For the past decade and a half, Vanessa Robledo has been at the helm of two small North Coast wineries that have among the pioneers in expanding the market for fine wine into rather untapped ethnic demographics.
Since late 2008 she has been president of Black Coyote Winery and has become majority owner. Started in the late 1990s by Ernest Bates, M.D., Black Coyote produces about 900 cases of Napa Valley wines annually. The reserve cabernet sauvignon retails for $106 a bottle, and the nonreserve cab, $75, and sauvignon blanc, $48. While there are plans for building a small winery, Black Coyote buys grapes from appellations in Napa Valley and produces the wine at Bin 2 Bottle in Napa.
The wine has received ratings of 90-plus points, was ranked as one of the top wines of the world out of 16,000 entries and was served at a White House summit dinner for African leaders in mid-August.
For 10 years before Black Coyote, Ms. Robledo was president of Robledo Family Vineyards, the winery her family started after having been farming hundreds of acres of vines for years.
She is set to participate in a panel discussion at the Impact Napa Conference on Thursday about young wine industry innovators. She talked to the Journal about the importance of her family’s history and her practical experience in the vineyard to marketing wine directly to consumers and opening new markets in rather undeveloped demographics.
What did you learn from the family wine business?
VANESSA ROBLEDO: I’m part of the fourth generation in the wine industry. Our family started as vineyard workers and built their way up as vineyard owners. I ran the family winery for 10 years and grew winery by opening up new markets in certain demographics.
We kind of intentionally marketed to the Hispanic market and decided to pair wine with Latin food and mom’s traditional foods from Mexico. People from there traditionally eat that food with beer or something other than wine, because it is felt that with those flavors and spices they are not able to enjoy flavors of wine. What mom decided to do was to enhance flavors and balance out by pairing with right varietals. Mom would cook, and I would try different wines with different dishes.
We came up with wine-pairing for foods then promoted that at events. Direct-to-consumer sales grew very quickly. Then we opened a tasting room and it caught on. People were fascinated by that pairing because it had not really ever been done before.
I’m not intimidated by wine, because I’ve studied the winemaking side. But if I sit in a room with people without saying anything and the conversation is wine, people may think I’m the least educated about wine. It can be intimidating to some people, and that’s what I want to change. Wine is food, and it should be enjoyed with food as part of people’s lives.
How did marketing Robledo translate to Black Coyote?
MS. ROBLEDO: Our founder is one of the first neurosurgeons who is an African American and is a legend in the medical industry. He was one of first African Americans to found a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He felt he completed all those things, so why not start a wine company. He moved to Napa Valley, and 1998 was the first vintage. He was having fun but was only selling 5 percent direct and most through distribution. He asked me to join the company, and we decided to change the approach.
I joined during the fourth quarter of 2008, which was a terrible time for the industry and the economy. None of the distributors and retailers who bought Robledo would buy Black Coyote, because they said it too expensive and they didn’t need another cabernet.
After three days of calling all my contacts and getting one yes for 30 nos, I changed strategies quickly to direct-to-consumer. I asked for the Rolodexes of Dr. Bates and his partners [Stanley Trotman Jr. and Jack Ruffle]. Only Dr. Bates gave me his, with an amazing list of Hollywood and professional friends. I marketed to friends and started telling everyone the story of the brand and of Dr. Bates.
It opened up a beautiful African American market in the wine industry. Sixty-five percent of club membership is African American. At Robledo, it was 50 percent Hispanic, 5 percent African American and mix Asian and white is the rest. I felt we were on to something because we were able to do that with Robledo, and this was good for industry to expand into new demographics.
I’ve heard of players in the industry producing labels in Spanish and think that will be effective in Hispanic market. You’ve probably heard that people relate to the people behind the bottle and who are making the wine. Wine industry owners tend not to have a lot of diversity. I think that is important, and it has to change.
Was there a lot of organic growth from Dr. Bates’ friends?
MS. ROBLEDO: The majority of his friends did not sign on, but those people told other people. Dr. Bates has a lot of fund-raising events on the property, so I give tours. I teach guests about the vine, how I learned to have a passion about them from my grandfather and 80 percent of the quality of the wine comes from the vineyard. That’s how I grew the wine club beyond Dr. Bates’s friends.
My great grandfather and grandfather came to the U.S. as braceros under a U.S.–Mexico program during World War II, living in labor camps throughout the country. Every day, they got up and said this is how they would contribute to the war. They decided to settle in a place that reminded them of their pueblo in Mexico, so they found Healdsburg.
How did you become an owner of Black Coyote?
MS. ROBLEDO: I come from a very conservative family, and it’s the tradition that the sons take over the business. When went to Black Coyote, I said I would consider the position if I have ownership of the company. I never expected [Dr. Bates] to say yes. I started as minority owner and little by little earned shares each year. Now I am majority owner.
I’m one of nine children — seven brothers and two sisters — and all nine are in the wine industry. My family has grown from our ancestors in labor camps in Napa and Sonoma counties to owning three wineries — Robledo, Mi Sueno and Black Coyote — in those counties.
I still work in the vineyards and work in my mother’s vineyards. When I was young, I found it was very difficult work and just wanted to get an education. Now I realize that if I had not worked there and realized what my ancestors went through, I would not have as much respect for what they’ve given me.
There are 26 grandchildren, all under age 16, and our goal is for all to go to college. We balance that with learning what our ancestors went through. My daughter gets 4.0s in school but also works in the vineyards. She is only 15, but she says she doesn’t want to be in the wine industry. I think a lot about that.
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