Profile: Mary Myers Kauppila
Article By: Fred Bouchard
MARY MYERS KAUPPILA • CEO & Co-Owner, Snows Lake Vineyard • Red Hills, Lake County AVA, CA
Kauppila is CEO of a sizeable vineyard in the new Red Hills
AVA. This blonde farmer's daughter is Nordic through and
through: both sides of her family are Scandinavian and she's
married to a Finn. Ms. Kauppila runs the family's Boston
office, Ladera Management, handling affairs and assets. A
regular commuter to her family's volcanic vineyards north of
Napa, she shows youthful enthusiasm for the drama of night
harvest and a keen mind for the evolving whirl of the wine
OJAI ROOTS I grew up on a ranch in Ojai, near Santa Barbara, remembering blooming orange and apricot trees; it was the idyllic setting for Shangri-La in "Lost Horizon". My Midwestern dad had farming in his blood; after studying at Stanford, he bought our first small ranch where we raised avocadoes and citrus. My first job was irrigating in the orange orchard. Our first venture with grapes was in Clarksburg, near Sacramento; today we're growing grapes in Lake County, just up Route 29 from Napa Valley. During Prohibition most vines were ripped out and planted to apple and pear orchards.
LAKE COUNTY In 1998, we purchased Snows Lake, named after a homesteader long ago. It was always a very attractive agricultural area. Italian farmers cultivated it in the 189Os; Perini family members still live adjacent to our lands. Our property was predominately old walnut groves. Weather-wise, we regard our wider temperature variation (being both a little warmer and cooler than Napa Valley) as an advantage. We benefit from air movement and wind; we're just south of Clear Lake, California's largest natural lake. We're part of the Mayacamas Ridge, a hilly region with an elevation range from 2OOO to 25OO feet. We call our management company Ladera, Spanish for "a gently ascending slope".
RED ALERT We chose Red Hills because it seemed an interesting area - out of the mainstream - for an exciting new red winegrowing project. What is special for grape growing is the rich, red volcanic soil. We did plenty of homework up-front: studied climate data, tested soil samples and carefully planned blocks to take advantage of slopes. (Lake County's volcanic soil, the ancient residue of eruptions, is highly regarded for viticulture, as it affords good drainage, limits vine vigor and adds mineral complexity to the grapes.) Other grape growers in our area are Beckstoffer, Beringer, Kendall Jackson, and Bertolucci.
RED HILLS, RED GRAPES We own 24OO acres - lots of wonderful red dirt! - about 1/3 of which is planted to all red varietals. Our grapes are about 7O% Cabernet Sauvignon, with substantial blocks of Zinfandel, Merlot, Petite Syrah, Barbera, and Cabernet Franc. I was just out at the winery; it's winter so we're putting the vines to sleep, finishing up erosion control. We're settling into a thoughtful critique of last year, and setting the goals for the coming year.
MISSION Our mission is to grow superior grapes for the ultra-premium category. We're intent on developing very close - in fact, collaborative - working relationships with our customers, not just during the summer and at harvest, but all year long. For example, we regularly schedule barrel tastings. We want to be doing all we can to support the winemakers' programs. Since we started in 1998, the learning curve has been steep. But we use state-of-the-art technology, have an excellent experienced staff and an unswerving commitment to all that we do on a spectacular property.
ART and SCIENCE Interesting wines are coming from all over the world now. There's always been the art of winemaking, but now there's a lot more science as well. You've got to be doing a good job at both. With more competition, both small growers and large companies must attain a higher degree of professionalism. There is more capital and sophisticated farming and winemaking. I worry a bit about the family farmers' perspective versus bigger corporations who must deliver short-term returns to their shareholders. We want to meet customer expectations in this competitive environment. We're proud to be a family owned business taking a long view; we're in it for the long haul. To achieve quality we are prepared to weather the inevitable cycles driven by many forces over time.
HIGH-PROFILE CLIENTS To date, our clients are largely high-end wineries looking to broaden their portfolios with a "value" product of middle price points. We grow Zinfandel for Cakebread, Cabernet Sauvignon for Stag's Leap and Diageo's Dynamite (formerly Carmenet). We have multi-year contracts with Beringer (Foster's), Rosenblum, Flora Springs, Niebaum Coppola (a new customer) and others. Each vintage, winemakers are showing excitement with the wine they make with our grapes.
PICK, THEN TALK I love being on the scene at harvest time! Picking grapes is one of the most difficult and complex of all farming operations. You're subject to the whims of weather and the winemaker's judgment on when best to pick; so you're constantly testing sugar and acid levels. It's an incredible juggling act of what you can control and what you cannot. We have both hand and mechanical harvesting. Our full-time harvesting experts supervise some contract and lots of seasonal workers. It's a full-scale staging event and customers usually want their grapes picked at night. Every morning there are planning sessions with the whole ranch team, with input from customers. You ask: 'Were you here yesterday? What was the result of your visit? Do you want to pick all or only part of your block today?' Then, with almost military precision, we plan all the troops we must mobilize that night, including weigh stations and truckers. It's a thrill to trail up and down vineyard rows behind workers and machines on a starlit night.
OUR OWN BRAND We've started a very small Snows Lake brand and have made our first vintage. It's principally an R&D effort so we can have our own winemaker work with our grapes; we hope this will enhance working relationships with our clients. We'll even take some of it to market in very limited distribution. It's a palette for talented winemakers. And while our brand will help us brainstorm in collaborative sessions with clients, our business plan does not include opening a full-scale winery.
TASTING PANELS The proof is in the tasting, of course, and the initial reactions we've heard on tasting panels with Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine say, 'Wow! these are big, bold wines!'; other descriptions have mentioned their intensity, deep colors, hints of blackberry, cassis, and chocolate. Our clients are seeking to position moderate price points from their high-end wines, probably in the $18 to $3O range.
SUSTAINABLE FARMING We farm organically as much as we can; but 1OO% is simply not feasible. We're cautious to be friendly to the environment and careful stewards of the land, with, for example, strategies for very stringent water management and low-impact chemical usage. We have dedicated 23O+ acres as a permanent conservation easement and wildlife corridor.
STRONG TEAM My brother George, my partner and co-owner, focuses on customer relationships. We have a strong viticultural team and a remarkable staff. John Adriance, our COO is a 2O-year veteran of Mondavi; our head winegrower Bob Johnson spent nearly 2O years at Kendall Jackson. Our staff of 45 full-time is supported by triple that number of part-time and seasonal workers during peak operations.
LAST BOOK READ The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell [exploring trend dynamics].
LATEST TRAVELS Besides my regular California commute, I've visited the Czech Republic and Greece, both countries to enjoy nice wines.
PHILOSOPHY Work hard, use time well, be lucky, and be good to people.