One of the interesting things about this unique region of Napa and Sonoma is the stories of the people who make up our Wine Tourism Community. Here are introductions to a few of the “movers and shakers”, although they are modest and would never admit to that reference.
INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER BUFFO, Pure Luxury Limousine, February 1, 2012
By Colby Smith
Jennifer: Hearing about the experience, hearing about somebody’s wonderful event, hearing about their wine tour, hearing about how we moved 2,500 people and it was flawless and everybody loved it. Then I know I’m doing something right and that it’s all for the right reasons.
I met Gary in 1992 and we started dating. I was working for a clothing manufacturer and I walked into a restaurant for lunch and met him. We started talking and realized we had a connection. About three months later he said he needed someone to help him with his limo business. He had one limo. He needed someone to answer his phones. So I quit my job and started working with him. Here we are 20 years later. We have 93 vehicles and we’ve grown every year in leaps and bounds. We do pretty well together because his strengths are different than mine. He’s very much a behind the scenes/numbers person. He looks ahead 4 to 10 years. So he’s the goal setter. He let’s me know where we need to be and when we need to be there by. And then I figure out how to make that happen. So he’s the dreamer and I’m the realistic one that gets it as close to the dream that he wants.
When we first started, limos were the big thing, so you were somebody if you had a limo. Now it’s really shifted. Limos are something people don’t request as much. It’s more sedans or suburbans or buses. So we’ve shifted our fleet to focus on those things. We still have limos but the majority is more sedans and buses. The economy affected us in 2009 and into 2010, but 2011 was the bonus year for us. We met every goal. We ended the year on a positive note, we were ahead. In 2011 we were ahead of 2008.
We like to turn over our fleet depending on the make and the model once it starts showing usage wear and tear. If it doesn’t show the image we want, then we turn it over. We’ll either sell it to another company locally or trade it in for a newer vehicle. We farm to other businesses locally then we look at our farm out report. When we reach a certain percentage where we realize we could have had 3 more sedans busy 5 days of the last week – it’s time to purchase. So that’s when we’ll make a decision that we need more vehicles. Our client demand is mainly sedans and buses so we know if we added sedans and buses we could keep them busy.
Our business decisions and choices are based on how it is going to affect our clients. Is it going to affect our clients based on something that they’ve requested or something we’ve heard? How is it going to work with our day-to-day operations? We strive really hard on keeping our morale up, so we want to be sure it’s not going to affect our staff in a negative way. Sometimes if we see a negative flag we try and steer things in a different direction because Pure Luxury is not just Gary and I. Right now we have more than 100 staff members including the chauffeurs. Our detailing staff works around the clock to ensure the vehicles are well maintained to meet the image we try to portray. Another thing about Pure Luxury is that if a vehicle has two runs, it will be completely detailed and washed before it goes back out. That’s something different than some other companies.
The corporate market has rebounded. The group market is definitely coming back. FIT is really strong, and weddings are huge right now in Wine Country. The wedding business in the last year and a half to two years is what has brought a lot of the transportation companies through the tough economic times. I don’t know why, but the weddings did not slow down for us and the budgets for the weddings were the same, if not more. The last year and a half we did some of the largest weddings we’ve ever done with regards to 20, 30, 40 vehicles, I mean big weddings.
I would say I’m normally up and out of the house between 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. And if I can’t sleep I’m usually out by 5:00a.m. I just think, think, think. And I know I’m just wasting my time sitting here. I need to get to work. I do that a lot. Most of my best work time is before other people come in in the morning because I get the most done and I don’t have any interruptions. But my normal work day, if you look at it between 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning and 5:00 and 6:00 at night, consists of meeting with people on our management team and talking to clients. I organize a lot of the big events we do, so I work a lot in operations with the Chauffeur Manager and Dispatch Manager to coordinate the chauffeurs and vehicles that are best fit for the event that we do. I oversee the sales and marketing department, social media, what’s new, and packages. Examples would be packages broken down by region (Sonoma, Napa, Alexander Valley, Russian River, Dry Creek). We also have an eco-package. We try to put together packages that other services don’t offer so clients can get the unique experience with us. They can go to the wineries on their own, but they can’t go to all of those wineries on their own and get the “in” that they can get through our packages. So we arrange for them to experience something that they couldn’t experience on their own.
Colby: What are your business goals?
Jennifer: Goals, it depends who you’re asking. Gary’s goals are big, 10 years out. And my goals are next month, next year. So, goals, it depends on who you’re asking and when. We know 2012 is going to be an expansion year for us and we are going to be opening up other facilities.
Colby: What impact do you think being a woman has on the way people respond to you in this fairly masculine industry.
Jennifer: It can be challenging to be the Captain of the ship when you’re in a male dominated industry and you’re a female. I make an effort to learn everybody’s personalities and how to gain their respect so they don’t have to feel they have to be dominant. If I’m concerned about one of the employee’s perception of my role I feel it’s really important to meet with them in person, not on the phone. I need the eye to eye contact. I’m a very connecting person, so if there is anything wrong I have to connect with them because I want them to see the sincerity of what I’m saying. I want to understand why they have that opinion of me and I will always end it with “you don’t have to like me, but please try to respect me”. I don’t need to do this that often. But when I do, in every conversation I have where someone has a difficult time understanding my roll, it usually comes around to where the person will actually end up saying, “Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate that I got a chance to know you better.”
When I’m outside of business I’m a really warm hearted person inside, my inner self. When I don’t have to be a strong, direct business woman I love having fun. I love food and wine. I love enjoying being in a fun environment. I mean, that’s me. And the people who know me, know I love having a great time and being around people that I love being with. Sometimes I have to put on a shield because otherwise that’s walked all over. So I think being a woman in this roll, you have to know when you can truly be yourself and you have to know when you have to put up a guard and be a little stronger than you really want to be to make sure that things are addressed. From a customer service standpoint, if you really believe that something could have been done differently to make the client experience better, it’s my job to let my team know. It doesn’t matter who you are, you have to be able to tell them things that may be hard to hear and I can’t dance around that. Like I said, I’m much better in person. I try to find a sensitive way to tell them. And they just need to understand for next time, that Pure Luxury is not just a transportation company. It’s all about the level of service we provide and that customer always has to come back. It’s the unique experience. It’s not just a car, it’s not just a limo. It’s a certified professional chauffeur helping them experience something they’ll never forget. And that’s what sets us apart. So if I need to remind them of that, they may not want to hear it. But unfortunately I’m the delivery person of that message.
Colby: What turns you on the most about your business.
Jennifer: Hearing about the experience, hearing about somebody’s wonderful event, hearing about their wine tour, hearing about how we moved 2,500 people and it was flawless and everybody loved it. Getting the feedback from the clients. Having my team really pumped up after we’ve done something that went of flawlessly, and they’re really excited that we work so well together. The positive energy and the
positive feedback is what really makes me happy. Then I know I’m doing something right and that it’s all for the right reasons.
Colby: How do you balance your business and personal lives?
Jennifer: We split things really well. We have two children, a daughter, Brianna 16 and a son, Garrett, 13. And we try to do it so one of us is at all their games. And they have games and practices on the same day, so we split it up. He’ll go one way and I’ll go the other. there are times when we’ll all meet up at 9:30 at night back at the ho use. Ghe company on the front line. Gary will come once in a while. But he’s more comfortable in a group of 6 to 8 than a group of 50.
Outside of the business, we go to Tahoe. We go in the winter for the snow. We go in the summer for the waterskiing. Also, my family has a house in Mendocino so we go there often. We like to get away on the weekends. Once every couple of months we try and go somewhere just for a couple of days, just to get away. When we go away we usually take the kids with us so weekends are the best option because of school. We go on a lot of business trips. We generally have anywhere from 6 to 8 business trips in a year. Insurance meetings, Gary’s on the GCLA Board(Greater California Livery Association), and he’s also on the NLA Board which is the National Limousine Association, so a lot of business trips there. And we’ll go on trips to meet with our clients. We just went to Boston to meet with a couple of clients there.
Colby: If all the pieces hadn’t fallen into place to be where you are now. What business do you think you would go into?
Jennifer: Fashion. I was in the fashion industry before I met Gary so I’m sure I would be doing something in that industry. Fashion or Marketing. I really enjoy marketing. Those are what I always wanted to do. I still have my hand in the marketing. I don’t know, I’m a big “Image” person. So whether it’s the image you’re marketing or the image you’re wearing. I think looking good is important, feeling good is important, and marketing yourself is just as important as marketing your business.
I am diligently training our management staff to run this business like we do, because I would love to make more time for myself. And find time to enjoy things that make me happy. Afternoons where I could walk out at 1 or 2 and go do something fun. Because it’s been so long I don’t even really know what that is at this point. I know I like going to the beach. I’d love to have more time to take walks, do things with my kids. Just enjoy life. There’s no time for yourself. It’s hard to say what I would love to have more Jen time so I can find out
what I would really like to do.
Colby: What’s one thing out of the ordinary that you would like to do in this lifetime.
Jennifer: The first thing that comes to mind is traveling. I’ve zip-lined and that’s about as high as I want to go. A place I love to go is Hawaii. When I go to Hawaii I’m untwined. I’d like to go to some exotic country somewhere. I’ve never been out of the country.
Colby: What is your philosophy of life?
Jennifer: Be happy and enjoy every minute of it as much as you can. That’s the philosophy I try and live by. As much as I can, be sure that every day is lived to it’s fullest. That’s how I see it. You can surround yourself by negative, but you’re going to be much happier if you find the positive and take whatever you can to see the good things.
If I’m being myself I have a huge heart. And I think the people who know me would say that. They know I would do anything for them.
By Colby Smith
Ryan: You have to embrace challenges – you have to have a personality that likes a challenge. I’m that way, I’m very competitive, I like a challenge and a way to get to the other side of things.
My dad always said, you would be great starting a business, something you would love to do, that’s what you should be focused on – managing, and building a small business up. I thought ‘Whatever’ I’m going to go to New York and go to law school and do all these things, but when my path lead me back here I think he was absolutely right. Ultimately parents do know best. It’s fun. It’s the ultimate combo of art and science. It fills both sides for me of my soul. So I don’t know that I would have known that I end up here, but I’m glad that I did.
Out of college I went to work for Goldman Sachs in New York. I met my husband there. Its an analyst program so they take kids out of college from all walks of life and bring them together and teach them business. It was a wonderful “growing up”, a learning experience. They teach you how to be a solid worker, a good businessperson, and obviously there have been issues there since, but I loved it, I valued my time there very much. The attention to detail I have I got form that experience. I was there from ‘95-’98.
I went to work for 17 magazine, [when I was younger] strange lark, but I love to write, I thought I wanted to go see what its like to work in a business instead of with a business. It was fun but ultimately not as fulfilling spiritually. The issues we were dealing with weren’t life changing and I felt more of a calling elsewhere that I felt was more important for me anyway. But I did that for a year, then went to law school.
Colby: Did you get a law degree?
Ryan: I did. A lot of people who I really trust and respect have law degrees and have done things that aren’t in the legal profession so I knew I wouldn’t do that, but dovetail it with some nonprofit work that I’m still interested in. Great background and training.
Colby: Tell me about the structure of the business and your role. Who does what?
Ryan: Our business consists of family, my parents, Bob and Jan; four kids, brother Miles, myself, two sisters Anita and Claire. Miles and I are active as managers in the business, we run it day to day. Miles does production and sales related vineyard work. I do front of house, direct consumer business, branding, PR, that kind of thing. Everyone is on the board so we have a very committed board structure that we adhere to. And that’s important so that it’s very much a family business, even though Miles and I run the day to day.
The business started out as something my Mom and Dad started. Primarily we sold grapes and we still do. When my brother got involved in 2001 he really spearheaded the start of the retail part of the business, the wine and the olive oil. That piece my parents were never really involved in. I got involved 2 years later, sort of an evolution. My focus was on the olive business, just getting it up and running, opening mill, and really deciding on that package. Because the wine business takes a long time to take product to market we were seeing oil before wine even though we started the wine earlier. The part of business I sill love is the combination of art and science. It’s intellectual and yet it feels so good. Its about our passion. Its about creating something with your hands. Its about being connected to the earth. All those things came together for me and I don’t think I would have known that, but when I got involved I realized how wonderful it was.
Colby: How do you balance? Do you have a personal life? Do you have kids?
Ryan: I have 3 small girls, 6, 4, and 2. They’re great, obviously the love of my life and its hard. I think any working mom you talk to will answer that way. It’s just very hard. I don’t know that there’s a perfect answer. On the other hand I wouldn’t change a thing, I love my family and having my work. That’s something unique to being in a family business that I so appreciate. There is that flexibility. I can call Miles and say, “Ava’s throwing up.” or whatever and I know he will understand, and that’s very helpful. At Goldman that wasn’t possible. I realize I have a lot of flexibility and I appreciate that. But it’s tough. Anytime you’re building something its something that never turns off. Pros and cons to it, you know.
Colby: What guides your choices about where you’re going to go with the business next?
Ryan: I think it’s the brand and what we want to do, what we want to stay true to as a brand. I was talking to someone yesterday about how if you keep those very basic but key issues in your sights you’ll be fine. And so for us that’s about delivering a quality product and being authentic, and controlling the process, having the vineyards and olives here and making the products on site and being close to it. The customer service element, meeting people that come here and understanding why they come here, why they like the product and connecting with people. The third thing is philosophy, which is to over-deliver, produce something for people that they feel is valuable, above and beyond what they expected. As long as we keep those things in sight it guides everything we do.
I think a huge piece is having Brian Brown our winemaker and Thomas Brown our consulting winemaker. Making sure the quality is there is absolutely critical. Another piece is the experience here and having Colleen and making sure when customers come here they have a phenomenal, drop dead experience, staying true to those three mission statements and goals will help us grow.
Colby: What would you say turns you on the most about the business?
Ryan: I think it’s a combination of things. It’s that you get your hands dirty, making a product, physically creating something to consume. I love that. It feels like kids playing in the dirt – it feels good, I love it. I also love building a business. It’s exciting to see something grow, and to get to the next step, reach a challenging spot in your groove, and figure out how to navigate it and go to next spot. It’s great, I don’t know if I would be happy if I didn’t have both. I think it’s a unique thing I get from the wine industry. We are spoiled here to be able to have that.
Colby: What do you think is in store just in general for the next generation of winemakers and do you think we’re going back towards more family handing down business or toward corporate?
Ryan: I don’t know that I have a crystal ball there but you know I think the last couple of years have been hard and I think if you weren’t really committed to this business that’s where you’ve seen a lot of wineries being sold or things not working out. So I think all I know is the people that will succeed are people truly here for long term and focused for long term and as a family business you can’t help but take that focus so that’s an advantage. With a family business you deal with the emotional, political and all difficult pieces of family business but all challenges are solvable if you approach them and deal with them. I think it will continue to be a family business in the future. I think the small, wonderful, boutique wineries are what make Napa special, and I think its what people look for when they come up here.
Colby: How does the food element come into play with your experience?
Ryan: Food is a huge passion for us here. We have the family gardens, which we had used originally for all food pairing here at winery and for the Olive Mill. Ultimately we outgrew those and we thought, well we need to be able to show people the gardens and take them there and give them that experience. And so we built the winery garden. We have a sensory experience for visitors down there so they can understand and take in the aromas they should look for in Cabernet, as well as the pairings that go well with Cabernet, we also did that for the Sauvignon Blanc. We use all produce from there for our experiences here. So at the winery we will do paired food that comes from the garden as much as possible with just the oil and vinegar. Then at the Mill its much more the raw food approach just the strawberries and just the lettuces so the olive oil can come through and vinegars and syrups. We obviously enjoy wine with food and they go together and it’s a natural thing and goes back to peoples’ interest from farm to table approach to things. Everything we do has big food element.
Colby: So were you the first company that started doing anything with olive oil on an experiential level?
Ryan: I don’t know if we were the first, but I know when we started up the mill there really wasn’t a great model for olive oil tasting which is why we got Daryl Corti, Paul Vossen, Marco Magelli, who recently passed away. The three of them have really helped us figure out how we should approach the olive oil. And then we brought Jill Jackson on board who is fantastic and she really helped us build that experience. We tweaked it around the edges, and the goal was how to be very intimate and educational for people, because many don’t know where it comes from or how it’s made. We wanted to provide something interesting and different for people to do while they’re here.
We are living in a very different time now than in the 90s. Olive oil consumptions have grown by 10 times since 2000, probably more by now. People are very focused on health and connecting with where their products come from, the whole farm to table approach to things. It was timely in that artisan approach to making something and delivering a pure product.
Colby: With all of this do you have time for anything else?
Ryan: I’m on the Board of the Napa Valley Grape Growers and that’s something I really enjoy and a cause I really believe in. So I spend a fair amount of time with that. A lot of time with family. Horseback riding. It’s something I love, so I’m picking up again. Just the outdoors. My family is very into outdoors, so we spend time when we can skiing, hiking, camping, that kind of thing. I try to do that whenever I can, but not as much as I’d like. Sailing, I love boating and the water. We took the family to Maine this summer. And again, the horseback riding. My goal would be that the kids would have a horse here and we could spend our time riding through the vineyard. I used to go on father-daughter rides with my father. We had Tennessee Walkers.
Colby: What’s something that most people don’t know about you.
Ryan: I love doing extreme travel by myself. After college I traveled for a long time by myself all over the world, and loved that sort of physical outdoor challenge I’ve gone sailing on my own in the Caribbean. I went cross country skiing by myself in Finland. It’s mind expanding, a sense of accomplishment, a fresh perspective. I’d love to get back to that. I’ve always aspired to bike across the country. We’re starting to incorporate travel with the kids. I love living in a small town and then I love that we can take them somewhere else and keep that broad, big picture.
Colby: Having done what you’ve have before and doing what you’re doing now, if you couldn’t be in the wine business, what’s out there that might appeal to you?
Ryan: That’s a tough one. I love the whole food piece of what we do and so maybe I would get more involved in the food world and creating more artisan food products and bringing them to market somehow. That would really appeal to me. I would love, and still hope to get involved in the nonprofit world. I have a passion for education and helping people who don’t have the access to it get it. I can’t focus on it now, but I’ve done it in the past at different parts of my life and would love to dedicate more time to that.
Colby: Any specific lessons learned with this economy?
Ryan: I guess for me its just embrace it, don’t ignore it, don’t try and hide from it. And you know, our approach was to get all of our advisors together, people we really trusted, sit down and talk about it where are we headed, do we need to be tweaking our strategy, what do we need to do? In the end we need to embrace it, don’t be afraid of change.
Enjoy every day, do everything you can. You just don’t know how long you’re going to be here. We try and do extraordinary, interesting things with the kids, and we try to do extraordinary, interesting things with the business, and spend a lot of time with family and close friends.
…And do it well, I guess. Right?
INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MONDAVI, September 9, 2011
By Colby Smith
Michael: I love what I do, so 90% of me is my business.
My Grandfather unfortunately passed away in 1959 before Napa Valley started its renaissance, but he had the vision. In 1958 when I was 15 years old he and I were out walking in the vineyard. He picked up a handful of what I thought was dirt. And he said, “Do you know what this is?” and I said, “Its dirt.” And he said no its soil.” And he put it right under my nose and he said, “Smell. Its clean, its, dusty, its healthy.” He said, “You know what your job is when you grow up?” And I said, “Yeah, its to make wine.” And he said “Your most important job when you grow up is to have this soil in healthier condition when its passed to your children than when you received it from your father or your Uncle.” He didn’t know Organic or Biodynamic farming. He just knew that if you respected the soil and cared for the soil that Mother Nature would be good to you. To me that was one of the real foundations for the decisions I make.
In the 60’s when we were starting the Robert Mondavi Winery, I had forgotten about that and we all had become “chemical farmers”. One day I remembered the walk in the vineyard with Grandfather. I told Robert the story of that day in the vineyards and that’s when we decided to wean away from chemical farming and get to natural farming and care about the health of the soil.
When we founded Folio Fine Wine Partners 7 yrs ago I again wanted to use this foundation. Now Folio has really become two businesses. After going through three years of “debates” and negotiations with Constellation we’ve finally come to the agreement that we can now use our family names in business, Isabelle’s and Rob Mondavi, Jr. and mine for the Michael Mondavi Family Estate, which represents our Napa, California wines, consumer brand and image.
The second, “Folio Fine Wine Partners” (After Port-folio), is our wholesale trade business representing 22 other families in Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, Argentina. We began exporting 2 years ago to the UK, Germany Switzerland, Austria, Benelux Countries, China, Korea, Japan and Panama (which is fun because my wife’s family is from Panama). It was important to reestablish our family name and be respected here to give strength to the brand when we started exporting our Mondavi wines.
Asia would like to buy 100% of M cab. Only 900 cases. But we can’t do that. We can’t sell to 1 emerging market. We need to be fair to those who supported us as we grew, sell to the right areas and have balance. 75% of the wineries in Napa are smaller than 1,000 cases. 95% are still family owned.
I’m convinced that the best wines in the world, whether it’s Napa, Italy France, wherever, are going to be produced by family owned companies who have a heritage and passion to produce great wine. Large corporations will make very good wines. They’ll have good economy of scale. But their wines will not compare qualitatively or stylistically to the individual family wines. And so one of the objectives with Folio is to only deal with family owned, family run wineries because first of all you look a family person in the eye, you have an understanding, you have a handshake. It’s stronger than any contract because there’s the integrity and pride of that relationship. We only deal with family owned family run wineries. We won’t deal with family owned, absentee management, because it’s the passion that the family brings to a winery to the vineyard that relates them to the soil. And they want to build it for their children and their grandchildren. Not just trying to get a quarterly return. That makes a big difference in the wine.
Colby: What do you think will happen for the next generation of family winemakers?
Michael: There are huge opportunities for family owned boutique wineries. And there are huge problems if you don’t do it the correct way. The opportunity is, where could you have a better life than to life in the wine country wherever around the world, beautiful climate, fresh air, healthy environment, you can grow beautiful gardens and it’s just a great place to grow, to live and to raise families.
However, with the consolidation of everything that takes place in the world today, whether it’s automobile companies hotels restaurants, distribution networks for wines, etc. They’re all consolidating. They’re all getting bigger. How do we, a small family owned winery in Napa, get the attention of the distributor in New York or Dallas or Chicago. They have thousands of other products and they have these big companies that come in and say, “You have to take care of my 20 different brands of wine. Don’t worry about that little guy from Napa.”
So that was the thinking that caused me to create Folio Wine Partners. Because if I go to the distributor or a hotel, like the Hilton Hotel, Hyatt hotel and say I’ve got this wonderful Oberon cab, or this wonderful M by Michael Mondavi. And they say okay, how much do you have? I tell them the limited production, and they’re thinking how to I get out of this meeting. There’s not enough if I gave them everything I produce to make them happy. But if I can go to that same person, whether it’s a wholesaler or a restauranteur, or hotelier or wine shop owner and say I’m representing 23 families and wines that are the best of the regions, from California, Napa, the Santa Maria area, and in Italy, Tuscany, Sicily, from the Veneto, from Verona, Umbria, some of the best wines there. Then go do the same thing in Spain, Germany, Austria, then we have a number of wines that will compliment their wine shop, or will compliment their wine list.
We now are the scale that we can focus on individual style and wines and families. And our job is to represent the family and their personality and bring the family members to the customers in an efficient way. And when we do that the sales person has more information about that family and that wine to sell to their customer. We the small family businesses are independent and that gives us our strength, however our marketing and sales strength is in not being independent but interdependent with other families’ wineries so you can market and sell it. So I think that small groups of wineries having their diverse style, different heritage, different personalities working together to market and sell their wines is amazing.
It goes back to “The flying Circus” in the early 70’s. We would fly as a group of 4 to 6 winery owners, wine makers covering 4 cities a week. And together we would have a luncheon with the local media. Together we would host a wine tasting for the trade, waiters, waitresses, staff of the retail stores. And in the evening we would try to work at some art gallery, or museum and together host a charity fundraiser for consumers. And we did those three separate events in these three or four cities.
NVV is doing this kind of thing now. And I think in addition, particularly wineries who are friends with each other there’s tremendous synergy. If I go to a market, or another individual winemaker goes to a market and holds a tasting it’s kind of “ho hum”. There are over 300 winemaker visits a year in New York City. You get tremendous RSVP’s and you get 40 to 50% no shows because they’re so jaded. However, if you have half a dozen key winemakers, they’re going to go, “Whoa this is worth my time.”
Colby: Would there be value when you are doing these trips to etch out time to do a tasting for the local Concierges?
Michael: Not only would it be good. If we didn’t we would be foolish. They become the teachers and the communicators to others. By doing that we’re teaching the teachers. It’s extremely important. Especially in the wine country. If the Concierges know the different personalities then in their conversations with the guests they’d be able to say, “I think you’d have a ball if you went to see the Heitz winery, or Sterling.
Colby: Downstairs the Family has a wonderful selection of not only their Napa Wines, but the imports from Tuscany, Piedmonte, Spain, Alboreno, Sicily.
Michael: A lot of our visitors know about European wines. It is important to know how California wines compare to a Burgundy, Bordeau, Tuscan. One of the things I insisted on was that all of our marketing dept, sales people visit each of the properties we represent in Italy. They’ve met the people. They’ve walked the vineyards. They’ve tasted barrel samples. So they have a personal perspective and talk about the wines from their heart. I think it’s terrific that CANVAS is proactively increasing the professionalism of the Concierge through education. We would love to host tastings and seminars for your Concierges.
I had a Skype wine tasting this morning with sales reps from Boston with M Cabernet 2007, Oso Vineyard Emblem, both 100% cabernet and very similar winemaking. The wines were totally different stylistically because of the soil in which they were grown. And that was the purpose, to educate them about the difference, about a soil that is deep full of clay and veluvial matter, vs rocky, volcanic, no organic matter.
Pricing on most wines has a direct relationship from the cost of the vineyard and the price of the grapes. The other factor that goes into it is what I call the “snob appeal”, the sizzle. If there’s a big demand for the wine the price will go up proportionately. It doesn’t cost Chateau Mouton Rothchild $100 to make a bottle of wine, but they’re selling it for $700 a bottle. To me, wine is still a beverage.
If the vanity wines have a good following nationally & internationally even in this recession they’re doing well, but they’re the exception. If it’s a wine that doesn’t have the foundation in the consumer’s and the trade’s mind they’re going to say, “I’m going to wait 6 months and buy it for $100 less a case. “
The problem we have in representing a lot of the different producers is that the restaurant says I was just buying these at ½ price why should I buy from you at half price? So we say, “This has a better continuity of quality and demand and if all you do is buy wines that are being closed out you’re not going to please your customer long term. So buy less, but keep it on the wine list. So we’re not competing with people lowering prices. We’re saying to the store owner or restaurant, “Take advantage of these deals, but then with your higher imaged wines, make sure that you still offer those to your customers. And their not doing bad. Restaurants only make 300% on those and 600% on the ones they buy at ½ price.
Take Chiarello at Bottega for example. Instead of doing the normal 300% mark up he did 1.5. So you could buy Opus as an example at his restaurant for about ½ the price you’d pay at the French Laundry. Same exact wine. People would look at his restaurant and say, “Wow, I could buy this here” and have dinner for free, compared to the price somewhere else. So Michael was able to trade people up even though his percentage was less his dollars per table went up.
In today’s economy the consumers are aware of pricing. They know what it costs retail. And you’re charging them 2 ½ to three times more retail, and they’re frustrated. So why not do what Michael or Cindy Pawlcyn are doing. One person I know is doing this, wines up to $30 a bottle suggested retail pricing, they will mark up 2 ½ times. Wines from $30 to $60 they mark up 2 times, and wines over $75 they mark up 1 ½ times. So for the more expensive wines. They’re still getting more dollars per customer. They understand a customer can only drink so much. Do you want to put $5 dollar an ounce in their tummy or do you want to put $15 an ounce in their tummy. You don’t pay your employees in percentage, you don’t pay your rent in percentage you pay in dollars. You get higher net dollars from your chair. And the property shows better net results.
Colby: Outside of your business and family what are your other interests?
Michael: It is true, find something you like to do and you’ll never work a day in your life. In addition, I’m trying to learn to play a little golf. What I like about golf is the camaraderie with the two or three others that you play with, time to talk with each other. I enjoy fly fishing. And I try to swim periodically and I try to get just good daily exercise. We’re in a business where it would be easy to weigh 300 lbs. Now we really focus on portion control. In a restaurant I eat about half of what’s on my plate and take the rest home. Whatever I bring home I have for breakfast the next day and it’s really kind of fun. I had Petrale sole and some rice for breakfast today. I do it because I feel better, not as sluggish as when I’m at a higher weight. My father’s side of the family all lived fairly long. I love Dean Martin’s comment, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long I’d have taken better care of myself.” I plan on being here for another 30 years or so. I’m trying to focus on “quality time remaining”. Not how long will we live, but how long will we live where we have enough energy and good health to do the things we want to do.
Colby: What are the important things you’ve learned along the way?
1) Don’t believe your own press
2) Always maintain your integrity
3) Don’t expect to get credit for what you do or believe you do, and that’s okay.
Colby: What don’t most people know about you?
Michael: I was the one who created Woodbridge. We were making bulk wine for three very large wine companies (Almonette, Paul Mason, Geyser Peak) and that was about 60% of our volume. And we were making the Robert Mondavi wine. We were just struggling in ’72, ‘73 to pay our bills. Geyser Peak winery, in November cancelled a written contract. So we had 200,000 gallons beautiful Napa Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that we had made for them. We built it into our cash flow and we were going to go broke within the next six to nine months if we weren’t able to sell that. I thought about how my father and uncle had Charles Krug. CK was their jug wines. It paid the bills and Charles Krug was their higher end wine and it built their image and stature. So in 1973 the largest single container of wine was a ½ gallon of wine with a handle and a screw cap. And it was Burgundy and Chablis. I said we’ve got to upgrade that. So we got a magnum and I adjusted the foil and label slightly and put red table wine or white table wine. We started selling that in February, and from February to December we sold 125,000 cases that first year, and then went to a quarter of a million the next year. And five years later we bought the Woodbridge winery and then we converted the “Robert Mondavi red” and “Robert Mondavi white” wine to Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi which helped differentiate it from the Mondavi brand and preserve the Robert status. When we sold the company we were selling about 10 million cases of Woodbridge.
And most people don’t know that I was the winemaker at Robert Mondavi from 1966 through the mid ’70’s. People always look at me as the marketer/businessman, but I had the luxury of making the first wines that gave us our reputation. And now I get to do that again. I’m the winemaker for the “M” cabernet. (925 cases to maintain the quality.) That’s my baby. Rob and Tony Coltran, the winemaker I’ve worked with for 30 years are the winemakers on the other wines.
Colby: What has been most gratifying about your life.
Michael: Working with my children and having them major partners in my company. That’s a joy. Followed by the extended family. I mentioned Tony Coltrain. He went to work for me at Robert Mondavi when my son, Rob, was three years old. And when we sold Robert Mondavi and started our new company I asked Rob, who was in his mid 30’s and had great experience, to run the vineyards and the winery of our new company. He said, “If we can get my mentor and teacher, Tony, to join us I’ll do it.” So we called Tony and he said, “What time do I start.” It’s the people you work with, that’s what’s rewarding. It’s the people who helped build the businesses, watching them grow like a rosebud and develop and become their own person and then seeing them reflected in their children. To me that’s the exciting part. And this business gives us that opportunity.
My father Robert had three children, myself, my sister and my brother in that order. My Uncle Peter has three children, Peter and Marc, Siena.
Now that we’re not in business together we’re better brothers and sisters. It’s a joy to be their brother and not their business partner. My son Rob and Angelina, who is Mark’s daughter and a very good winemaker, are making wine together, about 150 to 200 cases. It’s called Forth Leaf for the forth generation. It’s neat, after my father and uncle had their big battle and lawsuit, to see their grandchildren working together on a project that they started just because they liked each other and wanted to do it.