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For a Family Winery, Marketing Proves as Crucial as the Grapes - New York Times

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For a Family Winery, Marketing Proves as Crucial as the Grapes
Published: November 16, 2005 E-Mail This Printer-Friendly

Sonoma, Calif.

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IF the dusty driveway in this flat, inelegant swath of wine country was a deterrent, you couldn't tell from the man in the Maybach. As cicadas buzzed and a pile driver in a neighbor's yard pounded in the heat, the gentleman backed his sparkling Mercedes-Benz up to a barn door at the Robledo Family Winery, filled the trunk with cases of wine and said simply, "I buy it every year because it's so good." This is precisely the endorsement all wineries desire: repeat business from a loyal customer who might drive a $350,000 car and can buy any bottle he wants.
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But the customer allegiance is even more critical for small producers lacking the finances and sales acumen to push their wines into the crowded marketplace. They must find creative ways to Page 1 of 5

For a Family Winery, Marketing Proves as Crucial as the Grapes - New York Times

12/8/09 1:10 PM

crowded marketplace. They must find creative ways to brand themselves and build consumer demand. And that burden can be even tougher for the growing number of Mexican-owned wineries gathering notice. "People are just starting to learn about these winemakers," said Sandra Gonzalez, founder of Vino Con Vida, a company that promotes Hispanic food, wine and culture. "They have the knowledge, skill and passion to make world-class wines, and they want to showcase it." The Robledo Family Winery in the Carneros appellation of Sonoma has emerged as one of the better known of about a dozen vineyards and wineries in Sonoma and Napa Counties owned by Mexican immigrants. It has achieved this partly by recognizing that the story of the family patriarch, Reynaldo Robledo, a former migrant worker who lived in a labor camp, is as compelling as the fruit inside the bottle. "I worked six days a week for $1.10 an hour," Mr. Robledo said about his arrival here. Sundays, he worked for $1.50 an hour. Whatever he made during the week, he gave to his father. Sunday's pay he kept for himself. Within months after arriving from the Mexican state of Michoacán in 1968, Mr. Robledo, who is now 53, was managing his father, uncles and other migrant workers, sending earnings home to his mother and 12 siblings. His knack for pruning caught the eyes of prestigious winemakers, who eventually put Mr. Robledo in charge of hundreds of workers and even sent him to France to teach pruning techniques. In 1984, Mr. Robledo bought his first 13 acres in Carneros for $126,000. He has since bought or leased six other farms in Napa and Lake Counties. In 1994, he created Robledo Vineyard Management to plant, develop and farm vineyards for private clients. And in 1997, Mr. Robledo opened his winery, which produces 5,000 cases annually of nine red and white varietals, including dessert wines. "That's what wine is, sharing history, stories, experiences," Ms. Gonzalez said. "And when you invite people to your home to do that, it creates a very personal approach to wine." Page 2 of 5

For a Family Winery, Marketing Proves as Crucial as the Grapes - New York Times

12/8/09 1:11 PM

wine." The personal approach extends to Mr. Robledo's family. At auctions and public events, he and his wife, Maria, often pose with their two daughters and seven sons, all of whom work for the winery. Two years ago, they opened the first tasting room owned by a former Mexican migrant worker. "You can bring people in for a few minutes and have their complete attention," said Joel Peterson, a past president of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, and the winemaker and founder of Ravenswood Winery. "They feel some affinity to the winery or the people. Then you have a lifetime consumer, and that makes a huge difference." Nearly all of the family's wine sales come through this retail site, said Mr. Robledo's daughter Vanessa, the president of the winery. "We had brokers and restaurant accounts," she said. "But we eliminated those once we saw how successful we were marketing directly to the consumer." The family declines to discuss revenue, but direct sales can allow a winemaker to increase profitability 20 to 50 percent, depending on production costs. "Getting closer to the end user is more fun," said Paul Hobbs, the owner of Paul Hobbs Winery, widely considered a supernova in the cult wine galaxy. "When no one else is representing the wines and the relationship is direct, that's sweet." The Robledo family, which also includes 12 grandchildren, had managed every aspect of the business with the help of their winemaker, a son-in-law who once worked for Mr. Hobbs. Then, Mr. Robledo hired Stephen Dale, vice president and general manager of operations, "to get the winery side going," as Mr. Dale put it, through the tasting room. And his efforts to help the family better market the wine appear to be paying off. A single lot of Robledo wine and a barbecue at the ranch with the extended family sold at an auction this summer for $30,000. And gold ribbons from wine competitions in New York, Florida and California Page 3 of 5

For a Family Winery, Marketing Proves as Crucial as the Grapes - New York Times

12/8/09 1:11 PM

wine competitions in New York, Florida and California festoon three Robledo varietals on display in the tasting room. But Mr. Peterson, whose Ravenswood winery started with 327 cases in 1976 and was bought by Constellation Brands in 2001 for $148 million, cautions that the setbacks often compete with the successes. "The business of wine is very much like the agriculture of wine," he said. "You're dependent on whatever the climate is." What wineries can control, within reason, is what they grow, which is where Mr. Robledo focuses his attention. "For making good wines, you need to have good fruit," he said matter-of-factly. "You have good grapes, you can put it in a garbage can and by the next day, you have good wine."
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For a Family Winery, Marketing Proves as Crucial as the Grapes - New York Times

12/8/09 1:11 PM

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