Christopher O’Gorman got his first taste of the wine business as a cellar hand in Dry Creek Valley while in high school, and the allure of the beverage brought him back home to Sonoma Wine Country years later to lead marketing for one of the largest wine companies in the U.S.
O’Gorman, 47, is in charge of the messaging and positioning for Rodney Strong Wine Estates, ranked No. 21 last year on Wine Business Monthly’s annual list of the top 30 U.S. wine companies. Annual production of the two brands, Rodney Strong and Davis Bynum, is 950,000 cases. The company employs 180 full time and has 14 vineyards with 1,400 planted acres, all in Sonoma County.
“The heart of my job as communications director is to make sure the story is told consistently by salespeople in the broad marketing and in social channels and in the tasting room and at our events,” O’Gorman said.
North Bay Business Journal will be recognizing him in the Winery Chief Marketing Officer category of the Wine Industry + Spirits & Beer Awards at an event Nov. 28.
O’Gorman has a lifetime of knowing the unique story of wine from Sonoma County and of telling compelling stories. At age 15 he worked at Chateau Diana Winery in Dry Creek Valley northwest of Healdsburg, filling in on the bottling line, laying concrete and delivering wine.
After earning an undergraduate degree in political science, history and philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley, O’Gorman was hired as a sports and politics writer for the San Francisco Beacon. It was while backpacking in the Sierras with friends that he reflected on his fond memories of working in the wine industry and decided that would be his next career move.
In 2000 he was on the street, selling wine for Scott Street Portfolio and learning how challenging that side of the business can be.
“It’s even tougher with great wines around the world competing,” O’Gorman said. “That helps in my communications job in that I know I need to give the sales staff the best tools possible to do the job.”
The sales job led in 2000 to Tim McDonald’s hiring him as a public relations project manager at E&J Gallo’s Dry Creek winery. Now owner of Wine Spoken Here PR in Napa, McDonald at the time was marketing director for fine wine communications and mentored O’Gorman, particularly in training his already discriminating palate further as a wine judge. McDonald already had been rating wines for competitions for years.
O’Gorman remained with Gallo until 2007, and in 2004 he started judging wines professionally. One of the events O’Gorman and McDonald both participate in is the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
“I’m tasting all kinds of wines, so I keep my finger on the pulse of trends and interact with gatekeepers like media, wine shops, sommeliers and distributors,” O’Gorman said. And a clear trend is the improvement of wines across the board, with fewer wines with outright flaws such as “cork taint” and more “balanced” wines, such as dramatically less oakiness in chardonnay and lower alcohol levels.
This helps at Rodney Strong in working with the wine-education team to inform sales and trade representatives how to spot flaw before wine is poured, to pour high-end cabernets with proper decanting and temperature, and to communicate the wines better.
Part of the message is the diverse, world-class winegrowing regions of Sonoma County.
“For Rodney Strong Vineyards, our mission is to grow and sell world-class Sonoma County wines, and there is no better place to do it,” O’Gorman said.