The family-owned Trinchero Family Estates (TFE), with 14 wine brands in California and Australia, has a simple philosophy: follow the consumer.
“The consumer always comes up with the ideas. Our sales people just listen and watch,” says CEO Roger Trinchero from TFE’s offices in St. Helena, from which he oversees 14 wine brands in California and Australia.
The Trincheros understand the consumer. It was Roger’s elder brother, Bob (now semi-retired) who, in 1972, produced the first white Zinfandel under their Sutter Home label. That first vintage produced 25,000 cases. By 1986 Sutter Home was producing 1.3 million cases of white Zinfandel annually.
The Trincheros also understood that they shouldn’t put all their chickens in one basket. “We were selling a lot of white Zin and not much of anything else,” Roger recalls. It was a time of rapid expansion in the wine industry, and the family saw opportunities. “Our goal became to reduce our dependence on white Zin, because you never know what will happen,” Roger continues. “So why not use our power in the wholesaleretail arena to promote other varieties?”
Why not, indeed. So successful has the company become that last year it was the nation’s sixth largest wine company, by volume, right behind Foster’s and Bronco, according to the industry publication Wine Business Insider.
The slow, careful building of a brand
In retrospect, the leap from Sutter Home to international giant looks seamless, and that’s because the Trincheros hardly missed a step, anticipating new niches and avoiding the faulty planning that felled other family-owned wineries. Roger, 63, recounts the careful build-up, starting with the decision not to undercut Sutter Home. “There was a huge part of the market we weren’t reaching [with white Zinfandel], people who were buying at a higher price point. So we began to develop other brands to fill the voids we had.”
On the domestic front, Montevina was first. The Trincheros acquired the Amador County-based produce in 1998. In 2004, Folie à Deux was brought online, and an aggressive vineyard expansion heightened. Today, the family owns prime Napa acreage ranging from Atlas Peak and Mount Veeder to St. Helena and Rutherford.
These years saw also the evolution of the company grow from being identified primarily with Sutter Home to one that finally could bear the Trinchero name. In 1998, the family launched the first Trinchero label, dividing it into two tiers: Trinchero Napa Valley and Trinchero Family Wines, at a lower price point. “But that was confusing, and we needed to get Trinchero Family Wines changed,” Roger says. Ultimately, the latter morphed into Main Street, while Trinchero Napa Valley went through some changes before it was formally relaunched this year.
The leap beyond California to Australia came unexpectedly. The family had not been interested in getting involved internationally, but when they were approached by Reynolds Vineyards to represent them in the states, it seemed like a good idea, given how hot Aussie brands were. The joint venture resulted in the Little Boomey brand.
All the brands come under the umbrella of Trinchero Family Estates. The California labels are Joel Gott Wines, SeaGlass, Trinity Oaks, Bandit, Firehose, Wingnut, Jargon, Sycamore Lane, Main Street and Fre, the non-alcoholic drink. The Australian brands are Angove’s, Nine Vines, Red Belly Black and Reynolds.
Brand and price variation is consistent with the Trincheros’ business model. “The consumer tells us what we need to be producing, what’s hot and what’s not,” Roger says. “Then we decide is it worthwhile, is it worth the investment?” “We” is TFE’s executive group, which, in addition to Roger, includes Bob, sister Vera, COO Bob Torkelson, Executive VP Jim Huntsinger and others.
Bullish about the future
The saga of Trinchero Family Estates begins in 1948, when Roger’s parents, Mario and Mary Trinchero, left their comfortable Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan for Napa Valley and an abandoned old winery called Sutter Home. Mario had been making a good living as bartender at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel, “but eventually, he decided he wanted to get his family out of New York, and he felt California was a better place to raise a family. And,” Roger adds, “he had a desire to be his own boss.”
When Mary saw the bungalow they were expected to live in, which had no heat or even an indoor toilet, she wept., “Why are you bringing us out here?” she asked her husband. For most of the 1950s and 1960s Sutter Home’s grapes were sold to other wineries, but in 1972, as noted, brother Bob Trinchero made that first white Zin.
Today the company’s growth is proceeding despite the economic slowdown. Roger concedes that “Trinchero Napa Valley and our other higher-end brands are a bit flat…we’re not losing ground, but we’re not gaining.” Menage à Trois, which retails in the $8-$10 range, is helping the bottom line, and of course Sutter Home continues to bring in profits, with four million cases of white Zin sold annually.
The family recently invested in a new production facility in St. Helena, and in September crushed, for the first time, 25,000 tons of grapes at its new $80 million facility in Lodi. “And that’s just Phase 1,” Roger beams. “We’re now beginning Phase 2, which, by 2011, will process 100,000 tons. So we’re bullish about the future.”
“The Trinchero family produces a tremendous, diverse collection of California wine and is a leader in our California Sustainable Winegrowing Program,” says Bobby Koch, president and CEO of the Wine Institute. “Their charitable work for the community is widely respected.”
Kendall- Jackson’s Jess Jackson echoes those remarks. “Having been in business since the 1940’s, the Trinchero family can be largely credited for bringing awareness of California wine to the average American household. They have also paved the way for small family wineries to grow and prosper, including our own.”
Roger Trinchero says the company is ready for the future. “I’ve seen lots of ups and downs in the economy, and, yes, this is the worst, but you know what? Americans are resilient. Even in a down economy, people look for the little things that make life bearable and happy. Wine is one of those things.”
For offering consumers what they want, at prices they can afford; for being leaders in Napa Valley and the California wine industry; for continuing to invest in the future, Trinchero Family Estates is Wine Enthusiast’s American Winery of the Year.
The winery will be honored at Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star awards dinner and ceremony on January 25. For details about The Wine Star Awards Dinner and Awards Ceremony, and to reserve your table
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