Right up front, let me be clear, I am writing about my experiences with the winery I work for. Conflict of interest? None. I’m not selling you anything, and waited until a big event is over, too late for you to buy a ticket and attend, before I started writing about it here. That said, I write about what I know, what I’m doing, what I’ve done, and as the tasting room and wine club manager for the McFadden Vineyard tasting room in Hopland, having just finished working our Annual McFadden Wine Club Appreciation BBQ Dinner up at the 500 acre McFadden Farm in Potter Valley, that’s what you’re going to be reading about.
First and foremost, before there were wines from McFadden Vineyard, there were grapes from McFadden Farm.
Back when Guinness McFadden started his McFadden Farm in 1970, organic farming had a different name: farming. While many Mendocino County vineyards have copied his trailblazing success, it is the quality of the grapes, grown organically for over 40 years, that puts McFadden ahead of other growers. Having experimented, McFadden has established blocks, separate growing environments for different grapes in the vineyards on his McFadden Farm. Head pruned and trellised, irrigated and dry farmed, planted next to the Russian River and on rocky hillside slopes, the grapes of McFadden Farm are not grown one way, factory farmed, but are thoughtful expressions of Terroir, the marriage of grape to place, grown for desired varietal correctness.
Harvesting 750 tons of grapes from the 160 vineyard acres at the heart of his 500-acre farm, McFadden Farm grapes have gone into wines made by Chateau Montelena Winery, Dashe Cellars, Robert Mondavi, Sterling, Horse & Plow, Fetzer, Navarro, Beringer, and more; often receiving vineyard designation on the wine label.
McFadden Farm is also the source of an extensive line of organic herbs and herb blends, carried in the best health, flavor, or quality conscious food stores, organic garlic braids and swags, and organic culinary quality decorative bay leaf wreaths, sold by William Sonoma at the holidays, as well as organic grass fed beef sold in a local healthy food store.
In 2003, Guinness McFadden bottled his first wines made from his own grapes. I suppose seeing others enjoy winning medals, critical acclaim, and a legion of fans for wines made with his grapes, caused him to feel the bite of the winemaking bug.
In 2008, McFadden hired Sherrilyn Goates to help him open a tasting room in Hopland, on Highway 101, between Santa Rosa and Ukiah, in Mendocino County. McFadden, with help from Goates, got the tasting room up and running, developed a wine club, established a model for how to run our events from Passport Weekends to Wine Club Dinners, basically got the wheel rolling well.
After three years, Goates had met every challenge and moved on to new ones with Ferrari Carano at Seasons in Healdsburg. I am sure she will be a spectacular success there, while we improve on the successes she helped create at McFadden.
I joined McFadden in late March of this year. At first, I was putting in nearly 60 hour weeks as I sought to get a handle on my responsibilities, before managing to attain confidence in my own grasp, and before I brought in a terrific team to help me on my days off.
I have been thrown into the deep end of the pool before. As an Infantryman in the most forward deployed Infantry battalion in the US Army, I was tasked to fill in as the Intel Analyst without having been to Military Intelligence school, just as our battalion was about to take on the mission of ambush and reconnaissance patrols. No pressure there, it is always good to have a learn-as-you-go experience with life and death consequences for others to focus your attention. Having two days and two hours training before taking over a tasting room and wine club may not be the optimal transition but nothing insurmountable.
I really didn’t plan to make any changes in the tasting room. I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel. I also am blessed to know I don’t know everything, and listen to my staff, so there I was, surprised to find myself, within two weeks, making my first merchandising change, a change that tripled that category’s revenue.
I’ve added two new items, experiencing 70% and 55% sell through on both within the first month of bringing them in. In a year other wineries reported a revenue decrease during Spring Hopland Passport, we had a better than 25% revenue increase, entirely owing to a new sales and marketing initiative previously unexplored. I have doubled the number of people we communicate with each month through our newsletters, and grown our wine club 19% in my first three months with the winery.
First let me state the obvious: success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I am fortunate to work with (alphabetically) Ann Beauchamp, Eugene Gonsalves, and Gary Krimont. I am even more blessed to work for a boss I genuinely like, Guinness McFadden.
We are by no means finished with change, or growth. I have proposed, and received approval for, a major merchandising change, a way to better present and display all of the goods we have, and will bring into the tasting room. It will take some time, and some money, but hopefully in the next couple of months, the next big presentation improvement will take place.
My next door neighbor, Bobby Meadows, has run the Graziano tasting room for the last 8 years, and described the last three months, my first three months as McFadden’s manager, as the slowest in his entire experience.
In spite of some successes, improvements, good numbers I can point to proudly, I am operating in a larger environment of economic difficulty, where fewer people are traveling to Mendocino County, and those that do are spending less money while here. Our total numbers are down for the year, and I work every day to try to turn that around. Neighboring wineries with years of social media marketing have far fewer contacts than we do with just our few scant months of engagement. With the support of my boss, I will be joining the Board of Directors of Destination Hopland this week. I don’t know how to get Hopland businesses to make the town prettier with more flowers, or pedestrian friendly with more sidewalks, but I do know how to get some more people to come to our Hopland Passport weekends, how to get some additional press before and after, and hope that might translate, in time, to more visitors throughout the year. I hope I am allowed to focus on marketing initiatives.
Speaking of marketing, that was almost my entire contribution to last weekend’s Annual Wine Club Appreciation BBQ Dinner. In the past, my predecessor knocked herself out, maybe taking on too much.
This year, I got the word out over the Internet, took to the phones, set up and took a remarkable number of online orders. Guinness McFadden personally invited everyone he knew, his daughter Anne Fontaine McFadden set up a Facebook event page, invited all of her friends, and led a team of professional cooks. Farm employees, friends, and family set up tables, place settings, and serving stations. My tasting crew handled check in as event attendees arrived. With the work load shared, each doing what they are best at, everyone was able to enjoy themselves more greatly.
Local BBQ Pork and Lamb, just yum. Great veggie dishes, including one which Anne Fontaine shared in our last newsletter and made an extra bowl of for Second Saturday visitors in Hopland, a recurring monthly wine and food event at various Hopland tasting rooms, was organic McFadden Farm Wild Rice with snap peas, green beans, and toasted pecans, in a pesto made from pistachios, orange zest, orange juice and olive oil. Just fantastic, with everyone declaring this year’s dinner the best ever.
One attendee from the past said it seemed smaller, but in reality we had bigger numbers than the last two years combined. We “officially” cut off sales the Wednesday before, but allowed for greater success, selling right on through the day of the event, bringing in enough extra tables and place settings, making enough extra food, for even more people. What seemed smaller was really bigger but more comfortable, taking more room but less crowded. The result was an endless stream of some incredibly kind compliments and comments from this year’s guests:
My son and I had an absolutely fabulous time…where do I start…entering the farm and riding on the tractor trailer w/hay bales as seats…coming into an enchanting setting for the most enjoyable evening filled with outstanding wines, incredibly fun people, out of this world menu…I still savor the tastes that filled me with such joy!!! Dancing under the stars to perfect music, the evening was filled with so much love by all that made it happen!! McFadden Vineyard…you ROCK!!!!
Perfect? No. We made notes so we can make it better next year, just like we did after pulling off the most successful Hopland Passport weekend ever.
Before I’m accused of hubris, let me say there is tons I don’t know, haven’t done, and likely will never do. Still, with a great team of folks where I am just one part of the team, we are kicking some butt this year.
As a winery, you can’t kick butt if your wines suck. I liked our wines the first time, and every subsequent time I tasted them, back before they were “our” wines, before I joined the team.
Guinness grows great grapes, Bob Swain is our winemaker, and I wrote about his friendly, approachable wines when I wrote about a tasting of wines he made for Parducci last year. Where some wineries can hide bad grapes with multiple winemaking manipulations, say barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation for a Chardonnay, our Chardonnay is stainless steel held and has zero malolactic. Our Chardonnay is a gorgeous fruit driven wine with lovely apple notes balanced by crisp acidity, a great wine to drink and a spectacular food pairing wine.
The first Pinot Grigio I ever tasted, a Santa Margherita, just pissed me off. No flavor, it was like drinking water with alcohol. The McFadden Pinot Gris is what they all should taste like. Just wow.
Ditto Sauvignon Blanc. No need to blend in Semillon, no cat pee aromas in this wine. Beautiful Mendocino County grapefruit and citrus instead.
Gewurtz and Rielsing are too often cloyingly sweet, but McFadden’s are drier, Alsatian styled, balanced by good acidity, sweetness coming from fruit and floral notes.
Pinot Noir, grown on the cooler climate McFadden Farm, 1,500 feet up, on the Russian River, about 10 degrees cooler than just 10 minutes away, with temperatures plummeting 35-40 degrees at night, develop gorgeous flavors over a long period of time, again balanced by nice acidity.
McFadden produces a cool climate Zinfandel I read that someone likened to a rock climber when compared to the overweight linebackers most Zins are. Where the big bruisers make foods cringe, our Zin is a revelation; new possibilities in the kitchen are opened.
Where too many wines have “too” defects: too oaky, too tannic, too sweet, too high alcohol; our wines do not have these defects, these barriers to enjoyment. McFadden wines are uniformly drinkable, but unlike wines manufactured by Goliaths in quarter million case lots, out little 3,000 case winery produces wines that showcase varietal correctness, while retaining a sense of place.
Our wines aren’t made to win medals, or critical acclaim; after a judge has tasted 30 wines and has had their palate destroyed by high alcohol, overly sweet, tannic, oak monsters, our delicious subtle well balanced wines can barely be tasted. We do win medals, and I smile at each one – we’ve tacked five more competition ribbons to the wall since I took over, but our wines are most impressive in a one on one tasting, in order from dry to sweet, as the realization grows with each wine tasted, here is a brand of exquisite deliciousness.
I love pouring Chardonnay for people who hate Chardonnay; but love ours at first taste. People who don’t like reds end up walking out with carriers filled with reds not overpowered by high alcohol or tannin.
When people taste dry styled Gewurtztraminer and Riesling for the first time, they are transformed, they imagine a summer day with glass in hand, a dinner table with new pairings.
All of our varietal wines are under $20.
Turning tasters into wine club members is easy, after tasting uniformly delicious wines, it is easy for folks to imagine receiving four discounted bottles delivered to their home three times a year. We also have pairing options where wines are delivered with rice, herbs, garlic, or wreaths. Wine Club members receive 15% off everything in the tasting room, 25% off cases (mix/match is just fine), and 35% off a different wine each month announced in our Wine Club Newsletter. Special shipping rates, special sales, event notifications and invitations; there are many more advantages and benefits to wine club membership, but it all starts with the wine, and our wine makes membership easy.
The 2007 McFadden Coro Mendocino, a 60% Zin, 27% Syrah, 13% Petite Sirah is the best of dozens of Coro Mendocino bottles I have tasted. Smooth, supple, a veritable fruit basket, in Ukiah, where I live, it pairs with everything from Sushi at Oco Time to Steak at Branches.
I hate giving out numbers and being wrong, I think it was four, but I’ll just say a bazillion because I really don’t care that much and think it is ridiculous anyway; out last Sparkling Brut was 5 parts Chardonnay to 3 parts Pinot Noir and won a bazillion Gold Medals in Wine Competitions. Our new Sparkling Brut is equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and will be even richer, better.
We released the new Sparkling Brut early, for our Wine Club Appreciation BBQ Dinner. It needs more time ‘en bouchon,’ on the cork, it is really just a baby, very active and unpredictable. It sorely wants to launch the cork upon opening, and some bottles show aggressive tart green apple notes, others grapefruit, some rose petal and nut, others yeast and cream. This bubbly will eventually grow up and exhibit all of these flavors and more, with lovely integration. It is exciting to watch a wine just born, and be able to watch it grow up. This beauty will fly out the door.
Guinness and I are getting to know each other. Guinness needed to get someone into the tasting room, and I was the guy who got the job. While he filled his need for a tasting room and wine club manager, he also got someone unafraid to use ten words where two will do. Okay, seriously, he got a sales and marketing professional, educated and awarded, with a history of successes, a wine industry trade show professional, a wine story teller, a wine writer.
Meanwhile, I got a marketer’s dream boss. When busy pouring, he might seem curt or gruff, but give him a little space, a little time, and he’s telling a ten minute story with character voices. Get him talking about farming, and you get an authentic mix of “aw shucks” country charm and passionate advocate for both Potter Valley and organic farming. Born in New York, educated at Notre Dame, a decorated Vietnam War Naval officer hero (impressing this Army sergeant), turned farmer.
I hope to get to some events in San Francisco together, invite fellow wine writers – folks who don’t work for McFadden – and while I’m pouring for crowds, be able to let them experience Guinness’s genuine Irish charm. Hopefully, they are inspired to come up to Mendocino County afterward, and hopefully they write pieces that inspire their readers to come up and visit, or call to order some wines shipped.
I think I am a bit brasher, louder, more expansive, less humble than Guinness would prefer, but I am at my best onstage, at a tradeshow, with an enormous crowd, and a well crafted story, a product or service, a pitch, a close.
Watching Guinness this weekend in his beautiful large ranch home, sitting on a hill surrounded by vineyards in the middle of his 500 acre farm, the house filled with friends, family, conversation, laughter, cooking, wine, love…watching Guinness at the Wine Club Dinner in the center of 175 friends, all sharing a night of happiness, food, drink, fellowship, dancing, the pride in and love for his daughter evident…I am watching a man of vision, a man who created an amazing reality from absolutely nothing, a happy man, a man who deserves his rewards.
I am very lucky to work for Guinness. I like to think that in me he gets a good return on the paychecks he signs. My only regret is that it is hard to get to tell the story of Guinness McFadden, McFadden Farms, McFadden wines. We sell all 3,000 cases we produce, we sell nearly everything through the tasting room, and through our wine club. Our distribution is incredibly limited, almost entirely in Mendocino County. I want to sell more wine, and faster, but I need people to come to my tasting room in Hopland to be able to tell my story, to pour our wine. We have complimentary wine tastings, and to pour the wine is to sell the wine, but I need more people to come to us. I want more people, but I don’t know how to reach them. The folks I get to pour for seem to like me:
Your vivacious, happy personality is such an asset to the McFadden Vineyard family, and it is clear you love every minute!
I work at it every day, a little each day. There is no magic trick to opening the floodgates that I know of. I ask other wine writers to come visit. Some do, and we have some really nice pieces that came from those visits. I want more visitors, and I keep asking. There are days I envy the theme park winery tasting rooms of Sonoma and Napa, their endless stream of tasters, of buyers. I don’t want McFadden to be a quarter million case winery, but I would love sales to drive production, and growth from 3,000 to 4,000, then 5,000, and up to 7-8,000 cases. Still small enough to keep the same level of quality, but with busier days in the tasting room.
I read a lot of wine blogs and winery blogs, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a winery tasting room manager write honestly about successes and challenges, about relationships with the winery owner, about the winery’s overall style, and about the day to day difficulties of trying to increase visibility for the brand in a crowded field. It might be because such a post would be boring, or rambling, much like this post; but I’m not deterred, knowing I’ve written pieces far more boring, or rambling, or both.
And I got to write a post I wanted to for quite a while, about my winery, sharing how much I love my job, while avoiding the conflict of interest inherent in a wine writer who receives review samples then writes about his employing winery. Sharing a recap, after an event, without any ticket sales benefit possible seemed the ideal vehicle to squeeze in a host of other thoughts.
The takeaway: I love my job, I like my boss, I am proud of the wines I pour, I would like you to come to my tasting room for a complimentary taste of McFadden wines. Thank you.
John Cesano, McFadden Tasting Room and Wine Club Manager
McFadden Vineyard Tasting Room is located at 13275 S Hwy 101, Ste 5, Hopland, CA 95449; open daily from 10am-5pm; (707) 744-8463.
2009 McFadden Chardonnay Potter Valley $16 – Fruit forward, beautiful bouquet of apple, pear, and peach blossom lead seamlessly into delicious apple, white peach and pear flavors, balanced by nice crisp acidity.
2009 McFadden Pinot Gris Potter Valley $16 – Full bodied, delicately fragrant wine with floral notes, hints of pear, apple, and vanilla with clove and ginger spice.
2009 McFadden Sauvignon Blanc Potter Valley $16 – Great aromas and flavors of orange blossom, jasmine, honeydew melon, spice and grapefruity citrus. Crisp, good acid. Long lingering finish.
2009 McFadden Gewurtztraminer Potter Valley $16 – Pie baking spices and floral blossom aromas that lead to flavors of honeysuckle, apricot fruit basket, and a finish of ginger. Nice minerality.
2009 McFadden Riesling Potter Valley $18 – Bouquet of jasmine and spice, summer peaches, cantaloupe and light herbal notes. Honey in the background, at once easy to enjoy and multifaceted.
2007 McFadden Pinot Noir Potter Valley $19 – A walk down the forest path; earth, mushroom, sweet dried cherry, chocolate, and cedar. Great herbaceous notes.
2008 McFadden Zinfandel Potter Valley $19 – Bright fruit forward flavors carried by nice acidity. Strawberry jam, vanilla-cherry cola, and cedar nose. Berry patch flavors with pepper spice. Easy drinker.
NV McFadden Sparkling Brut Potter Valley $25 – Brilliant clarity, pale straw color, endless stream of tiny bubbles, nice mousse, aromas of green apple, citrus zest, grapefruit, rose petal and cream leading to crisp bright apple balanced by custard and honey in the mouth.