Like many wineries that are family owned, succession planning vital
Shelly Rafanelli-Fehlman, winemaker at A. Rafanelli in the Dry Creek Valley, is in the midst of her 13th harvest at the winery. And at 37, the fourth-generation winemaker is also helping lead the winery through the challenges of estate and succession planning, all aimed at preserving a treasured family business and way of life.
The winery was founded in 1974, though the family had been selling grapes from their vineyards since the early 1900s.
Alberto and Leticia, Ms. Rafanelli-Fehlman’s great grandparents, came to the U.S. from Italy and settled in Healdsburg. Their first winery and vineyards were established in 1911. Americo, her grandfather, bought the land where the winery is today.
Most things about the winery have remained the same. They have kept it small. Only 11,000 cases are produced per year, and the wine is not available in retail outlets. All tastings are done by appointment only.
[caption id="attachment_15581" align="alignright" width="288" caption="Shelly Rafanelli-Fehlman"][/caption]
While this works well when it comes to wine and giving consumers what they have come to love and expect from the winery, Ms. Rafanelli-Fehlman and the others in her generation are bringing in modern business practices.
“It was only recently that we started to accept credit cards,” she said.
Though her father David Rafanelli is set on making the wine the same way as he has in the past, he is no stranger to some kinds of change.
"When my father joined my grandfather, he had to convince my grandfather to start a cabernet sauvignon program," said Ms. Rafanelli-Fehlman. "When I graduated from college, I had to convince my dad to let me start a merlot program."
Ms. Rafanelli-Fehlman graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, studying agricultural business and marketing. Craig Fehlman, her husband, is the vineyard manager for the winery, one of the most highly regarded in the industry.
"I think it would be hard to argue that Rafanelli isn’t one of the first cult wines, not only in Sonoma County, but in California in general," said Clay Mauritson, president of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley and owner of Mauritson Winery. "The winery has stayed small and dedicated to quality. It is one of the great success stories in Dry Creek Valley."
And this is why, Ms. Rafanelli-Fehlman said, “We don’t change the way we think about making wine.”
But there will be changes to the business aspects of the winery.
And as far as the business succession and estate planning goes, there can be quite a bit of difficulty, both from a strategic point of view and emotional.
“Because business equals family,” she said. “Even if you are not in the business, you are still in the family.”
She said that when making the estate plan it was important to honor the work that she and her husband have put into the winery without neglecting the rest of the family.
Ms. Rafanelli-Fehlman said one of the most important things in getting things straight and worked out was to have a third party in the room – someone who is not in the family.