Why do some wineries make it while others don’t?
What gives a winery staying power? Some make it and succeed; others fall by the wayside. In these perilous times, when wine companies are going out of business faster than you can keep track of, and family wineries with decades of history are passed along to corporate traders like so many sacks of beans, there may be lessons to be learned from the past.
I have an old “Yearbook of the Wine Industry” published by Wines & Vines in 1944. In the California section are listed hundreds of wineries. Their names read like the sad carvings on cemetery tombstones: so many now departed. Where did Arcuri and Mount Diamond go? Scatena Bros., then in Healdsburg, and Santa Nella, in Guerneville, are ghosts. Padre, which made “Champagne,” Don Juan, which described its wines as “sun-rayed and mellow,” Madera, which bottled 6,000 cases per day, Mattevista, Di Giorgio, Arvin, Monarch, Valliant, Lejon, Croix Royale (“Say Croy Royal”, their advertisement reads)–once thriving, now all gone, to wherever wine companies go when they die.
Of course, there were survivors, in those yellowed pages, now nearly 70 years old: Korbel’s label has hardly changed, Sebastiani is still right there in old Sonoma (albeit no longer owned by a Sebastiani), Chateau Montelena is still in Calistoga, and Charles Krug remains there on Highway 29, in St. Helena, still owned by Mondavis (in that ’44 Yearbook, the general manager was Robert). In the Yearbook too are Beringer, Beaulieu, Louis Martini, Wente, all of them good, dependable names. But otherwise, the Yearbook is a Book of the Dead.
Ten years later, there was a famous restaurant in San Francisco, Orestes, whose cuisine, I believe, was Italian. It exists no longer; I can find no trace of it on the Web, but I have its wine list. It is probably from the mid-1950s, although hard to say exactly, because for Latour, Lafite and Margaux (all $10), no vintage is listed, nor even for Yquem ($12, presumably a half bottle). More to the point are the California brands. Fifty-five years ago Paul Masson, Almaden, Cresta Blanca and Christian Brothers were as upscale as California got. Where are they now? Gone with the wind, either evaporated off the face of the Earth or devolved into jug brands, on the bottom shelf of the store.
Yet on that wine list too are survivors, names familiar from the Yearbook: Sebastiani, Charles Krug, Beringer, Martini, Beaulieu, Wente, and two smallish outfits, one headquartered in Modesto, called Gallo, and one, Franzia Brothers, in Ripon. How did these escape the fate of so many of their brethren? What is the secret of survival for a family winery, amidst the Darwinian forces that threaten to tear companies to extinction?
Hard work, no doubt, diligently performed. Fairness to employees, and a proper sense of reward. A refined sense of the market, almost a foreknowledge of what the consumer wants before he or she knows it. Good accounting: many a company that went belly up thought it was doing just fine, before reality struck. A persevering, some would say ruthless passion to succeed, passed on from grandfather to father to son and daughter, a sense that something approaching family honor is at stake. And distribution, of course: the survivors managed (or manipulated) to get themselves into the channels that supply the vast U.S. market, something today’s small wineries struggle with.
I look at the current roster of California brands–thousands of them, with more coming along every day–and wonder whose names will be missing from the Yearbooks of the future. Already, in my 22 years of wine writing, famous brands have disappeared. Who remembers Vichon, Yverdon, Murietta, Louis K. Mihaly, Estrella River, Shown & Sons, Smothers, Sotoyome, Paulsen, Felton Empire, Richard Carey? All gave me and countless others pleasure, in their time; all succumbed to their fates. None had what it takes to make it.