Second generation vintners
“One thing about a family business is you have to deal with and you have to manage both the business and a family. Either side of that equation can fall apart,” says Alex Sokol Blosser, co-president and head winemaker of Sokol Blosser Winery. “But there’s a flip side to that. There’s this inherent trust and this inherent loyalty that is a beautiful thing.”
Alex and his sister, Alison, spoke to the McMinnville City Club earlier this month about their experience growing up with parents who helped pioneer the local wine business, about working in a family business among the vines, and about the winery’s transition from its first to the succeeding generation of operators. The speech was titled “The Second Generation of Oregon Wine.”
Like the Sokol Blossers, Pete Durant of Durant Vineyards, Red Ridge Farms Oregon Olive Mill, watch his parents toil in the fields and winery to build an industry many enthusiasts around the country thought couldn’t be possible: wine from the cooler climates of the Willamette Valley.
David Lett was the first to plant pinot vines in the Yamhill Valley, creating Eyrie Vineyards 50 years ago, and many soon followed.
“My dad calls them all ‘bootstrappers,’” Durant said. “Those were wineries built up out of the ground by those families.”
He continued: “A lot of the old wine families in Oregon were working two jobs while trying to build a wine business. That’s truly unique to Oregon. That’s what I think makes it so charming to people. It had a long runway.”
With the rare collection of entrepreneurs were a group of children, many of whom have taken the reigns to build upon what Mom and Dad created. The appreciation for that hard work is instilled in the second generation who were there to take part of it. Adam Campbell, who took over operations of Elk Cove Vineyards from his parents, Pat and Joe, said working on the vineyard was a necessity for him and four siblings. “I get to have done pretty much every job that there is to do as a kid,” he said. “It was not glamorous of profitable. We lived on site, and worked in the fields with our parents. It gives you a great perspective on it.”
Campbell said no one could have predicted the success story the Oregon wine business would become. Back in the day, success meant making great wine and perhaps being able to break into the Portland market and sell those residents a product from their home state. Today, Elk Cove sells wine in 20 export markets, and 80 percent of its wine — made from 350 planted acres of grapes — is sold outside the state.
Sokol Blosser said he prepared for the presentation by studying heavily about family business.
“There’s a lot of romance about what a family business is,” he said, but, “The more I research, the more confused I personally get.”
He said it took his parents a while to realize they had created a business that could be multi-generational.
“They were entrepreneurs ... they didn’t think while the kids were growing up this could be something to pass down,” he said. “When they realized that in the early 2000s, they started planning for what that succession would be.”
Their mother, Susan Sokol Blosser, recently published a book on the experience called “Letting Go.”
“Mom is a big personality. It was difficult for her to pass the baton to my sister and I,” Alex said. But they believe in the kids to make it a family concern. Our mom and dad believed in our second generation.”
Durant said he realized from a young age he wanted to succeed his parents at Red Ridge Farms. They encouraged him to first have his own career, which he did as a mechanical engineer, then return home to take over the family business. He said working in a family business is 90 percent great. And the other 10 percent, “You just have to work through it out of respect.
“I have a lot of respect for them who have built that business to what it is. Of course, there are sometimes disagreements about approach. But at the end, we all just need to get to the destination.”
Durant said the wine business has developed into a more complicated set of responsibilities, creating additional layers of discussion and planning. “We are farmers and we have to farm. But we do this value-added agriculture that you have to turn around and sell,” he said. “It’s not like a wheat farm or cattle ranch. We have to be able to grow it, transform it, and then turn around and sell it to the consumer. It’s unique in that you start with the grape and see it through all the way to the consumer.”
The rise of Oregon wine allowed the second generation of vintners to put their own stamp on the industry. Campbell said it would be a disservice to the brave actions of his parents to simply run the business at its status quo.
“My parents wouldn’t want me to go back and do what they did,” he said. “They want me to push it to new heights.”
Sokol Blosser said using the extended family is also important.
“Even though there a lot of family members out there that aren’t in the business, they are still part of the family, and they are still concerned about the integrity of the family business,” he said. “They are out there with their radar on … You kind of have the family out there circling the wagons to ensure success.”
The Sokol Blossers, Durant, Campbell and others have used their peer group to help make that happen. Other second generation winemakers in the area include: Jesse Lange, Lange Estate Winery; Jason Lett, The Eyrie Vineyards; Luisa, Maria and Michel Ponzi, Ponzi Vineyards; Tahmiene, Hanna and Naseem Momtazi, Maysara Vineyards. “Jesse (Lange, of Lange Estate Winery) and I laugh that at some point we need to create a generation two support group,” Durant said.
“I genuinely feel that we are supportive of each other to want second generation businesspeople to succeed and take it to the next level,” Sokol Blosser said. “A lot of it is just exchanging notes, asking ‘who was your consultant?’ or ‘what is your business coach’s name?’”
Durant said theirs is a mutual kinship among the members of the second generation. “We kind of understand what one another goes through without having to say much about how great it is and also how challenging it is,” he said.
In researching for the Mac Club presentation, Sokol Blosser said he hoped to convey an overall picture that describes what is inherent in the wine business that leads it to being a multi-generational business. The answer led him to the word ‘trust.’
“We make a consumer good that people trust to be good year-in and year-out. When you are creating something in which you need to have that trust and assurance, it could be that a family business is more beneficial to have,” he said. “Once you develop that consumer trust, if you can keep that going in the family, then the wine business does lend itself to the family business.”
The second generation shares something else in common: kids of their own. Sokol Blosser said he and Alison are already trying to figure out how to transition the business to the third generation. It’s different, he said, because his kids do not witness the struggle that he and his siblings witnessed.
Campbell and Durant agreed with that sentiment, saying it's important to pass down the sense of bravery and humbleness on which the local wine industry was founded. While feeling blessed with the enriching opportunity to continue the family business, there are plenty of unique challenges facing the second generation.
After all, Sokol Blosser said, “It’s not easy to create a business, and it’s not that hard to destroy it.”