‘Just start doing’: Jackson Family Wines CEO urges industry to make strides in social, environmental responsibility

Social responsibility that’s at the soul of a wine business can help its brands get noticed amid an expanding sea of competition for consumers’ palates and wallets, said the CEO of one of the largest U.S. vintners at an April 20 industry conference in Santa Rosa.

“My only advice to the people in this room and our own team is just start doing,” said Rick Tigner of Jackson Family Wines, keynote speaker at the North Bay Business Journal’s 23rd annual Wine Industry Conference.

“Even the small things … will make a difference over a decade. But don't wait for somebody else to lead the way. … Big companies, small companies, you can all participate in some of the things that we're doing.”

Tigner said this “pebble in the pond” approach to industry change, borrowing a proverb attributed to Apple CEO Tim Cook, can start with simply taking time to listen to employees with diverse backgrounds on how a winery can have social impact.

“Do not make this one person in a corner office with three other white employees determining what your (diversity, equity and inclusion) program is going to look like,” he said to the audience of more than 200 professionals at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country hotel.

Beyond the social-impact benefits, vintners need to act more urgently because of significant “headwinds” the industry faces, Tigner said.

One central concern: Consumers are getting mixed messages in the media and academia about the healthfulness of wine, and vintners as of December will be required to put nutritional labels on bottles bound for the European Union.

“As a winery executive, we can’t always talk about the benefits of health in wine,” Tigner said.

The U.S. Tax & Trade Bureau, which regulates the alcohol industry, in recent years has increased scrutiny of producers’ statements, particularly in marketing, about health benefits of their beverages.

After family, millennials rank health and wellness as their No. 2 value, according to Stanford Health.

A second headwind Tigner is concerned about is the continually expanding number of U.S. vintners (11,691 last year, up 3% annually) and wines for sale (about 150,000 stock-keeping units, or SKUs) vying for attention from a shrinking number of wholesalers (1,084, one-third the number in 1995).

Yet, he cited research that suggests consumer recall of brand names is limited: 13 brands for ages 21-34 (older Gen Z and younger millennials), 16 for ages 34-55 (older millennials and younger Gen X) and 21 for those older than 55 (older Gen X, boomers and “Silent Generation”).

This consolidation among wholesalers over the past three decades has led many smaller-scale vintners to pursue direct-to-consumer marketing, Tigner said.

“We're bypassing the distributor. We're going straight to the consumer with a relationship, whether it's marketing, social media communication, really trying to be authentic, because that's what consumers want to hear today,” he said.

Key to that authenticity among younger generations of consumers and workers is social and environmental responsibility, Tigner said.

The top executive pointed to the company’s “decade of change.” It’s the catchphrase for a strategic plan called “Rooted for Good.”

Launched in 2020, it expands upon environmental sustainability efforts undertaken in the preceding decades across an enterprise that includes more than three dozen wine brands including Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, Arrowood and Siduri.

With about 1,800 employees, the company’s wineries produce roughly 6 million cases of wine made annually in the U.S., Australia, Chile, France, South Africa and, more recently, Canada. That level of production ranks the Santa Rosa-based company among the top 10 U.S. vintners, according to Wine Business Monthly.

Recent highlights of the company’s ongoing campaign include further cuts in its carbon footprint in packaging and supply chain. About a quarter of its footprint comes from packaging, and the company is in the midst of another round of transitioning to lighter-weight bottles for its Kendall-Jackson and La Crema brands, which make up an estimated five-sixths of total production. That shift reduced the packaging footprint by 3%.

Also, Jackson expanded its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, focusing on “belonging.”

“How do we bring in employees who have diverse backgrounds and make them feel like they're a part of our family -- not in the first year but on the first day, the first week, the first month, and then throughout their careers with us?” Tigner asked.

Now, women make up 40% of company executives and over half of the winemaking team.

In 2020, Jackson started its IDEA Alliance, referring to inclusion, diversity, equity and awareness. That includes an inclusive culture, intercompany communications and talent development.

Part of the inclusiveness is Tigner’s holding a town hall meeting at each winery and with Spanish translation. The company has helped Spanish speakers learn English and vice versa.

To promote more ideas from employees, for the past five years the company each August has an “open door week,” during which workers are welcomed to set up a time to meet with a top executive to discuss issues.

And an “Ask Rick” button was put on the company’s internal website, allowing employees to submit ideas and address challenges. This is coupled with an employee-engagement survey.

Toward the “pebble in the pond” goal, the vintner has partnered with organizations to further diversity efforts. In January, it announced a relationship with Boston-based adult beverage retailer The Urban Grape on its 3-year-old Wine Studies Award for Students of Color scholarship program. Jackson has forged a similar arrangement with Wine Unify, a Napa-based scholarship effort.

And it has worked with major beverage wholesaler Republic National Distributing Company. About a half-dozen diverse employees at a time are mentored through working with the distributor in the restaurant, bar and retail environment then come to work for Jackson.

The effort has progressed into its second cohort of workers, Tigner said.

“You’ve got to throw out a wider net,” he said.

“You can't just say, ‘Well, there's not a lot of Black employees in Sonoma County’ — which might be true. The answer is we have to go find them and bring them here, if that's what's needed.”

During the pandemic, Jackson worked with United Way to commit $200,000 annually for 10 years — $600,000 so far — to what was originally called the Grocery Worker’s Relief Fund to help support retail workers who were on the job to keep basic staples moving to consumers while other businesses were under public-health restrictions.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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