It's a funny thing, this winery business.
Four years ago, when we took leave of our good senses and better judgement, we started down the path of creating what would become Eden Rift Vineyards. An old, incredibly beautiful, heavily tarnished estate in which we invested our dreams, sleepless nights, ambitions, future, and an avalanche of cash.
We were blessed to have a talented winemaker and exciting terroir. A committed team and partners. We were doing everything right, and “killing it”. Moreover, the wines were delicious!
The days where quality and cost control are your universe are like the days of teenage innocence. Our problems seemed huge and exotic. We fell in and out of love with tractor models, electricians, and marketing plans. We felt everything intensely, but in retrospect, it was all small.
When we launched the first Eden Rift wines into the market; the innocent days were behind us, for sure.
Wineries are easy. Vintages in California are predictable. Winemakers are solid practitioners. Well-crafted budgets are easy to stick to.
As a winery owner, the only thing that really matters in the long term is sales. Whether you focus on California, New York, London, or Hong Kong. On trade or off trade. Direct to Consumer. There are a dizzying number of strategic choices open to you. I will offer three immutable facts:
1. American wineries are bad at marketing overseas.
The United States is the biggest consumer wine market in the world, so can absorb most of the wine made by most of the producers in the country, given some creativity with pricing and distribution channels. DTC is an amazing way to build a direct relationship with your consumers, though it is expensive and crowded. National distributors are professional and reliable (if you can worm your way into their heart, book, and consciousness). The downside is that the US is a single market that can expose you to huge concentration risk if your brand, variety, appellation, style, or price fall out of favor; and it can happen fast!
By the way, if you’re relying on scores, publications like The Wine Spectator are completely irrelevant at this point in the global market. Go ahead and use your Spectator scores if you want to broadcast that your concept of relevance hasn’t changed since 2002. They *just* discovered that Pinot Noir is California’s Next Great Grape, for God’s sake. Long-form features, in papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, The World of Fine Wine or The New York Times, are much more effective marketing tools overseas.
2. If you aren’t on a plane, you aren’t going to build sustainable traction.
I don’t think anyone actually knows the true number of wines in the global market, but I think we can assume that it is more than enough to satisfy the world’s drinkers. Moreover, there are few truly flawed wines left in the market to dismiss. The only differentiation left to wineries like ours are personal connections and personal relevance to commercial and individual buyers.
There is a clear correlation between a physical market visit and traction, especially in a brand’s early days. Alas, consistent, repeated visits are required to individual markets, as new brands emerge every day, and it’s a fiercely competitive marketplace. Let your guard down, don’t visit a market, and you may easily lose your place on a hard-won restaurant list or shelf; a single visit is soon lost to a perfumed haze of memory as more and more wineries tread the same boards you do, telling a similar story.
3. Outliers’ results are frequently confused with likely outcomes
In reading the foregoing, the obvious objection is that these rules are not true for Screaming Eagle, for Peter Michael, or whatever your preferred exception happens to be. This sense that somehow each of us is intrinsically special is a real danger to wineries. Survivor bias leads us to remember only the wineries that survive from all wine history to the present day. I love old Gemello Cabernet, but they weren't able to make it out of the early ‘80’s...
Another common error is to assume all wineries have the same business goals you do. Some wineries have inexpensive land (and correspondingly low interest payments), other owners have done the math that owning a winery is a better hobby than owning a yacht, and are happy to lose money indefinitely. If this is not you, it is dangerous to use their strategy as a template for your own winery.
Finally, know what you can, and cannot do. I admire both Danica Patrick and Yao Ming, but as I am not currently an Indy driver, nor can I dunk, their non-drinker consumer recognition strategies are closed to me.
What I do know well is wine from a professional buyer’s perspective and global markets. These are currently where Eden Rift wines are finding their home; largely in the global market, and domestically with on- and off-premise buyers with whom I am often able to build a sense of camaraderie, as I used to be in their shoes. But, ultimately, what I also know is that the most successful winery brands have been able to be nimble over time. They clearly understand that the wine business is counter-intuitive in many ways, and, as such, one must be constantly open to and aware of market changes in order to respond in effective, and ultimately, successful ways.
When you look at the way history is treated in the world, it’s often treated as something in the past, but history is not past us; the creation of history is in progress all around us. The present is a momentary fulcrum where potential events are confirmed and plans become memories. It doesn’t slow or wait while you try to catch up. The wine business feels this march especially acutely, as vintages come, and come, indifferent to whether or not you’ve successfully recruited interns.
In 2006 I spent three years living in Europe, and I learned that there’s a big difference between the way history is embraced culture to culture, especially as seen through the way we treat churches in France and churches in Spain. To me, understanding the difference helps us approach history in a very clear way, and this informs how we view history at Eden Rift.
In France, basically, the history of the church ends when its social function ends, when its function in an increasingly secular society ends. When you enter a church in France, it’s a museum; nothing is new or changing. It’s not stale, it’s definitely beautiful, but it’s not living. I find that when I go to Spain, it’s the opposite. The Spanish are still so deeply connected to the church. They’re still very active and they’re attending churches that have been serving in their role for 500 or 600 years. And what you find is this amalgam of modern and old together. History is being created as we watch. You’ll have beautiful iconography, windows, the very stone the church was made from, along with the constant addition of new pieces of art, new stained-glass windows, and new communities. There’s a constant self-regeneration going on.
I don’t think we’ll ever make the right decisions at Eden Rift if we treat everything we do now simply as a glorification of a past era. The past is with us every day, but we’re also gearing up for a long-term sustainability that will allow the aggregation of history to continue into the future. When we came in, this vineyard hadn’t been farmed the way we wish it had been, so we wanted to return it to a baseline, where we could start to move forward again on what we felt was a proper path.
One of the first things we did was to remove the grape varieties we didn’t feel belonged (Sangiovese and Merlot), that had been planted by a previous owner. To us that didn’t feel authentic to the property’s needs because this place was planted to Pinot Noir in 1860 and had been Pinot Noir ever since…all the way into the 1990s. And to that end, even when it came to clonal materials, we selected scions like Calera and Mount Eden, selections that are authentic to older California estates and to our site. To people who have only been in this area for a few years, it must have looked as though we were making dramatic changes away from what they knew. Really, what we were doing was making dramatic changes back towards what was right and true to this place.
Our label is designed to reflect this, too. I wanted a label that never felt new, but would never feel out of date, either. I was inspired by labels like Ridge, which hasn’t really changed since the ‘60s, and Mayacamas, which also hasn’t had a significant label change since the ‘60s... these labels were not about a period of time; they are an ever-identifiable part of an estate. They are the difference between a face and a haircut.
A wine estate of merit achieves greatness only if it produces wines that are site specific. If you have the perspective of thinking long term, like a collector, you must be true-to-site. If you choose the short-term and chase the market, the market will continually shift to something new, and you’ll be left holding the proverbial bag. The wine industry is littered with people who are five years behind a trend because they were chasing a moment. So the only thing you really can do is be true to the site, to what it is telling you it wants to produce.
If we are going to pursue varietal authenticity, power is not something we should seek in our Pinot Noir at Eden Rift. The site is telling us to look for elegance, life, complexity, definition. From what we can gather so far, our estate is directing us towards focusing on texture, rather than power.
Call it a trick of geography, but we’re in probably the most unfashionable place for Pinot Noir in California. With the notable exception of Calera, there’s nobody within an hour’s drive from here that’s nationally relevant as a wine brand. You’d have to go to Santa Cruz or to Monterey to find the closest one. This has resulted in two defining phenomena for us. Because of its remoteness, this estate was never broken up into smaller estates. It never became a subdivision, never became cattle pasture. It’s still an enormous, contiguous, pure and true valley with few neighbors – a bit of an island unto itself. And there’s also no local style for us to chase. We taste like Eden Rift because there’s nobody else here. We’re not penned in by context.
This estate has been in constant vineyard production for 170 years as of the 2019 harvest. It was borne in a moment so early in California’s State history that the County of San Benito didn’t and wouldn’t exist for 25 years (1876). At inception the vineyard was part of Monterey County, so the property, beyond being San Benito’s oldest existing vineyard site, is also Monterey’s oldest vineyard, too – planted 70 years before the Tamms planted at Chalone. The wine industry doesn’t do anything fast. We have just extended the timelines that we’re working with. The minimum time line is five years; that’s the minimum unit of time when you’re thinking about wine management, vineyard management. As we shift to that time scale, the nature of how we make decisions has to change as well.
In the wine business, we oftentimes fall prey to this notion that history is past us, that it’s a fixed moment in time. When we started Eden Rift, we were aware that it has a profound history – a longer history than any vineyard in California. At the same time, it’s been through five different brands and seven different owners, and each one of those owners has become a part of the history, just as I will. There will be a day when my ashes will nourish the vines here and the vineyards we’ve shepherded will continue to exist.