One of the romantic notions that can connect drinkers to a given bottle of wine is the idea that said wine is the product of generations of labor, a plot of land, and a winemaking ethos passed down through the generations to the current standard bearer. It’s widespread throughout Europe, where family-owned wineries can easily date back several centuries, if not further, yet it’s still a rarity here in America, where relatively few wineries are more than a few decades old.
Complicating things further is the fact that Americans just don’t really work the same kinds of jobs as their parents, certainly not in great numbers and over multiple generations, per survey data from both the General Social Survey and private sources like Meta. For first-generation winery owners, this creates an interesting challenge as they near the end of their working lives: Is passing a winery down to their children the right move, especially when other succession possibilities might exist? For the next generation, the decision to follow in parental footsteps is a complicated one as well, requiring a degree of commitment uncommon in the modern job landscape, as is navigating the ongoing relationship with the elder generation.
For Healdsburg’s Ramey Wine Cellars, a strong purchase offer accelerated the timetable for the next generation to make their decision. “Right before Covid, a major Champagne house, after looking at a lot of wineries, they wanted to buy us,” says David Ramey, who with his wife Carla founded the company in 1996. But before they decided, the Rameys had a meeting at home with their two children. “Claire and Alan said, ‘No, this is what we want to do,’” says David. “So we said no [to the Champagne house], and then with that commitment subsequently, we passed ownership on to the kids.”
At Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, the family is in the midst of bringing the third generation into the fold. “I have to talk about [my dad] a little bit in this because he did start the winery with the idea that it would be something that future generations could participate in,” says Ashley Parker Snider. “I think specifically he really started it to work with my brother. Eli is four years older than me, but he hadn’t really found his thing that he was passionate about, and winemaking, as it turned out, was a really big deal for him. I was on the East Coast doing other things and kind of got the ‘Hey, come on back,’ and so now half my life has been spent working in the winery.”
Snider’s children, however, were raised in a winery environment. “My two oldest kids, who are involved in the winery, have grown up with my husband Tim [Snider, president] talking about distributors and traveling, and dealing with our staff at the winery, and working with our winemakers and sourcing grapes, so they’ve really grown up in it. That said, you can’t force them to come into this business by any stretch, and yet fortunately they’re here and they’re working and they’re thriving.”
“Part of what I enjoy about this industry is trying new things and doing things differently from what we’ve done in past years.”
That lack of parental pressure has allowed members of the younger generation to come to the wine business of their own volition, though of course early exposure does play a role.
“Dad’s lectured us since we were about 6 years old at the dinner table,” says Claire Ramey. “I mean, this has happened over decades before we even joined the company. My brother and I worked the same first harvest together in 2013 and Alan came in with a little more intentionality, whereas I kind of just like, ‘Oh, there’s a vacancy and I didn’t get the first job I applied for, so I’ll check it out.’ But by 2015 or 2016, I had given up on any alternative plans and was fully dedicated.”
Others get the wine bug a bit earlier. “I think I knew pretty young that I wanted to be involved in this specific business, but also the industry as a whole,” says Andrew Januik, winemaker at Woodinville, Wash., wineries Novelty Hill and Januik. “I probably really knew that even before going to college. We worked together in the cellar from the time I was in my teens, but after I graduated college it changed and really became not just a weekends and summers thing.”
“I think they have it easy in some ways in a lot of the Old World. It’s been in the family for generations and so making it work as a business there is not the same as making it work as a business here.”
For Snider, it was important that her children not just view a job with the company as a birthright. “One of the things that we’ve always said is, go work somewhere else first and learn to be accountable to somebody that’s not family,” she says. “You gotta learn to show up and you gotta toe the line and all of that before you work here.”
While founding a winery is no easy feat, keeping an existing one functional has plenty of challenges, too. “I think they have it easy in some ways in a lot of the Old World,” says Novelty Hill-Januik founder Mike Januik of the older wineries in European countries like France and Italy. “It’s been in the family for generations and so making it work as a business there is not the same as making it work as a business here. You know, they’ve owned their vineyards and their facilities forever.”
Yet there’s also a degree of freedom and creativity that the next generation has here in America that might be more challenging to come by at multigenerational wineries in Europe. (If your great-great-great-grandfather was making wine one way, how easy would it be to make it differently?) “Our parents started the winery and if one day they wanted to start making a Cabernet Franc, they would start making a Cabernet Franc,” says Andrew Januik. “So, I don’t think there would be a lot of tension in continuing to kind of change and evolve. Part of what I enjoy about this industry is trying new things and doing things differently from what we’ve done in past years.” Januik has done just that, from producing wine in Chile and Argentina to launching a brand of hard seltzers centered around upcycling fruit and raising money for No Kid Hungry — all without issue from his mom or dad.
In fact, in all cases, the parental pride is obvious, even if rarely spoken. That’s not to say that there are never any second thoughts. “We never even talked about it until the kids each came and said, ‘You know, we want to do this,’” says David Ramey. “Then we had a sort of ‘come to Jesus’ meeting when the Champagne house wanted to buy us and, if [Claire and Alan] had waffled or labored, I think it’s possible Carla and I might have sold to the French Champagne house. I’m glad we didn’t. Of course, there goes the Hawaiian condo, but aside from that…”
The article Keeping It in the Family: Why Succession Plans at American Wineries Are No Sure Thing appeared first on VinePair.