring wineries?
PR: We've had to be very creative. The traditional model that Tim was talking about, during early days of Hess and Stag's Leap and people like that — a lot of those men and women who came to Napa (and a lot of them are still coming) had been very successful in other areas of their lives, and they bring with them great resources. And their Napa Valley wine project becomes the retirement cause of their lives, to make beautiful wines…
AR: Or their midlife crisis!
TM: I was thinking it's either a crown jewel or a bauble these days, it seems, with most of the newcomers.
"I think that my father was smart in that he created a fairly humble model. We didn't build a Tuscan villa."
PR: Perhaps it'll always be that way anywhere. I lived in Los Angeles for years and I'm also a musician and have been through the whole thing of being a songwriter and having a publishing contract, and seeing my friends rise to different levels of success. Los Angeles tends to draw people with grand dreams to make something happen, who just throw themselves on the shores of ambition: "Here I am! I'm going to make this happen!" Well, it's the same in Napa; it's not that different in principle. People come here with ambitions and dreams in food and wine. I'm thankful to people like Robert Mondavi, who created this place of beauty and sexiness. People come here to grow a career. People also come here because of the prestige and to create a winery that gets instant credibility because it says 'Napa.' I think that my father came here bought this vineyard a reasonable price back in those days — it was raw land; it had never had a vineyard on it — and put a lot of time and personal resources into the business to develop the vineyards, as did a lot of people around here. As the next generation, we've been putting time and resources into improving wine quality and greening our vineyards and lifestyle, so we are more planet-friendly, rather than into showcasing our success.
AR: I think that my father was smart in that he created a fairly humble model. We didn't build a Tuscan villa. They say the 'best' wineries are ten thousand cases, because that's [supposedly] a 'good' business model. We're [just] two-to-three [thousand]. But I think that he created something humble; he put all his money in the land and in the vines, and he also chose Napa Valley — insisted on Napa Valley, insisted on the mountains. So, all those things were choices that really have benefited us in times of crisis, because we still have a premium product, we have something sacred in the sense that we have mountain Cabernet in Napa Valley on a beautiful piece of land. And there are many peripheral kinds of property being saved and lost these days. But I think this place has a certain iconic quality; it's not only an 'heirloom' but also, in scale, it still feels like a family farm. And I think that you can do handwork on a property like this, you can hand-select — it costs a lot — but you can do it. In fact, Timothy has changed how many times we've put the hands on the vines — you know, selecting out: taking fruit off, taking leaves off, taking shoots off. And that's why we've been able to feel like we can raise the price of the bottle. If you're going to spend that much time, the quality really shows. And one of the things that I've really enjoyed lately from our new wines is going out there and really tasting with people because it's always positive! And I think that being able to pour a wine and never feel like, "Well, I hope that they don't taste this or that!" — which, when we were experimenting and learning on the job in the first few years of the business, happened now and then.