Impact Napa Conference 2014: Vanessa Robledo, Black Coyote Winery

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.

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