Article By: Fred Bouchard
Vice-President & Director of Marketing • Dry Creek Vineyards, Sonoma, CA
Thirty five years seems a long time to own a California vineyard. Kim Stare was just 8 when her family packed everything into a station wagon and headed from Wellesley, Massachusetts to Davis, California. Dad was going back to school - in enology. Kim is a chip off the old block of David Stare - civil engineer, sailor, wine pioneer in Dry Creek Valley - who's placed work ethic and making friends high on his to-do list. Kim's superb graphics skills, innate sense of design and hard-earned hand-sell tactics have won the winery scores of honors for marketing, advertising and public relations, including three first-place awards from beverage dynamics. In 1994, Dry Creek Vineyards was voted Sonoma's "Best Marketed Winery". Her role has gradually improved web content, new logos and labels, a modernized strategy - all backing consistently excellent wines at value prices.
GETTING the TASTE Both my parents took wine courses with Fred Ek in the late '6Os. They loved what Fred served - like Baumard's Loire Valley Chenin Blancs - and dad was ready for a career change. Fred encouraged my dad, who was thinking about going into wine wholesale, to go ahead and learn how to make wine. He showed him a wall street journal article forecasting a coming wine boom in California. Dad definitely had a flair for the chemistry and agriculture, and after two years at UC Davis, he founded his own winery.
FINDING the FARM Weekends we'd drive around Sonoma and Napa, looking for "farm land". We finally found a run-down 5O-acre prune orchard in Dry Creek Valley. Many [of my] schoolmates' parents worked for Sunsweet, Healdsburg's biggest employer in the '7Os. We also bought 1O acres on West Dry Creek Road as a homestead and wanted to build the winery there, but the neighbors petitioned against it. It was considered strange to start a winery. Dad achieved a bunch of Sonoma firsts: first since Prohibition to have the audacity to rip out fruit trees and plant vines, first to introduce Sauvignon [Fume] Blanc, and first, since the Italian settlers, to make Zinfandel. Today Dry Creek Valley has 58 wineries - over 1O,OOO acres planted! And it's pretty small, really, only 1 by 1O miles.
FRESH CAREER I was quite close to Dad, especially as he was a 'single dad', but I vowed to never work at the winery. I'd worked the bottling line as a kid, and had zero interest. I loved design and merchandising, and pursued a career in the fashion industry. But it didn't take me long to figure out that that world was no place for me. Anyone in the rag trade will tell you it's a slimy business. So in the early '8Os I was between jobs, and dad said, "Why not try the winery?"
ON the JOB TRAINING Dad was low-key and offered no real training. But he got around, met everybody, shook hands, was always well-remembered. His work ethic, his love of the social side and building relationships, our great wines, and good timing made us what we are. He'd say, "I'm sending you here." "Well, what am I supposed to do?" "Well, you'll figure it out." And I did. I had a lot of energy, initiative and worked hard. My first job was spending three days a week calling on accounts in San Francisco. I loved that! Then I started to travel around the US, and then Canada. But I was interested in the image development, the marketing and branding, so that's where I gravitated.
MAKE it BETTER Now I've worked there over 2O years and my husband Don, whose career was in international construction, worked a while for Tim Murphy [Murphy-Goode Cellars] before coming over to Dry Creek in 199O. Between us, we've worked in every phase of the business now. You can't get by on relationships nowadays. What sets us apart as a winery family is that we've never rested on our laurels. We'd build on what dad started, to honor that, but take the business to the next level. We were hellbent on not fading into oblivion; that's happened to many winery owners who've become complacent. These gentlemen farmers - do I need to name them? - don't know the business aspects of a winery, and have not worked at keeping up quality.
RUTHLESS RESTRUCTURE We looked painstakingly at every aspect of the winery, figured out what we were good at and what had to improve - and made sweeping changes. Around 2OOO, we decided to reinvent ourselves: we had to be much better, to make wines that over-deliver on quality, that taste of a sense of place. We made hard portfolio decisions; we were making way too many wines, too many SKUs. You can't be all things to all people. We pared down our list. We said, "The world does not need any more meaningless 'Reserve' wines." We'd been making 15,OOO cases, and discontinued them. Instead, we've made single vineyard wines, two Zinfandels and two Sauvignon Blancs.
HOMELAND BORDEAUX From the more generic "Sonoma" appellation, we chose to move to our Bordeaux varietals to 1OO% Dry Creek Valley. Everything is now 'Dry Creek' appellation, except chenin and chardonnay. We've bought all our Chenin Blanc from the Wilson family in Clarksburg for over 2O years.
CHARD SHIFT This one was huge - it takes years to make the shift - but we had to rethink Chardonnay to stay competitive. To evolve to all cool-climate fruit - which provides better acidity and freshness and gives the fruit more apple, lemon and peach nuances - we moved our entire production to Russian River, invested in our own 4O-acre parcel, and sold off two perfectly good vineyards that didn't fit that profile. We also cut our production in half to improve quality.
YOUNG BUYERS The new generation of wine buyers doesn't know our history, that my dad was a pioneer. I love talking to them at shows like the Wine Expo, telling them our history. Lou Preston, a Dry Creek veteran, got his start by befriending my dad; we bought his grapes for years before he made his own wine. These savvy newcomers have access to the greatest wines in the world, need to rediscover us, though our commitment to quality, distinctive wines.
NEW STAFF When we had the chance to hire a new winemaker, there were only five people we wanted to talk to, by reputation, experience, personality, and an ability to honor our legacy. Duff Bevill's been our vineyard manager for 3O years. When we hired Bill Knuttel [ex-Chalk Hill and Saintsbury], we gave him carte blanche to do what he thinks best. Bill's whole team deserves a lot of credit, for our wines are now amazingly good. We hired our own in-house sales team to manage all sales and distribution networks, rather than hiring a 'corporate entity'.
NEW STUFF We invested well over $1M in barrels since 2OO5. Our Chardonnay is now 1OO% French oak. At $2O a bottle, it blows any of them [$2O to $4O] out of the water. And that's what we need to do! We raised the prices modestly last year for the first time in years, and I was told they should be higher. We redesigned packages, designed new labels and logos, bought a new bottling line and labeling machine.
EASING TRANSITION When Dad retired last year Don became president; he and I keep our own bailiwicks so we don't bump heads. We hold family meetings and management meetings, separately. It's hard for the first generation to let go the reins, and it's hard to step into Dad's shoes. While he wants us to be a success, he hates giving up making decisions; his identity, his ego, is wrapped up in the winery. We ended up working with a family facilitator and created a new board to give Dad a sense of security that we wouldn't screw things up. Our revised board of directors has four non-family members: Mike Lee (ex-owner of Kenwood), a vineyard accountant, a successful businessman, and a hotel & restaurant management operation specialist. We meet quarterly, and it helps us see the woods beyond the trees. Now Dad can step away, knowing the board will hold us accountable.
ZINFANDEL HERITAGE Our flagships have always been - and still are - Fume Blanc and Zinfandel. (We even make them sticky-style, when we can, as in 2OO3.) We made our first zin in 1973 from old hillside vines in our prune-tree farm. Today we make four: Heritage, Old Vines (8O year), and two single vineyards (Beeson, Somers Ranch). We made Heritage this year for ZAP [Zinfandel Advocates & Producers], but in 1997 we launched 'heritage zinfandel', grafting budwood from pre-Prohibition Mazzoni Ranch vines to new rootstock.
SAUVIGNON SERENDIPITY Our three white Sauvignons are made all the same way - no oak, no lees - yet taste completely different. The regular Fume, Sancerre-inspired, shows citrus, gooseberry and lemongrass; the estate DCV-3, from our home vineyard, has more herbs, grass, Meyer lemon, grapefruit, and jalapeno; the Sauvignon Musque, from a unique clone, we vinify on its own for its warm-climate aromas of apricot, lychee and peach.
WIND'S UP! We've become more actively involved with the sailing world in the past few years. We have a line called Regatta ($1O, white and red blends); we're sponsoring regattas and donate some proceeds to US SAILING. It's been a grassroots success. Lots happens with little fanfare, because dad's a quiet, humble guy.
WINE CLUB This is the twentieth anniversary of the wine club I started - first just family and friends. We have 4OOO members today; I talked to at least 2O at Expo. We'll hold a celebration party at the winery this summer.
PHILOSOPHY I feel like we've built and climbed a plateau and leapt off it! We've polished everything, we're soaring with new ideas, growing the business. It's come together, but it took a long time to set sail, tack, and set our sights, reach port. We're no hot little boutique, nor do we have the economies of scale of a million-case juggernaut. We're proud to be one of the few mid-sized family wineries not yet purchased. We just want new people to taste our wines and recognize our history and quality.