Ryan Hodgins of FEL Wines wins Wine, Beer & Spirits Industry Awards Mendocino County winemaker category
The winner of the Mendocino County winemaker category in North Bay Business Journal’s beverage alcohol industry awards says the team has been able to overcome the obstacles of harvesting during a pandemic.
How did you get into the industry? And what has been your career track since?
A love of food and cooking combined with a biology degree led me to getting my master’s in viticulture and enology at the University of California Davis. Nearly my entire career has focused on crafting great pinot noir and chardonnay from Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley.
I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, and my first exposure to wine was Willamette Valley pinot noir. While attending Oberlin College in Ohio, I often had conversations with one of my plant biology professors about winegrowing. My interest in wine was piqued, and I soon relocated to California and enrolled in the master’s program at U.C. Davis and graduated with a degree in viticulture and enology.
As a means of researching the topic for my master’s thesis – pinot noir tannins in the Willamette Valley – I got my first hands-on vineyard experience while working harvest at Witness Tree Vineyard in Salem, Oregon. Upon graduating in 2004, I spent a year gaining experience in other regions at wineries such as Acacia Vineyard in Napa, where I was the harvest enologist, and Krishna Valley Winery in India, where I served as visiting winemaker.
In 2005, I returned to the United States and accepted a full-time position as assistant winemaker and viticulturist at Hanzell Vineyards, a role that helped hone my expertise in pinot noir and chardonnay from Sonoma.
While at Hanzell, I also worked as the founding consulting winemaker for Breggo Cellars in the Anderson Valley. The Lede family’s acquisition of Breggo Cellars (now FEL) in 2009 allowed me to become full-time winemaker.
In 2011, the Lede family purchased the Savoy Vineyard, a benchmark vineyard in the Anderson Valley, for which I continue to oversee the farming.
How have you or your company influenced the industry in the last five years? What are key accomplishments?
Anderson Valley is still a relatively unknown fine wine growing region. Over the last five years, FEL has garnered numerous high scores in the upper 90s from multiple publication helping raise the profile of our region.
Additionally, pinot noir from our Savoy Vineyard continues to be some of the most sought-after fruit in Anderson Valley. We currently sell fruit from Savoy to some of California’s most acclaimed producers including Littorai, Failla, and Williams-Selyem.
What changes have you noticed in your industry in the last five years, and how have you and/or your company moved to capitalize on or adjust to those changes?
The drought that has affected California since 2014 has led us to focus on water use in both the vineyard and winery. In our vineyard we are planting drought tolerant rootstocks that allow us to dry farm without irrigation. While in the winery, we have implemented numerous water-saving technologies.
How have you responded to growing competition from craft spirits and alternatives such as hard seltzer?
While there are always and increasing number of choices for consumers, our focus remains on crafting outstanding wines that connect our customers to both a vintage and a place. Wine has the unique ability to reflect the growing season of the vintage and the vineyard where our grapes are grown.
How has the pandemic affected your business? What has been the impact of restrictions on visitors, closure of restaurants and bars, surge in online shopping, and rise in digital consumer experiences and marketing?
While the reduction of travel greatly affected hospitality visitation and sales, ecommerce has taken off. We are working on growing the marketing department to keep up with the digital demand.
I have also been able to maintain communication with our wine club members and media through virtual tastings.
How have you responded to the challenges and opportunities of the virus-influenced economic downturn? How much are these measures making up the difference in sales?
Harvesting during a pandemic certainly presented numerous challenges that I am proud to say our team was able to overcome.
During harvest, our winery staff doubles in size and maintaining good social distancing, mask wearing, and good sanitation was key. I am happy to report that our entire team stayed healthy and safe through the entire harvest and we made another vintage of outstanding wines.
Which of your adjustments and initiatives do you think you’ll continue past the pandemic, and why?
I think that we will continue to use video to communicate with our customers to some degree. Being able to answer questions from customers in real time helps build relationships and makes the story behind the wines come to life.
How the North Bay wildfires and power shutoffs affecting the outlook for your business?
We have been quite fortunate over the last several years as the North Bay fires have not directly impacted Anderson Valley and our wines have not been affected by smoke, but every year it remains a concern.
Because the power-shut offs tend to happen during harvest, which is our busiest time of the year, we are considering adding a generator as insurance against future shut-offs.