Bonterra, Treasury Wine Estates win Wine Star Awards

Fetzer Vineyards' Bonterra label is a green wine.

JEFF QUACKENBUSH,

Two North Coast wine businesses made this year’s list of Wine Star Awards-winners from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Hopland-based Bonterra Organic Vineyardswas named American Winery of the Year. Also, Michael Clarke, managing director and CEO of Australia-based Treasury Wine Estates, was named Winery Executive of the Year. In Treasury’s global portfolio are North Coast brands Beringer, Beaulieu Vineyard, Acacia, Stags’ Leap, Sterling Vineyard and Chateau St. Jean.

The Valhalla, N.Y.-based publication started the awards 17 years ago and picks winners based on “energy, courage, groundbreaking vision and business acumen.” The 23-year-old Bonterra brand was noted for sales that “went from tepid to boiling over in five years.” Argentina-based Vina Concha y Toro acquired Fetzer Vineyards and its companion brand Bonterra from Brown-Forman in 2011. Giancarlo Bianchetti came in to lead the Fetzer group of U.S. brands and sales. Clarke was congratulated for his turnaround of Treasury.

‘OUR BIGGEST INVESTMENT’

Bonterra (bonterra.com) was introduced in 1993 as one of the first organically farmed wines in the U.S. Bonterra crafts three single-vineyard wines from estate Biodynamic and certified-organic Mendocino County vineyards. Winemaker Jeff Cichocki came to the brand in 2007 and assumed the reins from founding winemaker Bob Blue five years ago.

“Ultimately, it’s thanks to our extended network of growers, distributors, retailers and loyal consumers that we’re able to achieve such tremendous results year after year,” Bianchetti said in a statement.

The brand is sold throughout the U.S. and in 23 countries. U.S. sales grew 19.1 percent in the 26-week period ending Oct. 8 and has grown at an annual average of 15.4 percent 2012–2015, according to Nielsen.

“We did 440,000 cases in 2015, and our objective is to pass 500,000 cases,” Bianchetti told Wine Enthusiast. “We’re quite close. Our biggest investment has been the focus on the Bonterra brand.”

Growth of the brand also garnered Bonterra recognition this year as a 2016 Impact Hot Brand. Bonterra also was named the official wine this year of the benefit concert Farm Aid.

BAILING OUT TREASURY

Clarke had two decades of experience guiding major consumer goods companies such as Reebok, Coca-Cola, Kraft and Premier Foods but none in the wine business when he joined Treasury (tweglobal.com) in 2014, Wine Enthusiast noted. The wine company had been teetering financially and was rumored to be an active target for acquisition.

Since coming on board, Clarke has been investing in premium and luxury brands while selling off lower-priced wines, cutting costs and introducing fast-moving consumer goods principles to the wine business, the publication said. About a year ago, Treasury spent $660 million buying the premium brands in the Diageo Chateau & Estates portfolio, led by Napa Valley’s B.V. and Sterling. The company’s share price and profit have about doubled during Clarke’s tenure. The U.S. business now is 44 percent of sales and 36 percent of earnings.

Clarke told The Australian on Nov. 10 that he plans to hit profit margins of “high teens” to as high as 30 percent, a high goal for a global wine company, in the next few years without a demerger of the lower-priced wine portfolio. The current companywide margin is around 14 percent. He said the margin for the luxury and “masstige” wines is around 34 percent in Asia already.

Earlier this month, the company gave investor guidance that a further push into Asia could lift overall margins to 20 percent by 2020.

NORTH COAST IN THE RUNNING

Among the nominees this year for Wine Star Awards were several from the North Coast.

Navarro Vineyards and Winery in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley and Wayfarer Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast were among five considered for American Winery of the Year. Known for its gewürztraminer and pinot noir wines, Navarro (navarrowine.com) makes most of its sales — 80 percent — directly to consumers. The Bennett family also has opened a waste-free dairy farm to complement the winery, the publication noted.

Jayson Pahlmeyer, known for Napa Valley’s Pahlmeyer brand, planted the Wayfarer Vineyard (wayfarervineyard.com) in the Fort Ross–Seaview region in 2002. His daughter, Cleo, has guided development of the brand to make the region widely known for high-end pinot noir and chardonnay, Wine Enthusiast said.

Sonoma County was nominated for Wine Region of the Year, which ultimately went to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The publication pointed to growth in wine auction sales to record levels, the big wine tourism effort as an official partner of Super Bowl 50 and the Community Connection Initiative to build relationships with neighbors and activists concerned about industry activities such as farming and events.

David Ramey was considered for Winemaker of the Year, which went to Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines in South Africa. He helped launch Dominus Estate in Napa Valley in 1996 and launched his own brand, Ramey Wine Cellars (rameywine.com), the same year. Vineyard & Winery Management magazine in 2014 named him among 20 most-admired winemakers in North America.

Wine Enthusiast noted his recent accomplishments in opening a Russian River Valley estate winery this year for his namesake brand and launching Sidebar Cellars (sidebarcellars.com), a second label started by David and Carla Ramey to appeal to a younger generation.

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The Wine Star Awards are going to be presented at an event in January.