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Retiring after 54 years, wine legend Richard Arrowood details Sonoma County's rise to global excellence

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With over a half-century of North Coast winemaking, Richard Arrowood has seen the region mature from its roots as an agricultural suburb of California to a world-renowned producer of fine wine and destination for millions of consumers annually.

On Thursday, Arrowood announced that he and his wife, Alis, sold Amapola Creek Vineyards and Winery to a neighbor vintner in Sonoma Valley, as the couple plans to relocate to a retirement home.

Richard Arrowood’s wine career spans 54 years, during which he helped Sonoma County build a reputation for fine wines internationally.

Trained as an organic chemist, he started in the business with sparkling wine producer Korbel in 1965 and went on to work with Rodney Strong’s Sonoma Vineyards, become founding winemaker at Chateau St. Jean in 1974, launch Arrowood Vineyards in 1985. The Arrowoods started Amapola just after their eponymous winery was sold to Robert Mondavi Corp. in 2000, and Richard Arrowood stayed on with the brand until 2010, after it passed to its third subsequent owner, Jackson Family Wines.

The Business Journal talked with Arrowood about how starting and marketing a wine business has changed over his career, how he crafted single-vineyard and late-harvest wines to compete with the best in the world, and why Sonoma County cabernet sauvignon wines are different than Napa Valley’s. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How have you seen the North Coast wine business change over your career, such as what it takes to start a winery, plant vineyards, make wine and selling wine?I think the biggest difficulty today is dealing with the bureaucracy that has been set up. Sometimes, you get the feeling that, gee whiz, the powers that be that handle all the regulations and permits and everything else, they're just they're just busy to help you out.

Yet we're big taxpayers here. You would think that they'd want to keep the business activities going —unfortunately.

In this case (of the acquisition by B. Wise Vineyards), we were selling the winery to our neighbor. He's got the same philosophy, if not even greater than we do. And so I know it's going to continue in a positive direction.

Brian Wise of B. Wise Vineyards has got his own winery just right next door to us, so it's a perfect fit. Plus, he's building another winery in Napa. He has the passion for success, and he's been very successful in all the business ventures that he has touched, so it was a real honor to be able to put this thing together with him.

I’m a little disappointed. It's nice that we can get a chance to retire, but I'm gonna miss a lot of my friends in the industry and around here. But we'll come back down and visit.

I'll miss winemaking, I'm sure, but we won't miss some of the business and in dealing with all the regulation and stuff. Today, it seems a lot of it I have to tell you is absolutely superfluous, because it's done by people who, some of which, really don't understand our business. That is a shame, because you try to teach people. After 54 vintages I've dealt with, I've learned a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, and made a lot of successes.

You just wish that a lot of the folks that are going to be the bureaucratic controllers of all the rules and regulations going on would understand your business model better than they seem to do.

What are examples of things you won't miss?It's mostly just regulation, dealing with not as much federal — there's some of that there — but dealing with state regulations, with county regulations and all the things that go with it.

It doesn't mean that we don't abide by them. We've done that, and we do.

Sometimes, one could consider it to be the antithesis of business. That's not specific to the wine business — all businesses. In California in general today, we are faced with this, and it's just a damn shame. I just hate to see it.

Sometimes, you feel like you've done everything you can, and then they just want something more. And then you get that done, and then they want just maybe a little bit more.

I don't want to get specific to individuals or to departments or whatever, because other people are going to have to be living with that for the future.

But on the other side of the coin, think about what our business contributes to the economy of Sonoma here. Think about what our business does and what other businesses do to contribute to the economy, whether it's a tax base or something else.

I don't have a problem with "paying your fair share” of what's going on. My problem with this is just doing things that are just not necessary, in my opinion. But then again, I'm not running for public office and don't ever intend to either.

What significant changes have you seen out in the wine marketplace?It's gotten more competitive, like you wouldn't believe. Making the finest wines you can, that's de rigueur. Our philosophy, which I believe totally is Brion Wise’s, is that we're not looking to make wheelbarrows full of rhinestones; you get lots of those. But we do want to make a few handfuls of gems.

And so to do that, you really have to pay attention now to what is required just to really stay in business and compete. You've got a lot of the larger operations where they've got big marketing dollars. You have to compete against that.

The only way you do that, I think, is with quality and then word of mouth with your consumer base, whether it's direct to consumer sales or even through the wholesale channels, on-premise restaurant, etc. type things.

But it does require just the stamina and the ability and the wherewithal to be able to get your piece of the pie so to speak. I don't think the pie was as expensive 25-30 years ago as it is today, to get that little piece of the pie.

How has marketing changed? Have you been getting out there for winemaker dinners, tours of trade accounts, etc.?Up until probably the last three or four years, yeah. I think I’ve done more winemaker dinners than I could ever count. When you're doing hundreds and hundreds of these winemaker dinners, over time it makes you kind of shake your head.

Thank God, we're not selling ketchup or mayonnaise. If that's what it takes to promote the product, you want people to taste it, and that's the only way they can do it. The best way to do it is to put that tasting together of what those products were designed for: wine is food, and it goes with food. That's where the winemaker dinners made sense.

But, yeah, I got burnt out. (People would ask,) “What's your favorite part of New York?” And I say, “Well, the departure lounge of United Airlines.” I enjoyed New York; there's lots to enjoy. But you work your butt off, and when you finally got to the departure lounge, you almost could take a nap as soon as you got on the plane, because you're burned out. It’s nonstop.

Now, our sales manager, Eileen McLemore, I don’t know how the hell she does it. She ends up living in an aluminum tube flying all over the place. We're not in every marketplace, but in the key marketplaces.

I guess you just got to be a lot younger. It takes a lot more stamina, takes a lot more perseverance and a lot more resources. To get that piece of the pie, you really have to work.

Over time, have you gone high technology in the vineyard or winery?Actually, we got high tech by going back to the basics of making great wines. We're not processing the crap out of everything. All of our red wines are unfined, unfiltered.

A little bit of chardonnay we've made here is all done on the basis of we settle it out then we'll do a very rough, course filtration until it's plenty clear and clean. That's it. That's basically the only thing we we do any filtration on. That's Old World stuff.

Now, if you're a large operation, you don't dare take that chance. It’s one thing where you're making 400, 500 or 600 cases. It's another thing when you're making 40,000, 50,000 or 100,000 cases, and you really got to be careful of how things are done.

But if you're going to make wine to be top end, to be the best of the best, to be outstanding, the less you do the better. It is called benign neglect.

When you're talking about high-end consumers, have you seen them evolving over time? Are they just aging along with you and your wine? Or are they coming up from younger generations?You still have the people that are aging along with the wines, but you also have a lot of youngsters coming into it. I've seen reports about how they're more interested in cannabis or something else. We haven't seen that at least in the customer base we have, and we have a lot of our customers who are quite young, their 30s and 40s. They want something that's special.

Granted, if you're buying a bottle of cabernet and it's going to cost you upwards of $100-plus a bottle, most people are not going to drink that every day. That's just for special occasions. There's other wines that are in the $25 to $50 or $60 range. Yeah, that's something that you can have at least, if not daily, maybe weekly for sure.

There's always the ability to buy the premium wines that are somewhere in the range of $10 to $15 a bottle, and that's maybe a daily tipple for people.

When you have vineyards being farmed organically, and we're only yielding a ton and three-quarters to 2 tons per acre, there's no profit when you're selling them for $30 or $40 a bottle. And you certainly can't do it for $10 to $15 a bottle; it just isn't going to happen. So you just have to say what part of the marketplace are you going to choose to attempt to be a part of.

We have a (winery) permit for up to 5,000 cases a year. We haven't produced that yet, but we can. I’m sure Brion (Wise) can make that happen, and it won't change anything to do with the quality. It's just a matter of capacity in space.

Good news is Brion has several hundred acres of vineyards, not only surrounding here but all over the Sonoma County and in the Napa area. There's going to be some great potential coming from there.

That's where the competition comes in. That's what makes it a horse race, because everybody has different flavor profiles that they might be looking for. What we attempted to do is develop wines that have balance and finesse and can be enjoyed early but also can age well.

When a wine writer (from Wine Advocate magazine) was up here for my 50th anniversary (of winemaking) in 2015, we put out about 70 some wines for him to taste going back to 1975. It was not all the wines I’ve made, but it was probably a representation of maybe 10%-12% of what I made over my career at that time.

His response was just he was taken back by how these wines aged. Some of these wines were 40-plus years old, and it shocked the hell out of me that they were still in fine shape.

Now granted, they've been well kept in the cellar. That's a big important part, obviously. But it does show you that if it's put together right in the first place, there's no reason for it to fall apart in that period of time.

We like to build a wine that’ll age, but it doesn't necessarily have to do that. You can develop early drinkability and approachability and ageability. It sounds like an absolute dichotomy, but it does work. There's ways to do it.

The other night, Alis and I were just sitting down, and we took a bottle of 1998, which is a horrible vintage, but we managed to get some very nice wines. This was an Arrowood Saralee's Vineyard syrah, and that baby was absolutely stunning how well it had aged. You've got a 21-year-old wine, and was in perfect shape. But it was kept at 55-57 degrees constant, and so that makes a big difference.

What are some of the hallmarks of your career?Single-vineyard designate (wines) from Sonoma County. When I was the winemaster at Chateau St. Jean (1974–1990), I remember one of the owners, Ken Sheffield, asked me after he got back from France and we tasted all these great Burgundys from these individual vineyards, “Can you do that in California?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I'm pretty sure we can show the differences, but it'll be fairly expensive and a lot of tanks.”

I remember him saying, “Richard, don’t ask how much it is going to cost. I just want to know if we can do it.” And I thought, “OK, now you're talking my kind of language.” And it helped the marketplace.

The late-harvest wines were always near and dear to my heart. I made them with Rodney Strong for a while before 1974, which marked the first real commercial aspect of it in Sonoma County.

It's one thing to make these nice wines, and it's another thing when you get the accolades from fellow winemakers. In 1979 our vineyard manager at Chateau St. Jean, Barney Fernandez, who went on to become vineyard manager at Ferrari-Carano, we went over to France and on to Germany on a trip arranged by Peter Sichel. (His German wine company created the Blue Nun semisweet wine brand that peaked in sales of 1.25 million cases in the U.S. in the 1980s, according to wine critic Jancis Robinson’s “The Oxford Companion to Wine.” Sichel’s daughter Bettina is part-owner of Laurel Glen Vineyard in Sonoma County.)

Sichel took us to a little village called Scharzhofberg, which is very famous for some fantastic, absolutely unbelievable rieslings, from the dry style to the very sweet style. And so Egon Müller, who owned Scharzhofberger vineyard itself, showed us this huge round table with wines from vintage 1953 up to (1979), and there's 50 some wines, including Trockenbeerenauslese, which would easily in most years sell for between $1,000 and $1,500 a bottle.

I remember (Müller) says in pretty good English, "You should not be taking pictures of my wines in my cellar.” I stopped for a second, and I thought, “Oh crap, what have I done now?” And the next thing he says, “You should be taking pictures of your wines in my cellar.” He had acquired a case of Chateau St. Jean various rieslings I had made over my career.

He asks, “How much of this do you make?” So I told him. He says, “A hundred gallons?! Normally, we make like 10 to 15 gallons, and that's a great vintage.” That was probably one of the finest compliments I've ever had from one of the finest winemakers in the world.

One of the nicest things about this business is not like the high-tech or electronics business: You share information. Bob Mondavi, before (Constellation Brands) bought Arrowood (in 2005, a year after Constellation acquired Robert Mondavi Corp.), I remember going over as a youngster in this business, he gave me an hour of his time, which I was surprised at. He says, “Richard, if you don't have the passion in your heart, do something else. If you really have passion about making the finest wine, stay with it. Do something that somebody else can't do.”

If you wanted to know how they did something, he’d tell you top to bottom. It's not like it's a secret. They would tell you everything you wanted to know. About technology, he said a rising tide raises all boats.

How does cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma County competes with those of Napa Valley?

(Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon producers) really do give you the sizzle like you wouldn't believe, but I still believe we've got pretty damn good steaks here.

Some of the wine writers today insist that Napa is the only place to grow cabernet, but it's a completely different style, which you see here in Sonoma. This is not at all different than what you see in the super Tuscans (wines) in Italy. If you look at a lot of these vineyards, they were planted by Italians that came over from Tuscany. If you look at the Sonoma County area in general, it is all very much looks like the landscape in that same area.

We have everything to be proud of here, and so they do in Napa. They just happen to be excellent at marketing. They really do give you the sizzle like you wouldn't believe, but I still believe we've got pretty damn good steaks here.

What are the key differences between Sonoma cabs and Napa cabs?Very generally speaking, Napa cabernets tend to be more ripe, fruity up front, plump type wines. Whereas, the Sonoma cabernets have a bit of that, but they also have structure and balance, so these wines are able to age. If you're picking grapes at the right phenolic content — the correct fruit being mature physiologically — that's what it's about.

A lot of the Sonoma cabs will have just a little more angularity. The tannins might be a little more set up — what people might say sharpness, but not necessarily. They just may not be as plump early on as what you see over in Napa.

I’m not sure how well the Napa cabernets will age; I'm sure they will do very well. But I know in my 54 years in this business, tasting some of these older wines, I think (Sonoma cabernets) have staying power. We just have to be able to market it better.

Commercial viniculture in California started here in Sonoma Valley — wasn't in Napa, wasn't anyplace else. It was right here with Count Agoston Haraszthy at Buena Vista Winery, started back in the mid-1800s. And if you look back at the grape purchase records for many Napa wineries, much of their fruit used to come here from Sonoma.

With a lot of the hillside vineyards we have planted, the best is really going to be yet to come. It's still developing.

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

Correction, Dec. 9, 2019: Brion Wise's name was misspelled.

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