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F. Korbel & Bros.

Category: Lifetime Achievement Award

13250 River Rd., Guerneville, CA 95446

707-824-7316

korbel.com


The Heck family has been helm of the 134-year-old Korbel wine brand for six decades. Gary Heck for four of those decades has been carrying on the Korbel brothers’ legacy of making fine Champagne-method bubbly in the U.S.

His father, Adolf, bought the company from the brothers in 1954 and developed automation for what had been a tedious production process. Gary Heck became chairman in 1984 and the stature of the brand has grown. Heck also has been actively involved in wine industry leadership, chairing a top trade group and in the past two decades making Sonoma County the epicenter of wine business education.

What are top achievements of your career?

GARY HECK: I took over for my dad in 1974 as executive vice president, because he was very ill at the time. And since then, I’ve seen Korbel grow from 150,000 cases [annually] to a million and a half. It’s been quite the successful involvement of me being with Korbel and all my executive staff. You’re successful because of who you surround yourself with.

The other thing, too, is I’ve been chairman of the Wine Institute, in 1993–94. I started with the Wine Institute in 1976 and am still on the board of directors and on the Finance and Administration Committee.

Twenty years ago, I was approached by Sonoma State University to start their Wine Business Institute. Along with Henry Trione, my chairman in Sonoma [County], and Walt Klenz, my chairman in Napa [County], we started the Wine Business Institute, and it has been a very successful trip down the road. We’re very happy and pleased with its success at the present time.

What is the importance of education in the wine business?

HECK: When [Sonoma State then-School of Business & Economics] Dean [Larry] Clark and [then-President] Ruben [Armiñana] approached me 20 years ago, they said they would like the business of wine become part of the education of Sonoma State. Not winemaking and not enology — we have got Fresno [State University] and [University of California] Davis and other universities that do a wonderful job at that. But no one was really focusing on the business of wine, and so that’s what we do at Sonoma State.

With a history stretching back to 1882, how does Korbel balance heritage and cutting edge, provenance and relevance?

HECK: As you can see when you’re here, we’re all about heritage. Korbel has been around for 134 years, so it’s important for us to maintain our quality of production and making everything méthode champenoise. Even our 187s [single-serving bottles] are made by the traditional method. They’re not transfers. That’s not like a lot of other people in the sparkling or Champagne business.

We’ve been very, very successful in modernizing our production facilities. We probably have one of the most state-of-the-art production facilities in the country. It’s not like making wine, where you bottle it and you put it in the warehouse and it sits there. We bottle, disgorge and label every day here. The only two days we’re not in production here is Christmas and New Year’s.

What impact has the Heck era of Korbel had on sparkling wine in the U.S. and the competition the brand has had overseas from traditional méthode champenoise producers in Europe and sparkling wine producers in up-and-coming regions such as Asti and Prosecco?

F. Korbel & Bros.

Category: Lifetime Achievement Award

13250 River Rd., Guerneville, CA 95446

707-824-7316

korbel.com

HECK: We’ve been around a long time. If you just take the méthode champenoise production in the United States, we’re 50 percent of it. We’re 17 percent of the total sparkling wine industry in the United States. We’re a major, major factor in the United States.

We do very little exporting. Less than 10 percent of our volume is exported.

When it comes to Prosecco and Asti and some of those other products that have come into this country, especially in the last few years, originally it scared me a little bit, because some of the Proseccoes are all transfer, they’re not méthode champenoise, and some of them are cheaper than Korbel. They’re not a bad product. I was concerned they might hurt us — hurt our sales. But just the opposite has happened. I think what they have done is bring some of the younger generation into the sparkling business — into the Champagne business — and it has helped the whole industry.

The whole industry is having a tremendous year. The whole industry is up 6 or 7 percent. Korbel in the last four or five years has been averaging 3 or 4 percent increase every year, but this year we’re up almost 9 percent. So we’re having a tremendous year this year. I think it is because of all the other sparklings that have come into the industry that are bringing other people into the brands.

Have you seen the upscaling in sparkling wine that’s happened in traditional still wine, with people deciding after they get into it for a while they want to move on to a better experience?

HECK: This whole world, especially the United States, is a bubble business. We talk about sodas and everything else. When you start with a lesser-quality product, you will eventually move upscale. So they will move up from Proseccoes or Astis to Korbel or another fine sparkling product in the United States or even European Champagnes. It is people growing up and understanding the product and upscaling all the time.

What other achievements have you made in the business of wine?

Besides the Wine Institute and Sonoma State, we’ve been involved, traveling throughout the United States. We’ve been on television since Johnny Carson in 1975. We’ve been on television every year, especially during the holidays. We start the week before Thanksgiving and then finish it up Dec. 31. Then we come back around Valentine’s Day. It’s been very successful for us.

Plus we do all the modern media stuff, the stuff that’s on the computer. Most of it I don’t understand, but a lot of my people do.

We spread ourselves around the country quite often. For example, every month we have a new flavor — a different recipe — we come up with, then we go on YouTube and explain to consumers how to use Champagne not just for special occasions but make any occasion special.

Has that message of making every occasion special helped spread your sales throughout the year?

HECK: Yes, it has. We used to do almost 60 percent of our business [in] September, October, November, December. That is now like 50 percent. Although it is still bigger in those three months than it is any other time of the year, the rest of the year because of all our promotions once a month we do throughout the country on flavors, cocktails, how to use Champagne, that it’s not just for special occasions, it has really spread our sales out throughout the United States. Again, that’s why we run our production every day of the year here.

How is running a winery similar to or different from drag racing?

HECK: Drag racing was a passion I had in the past but don’t do anymore. But my nephew does, driving cars.

It’s concentration. Partnership with the people who work on your cars, the same as the people who work in the production here.

You are a success in drag racing just as you’re a success in the Champagne business: It takes teamwork. That’s exactly what it is: It’s teamwork. It’s not me. It’s all my staff.

How did you get into drag racing?

HECK: I used to do it as a young kid when I was in high school. Back in the days when they had [race areas in] Half Moon Bay and Fremont and Vacaville — they’re all gone now. One day I came home, and in my son’s bedroom there were all these trophies. I said to him, “Aaron, what are these trophies for?” He said, “Oh, I go down every Wednesday night for drag racing.” I said, “What are you driving?” He said, “My Camero.” “If you blow it up, son, then you’re walking. If you want to drag race, if you want to do that, let’s build one.”

That’s how I got started. Aaron and I built our first drag car. It was a ’67 Camero.