Vail Wine Ink column: Duckhorn Wine Co. takes a new flight path
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Canvasback Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 — There is so much to like about this wine. Start, of course, with the fact that it is bold and beautiful with depth, balance and body. Then consider that it is born of a place that may be the future of American cabernet. Red Mountain wines are wild, but in the hands of a skillful winemaker (Brian Rudin here), they can be tamed to be show horses. And the beautiful, red-necked Canvasback duck on the label would bring a tear to Phil Robertson’s eye. Plus it retails for just $40. Fly high.
It’s been 40 years since Dan and Margaret Duckhorn had a bold notion.
Back in 1976, the Napa Valley was mostly known as home to some of the world’s finest cabernet sauvignon. But when the Duckhorns looked at an exquisite vineyard on the valley floor not far from Calistoga, they thought not just cab but merlot would be the grape on which to build a future. The notion proved prophetic, and in the ensuing four decades, Duckhorn Wine Co. has become an icon in American wine.
Their first vintage in 1978 was just 1,600 cases, 800 cabernet sauvignon and 800 merlot. Today, Duckhorn Wine Co. has grown to become what is arguably the nation’s leading luxury producer of estate-grown wines. Sourcing six separate and distinct properties ranging from Napa Valley north to Mendocino’s Anderson Valley and even to the Red Mountain appellation of Washington State, the company currently sells more than 460,000 cases amongst its various labels, the largest of which is the Sonoma County designated Decoy, which is sourced from a combination of estate grapes and fruit from top vineyards.
A NEW CHAPTER
Earlier this fall, Duckhorn Wine Co.’s controlling interests were acquired by a San Francisco investment firm with an eye toward building on Duckhorn’s legacy. TSG Consumer Partners bought the brand and its myriad wineries and vineyards from GI Partners for an undisclosed price, though industry insiders told the Napa Valley Register that it was in the range of $600 million.
TSG Partners has a history of helping consumer food and beverage brands grow, including Pop Chips, Glaceau Vitamin Water and Stumptown Coffee Roasters, which it sold to Peets Coffee last year. It had been rumored that other wine consolidation companies were interested in Duckhorn, but the sale to TSG puts Duckhorn on track to continue producing high-quality wines from its top-flight estates.
“The last years with GI were extremely exciting, and they allowed us to realize our full potential as we expanded Decoy (Duckhorn’s largest brand), purchased Three Palms Vineyard (in 2015) and acquired Canvasback (the Washington property),” said Neil Bernardi, vice president of Duckhorn Wine Co. Winemaking who oversees Duckhorn’s far-flung wineries and production. “But this purchase gives us the opportunity to remain independent and maintain our intense focus on quality. Since the acquisition, it has become apparent that TSG believes in building great brands and they believe in making great wines.”
The sale also allows both Dan and Margaret Duckhorn the opportunity for continued involvement and keeps winery President Alex Ryan in charge of an employee team that has been retained in full.
The model for Duckhorn Wine Co. is as unique as it is successful. Since its founding, the company has hand-selected individual vineyards with distinct terroir and an eye toward making the wines that best represent the regions they are in.
Each of the labels has its own winemaker who is a specialist in the varietal and the region he or she serves.
“I like to think I operate as a farmer, rather than a dictator,” Bernardi said, laughing, when asked about his role as overseer to a dozen highly skilled and creative winemakers. “We have excellent people, and my job is to provide them with the resources they need to make the best wines possible. Each person brings something to the table.”
Today, in addition to the wines from the flagship winery in Napa, Duckhorn produces Napa Valley blends at Paraduxx, estate-grown pinot noir from exceptional (and exceptionally beautiful) vineyards in the cool-climate Anderson Valley under the Goldeneye moniker and Bordeaux varietals that are sold under their newest label, the boutique Canvasback, from Washington’s highly heated Red Mountain region. Migration is a Sonoma County project that specializes in Burgundian varietals, and Decoy is the everyday wine that introduces consumers to the brands by making more affordable wines from a number of different grapes.
A VIEW TO THE FUTURE
In addition to the brand and the bottles, a growing flock of passionate wine lovers and some of the most picturesque tasting rooms to be found in all of wine country, TSG is now steward to a number of irreplaceable vineyards.
“Our most beautiful vineyard? That is a tough question,” said Bernardi, when asked to do the impossible and pick a favorite. “We have almost 600 acres of vineyards. Stout on Howell Mountain and Ridgeline, where we get the grapes for Decoy atop Alexander Valley, give us both great cabernet and great views.” He paused and then added, “But I would still have to go with Three Palms, because it is such an iconic site and is such a part of our heritage.”
Sometimes a great notion bears the best fruits.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.