Forty-one years ago, Dan and Margaret Duckhorn launched their eponymous Napa Valley wine label, Duckhorn, eschewing the path of least resistance. Rather than focus exclusively on production of the defining grape of the region, cabernet sauvignon, half of their inaugural release was merlot. It was a bold, against-the-grain move and their endeavors set the standard in California for the Bordeaux varietal that exists to this day. It also exemplified their courage to think outside the box about prevailing wine trends.
Now, four decades later, Duckhorn continues to evolve boldly. It can be argued that, today, Duckhorn should be as well known as a top-tier producer of quality pinot noir as it is for its merlot. This evolution has been long in the making, but it may have come to its zenith with the purchase 11 months ago of one of Sonoma County’s most renowned pinot noir producers, Kosta Browne Winery. That followed the purchase of Josh Jensen’s Calera, one of the most iconic producers of American pinot noir just 11 months earlier.
“We’re a Bordeaux house that fell in love with pinot noir,” chuckled Duckhorn Wine Co. President Alex Ryan when asked whether it was fair to label Duckhorn as pinot-centric. “Don’t forget, it has been 20 years since we started Goldeneye in the Anderson Valley as Dan Duckhorn’s first pinot project and we have made some pretty good wines there, too,” he said in an understatement.
Make no mistake, Duckhorn is still in the Bordeaux business, and the Duckhorn Merlot, Napa Valley, Three Palms Vineyard, 2014, was named as Wine Spectator’s 2017 Wine of the Year. And, of the 800,000 or so cases of wine produced by the Duckhorn Wine Co. each year, depending upon vintage, only about 35 percent is pinot noir-based, according to Ryan. But the Kosta Browne acquisition is another sharply tuned arrow in Duckhorn’s luxury-laden quiver.
Besides the three high-end pinot-focused producers, Duckhorn Wine Co. owns Paraduxx, a Napa producer of red and white blends; Migration, a Sonoma-based label that specializes in chardonnay and produces pinot noir as well; Canvasback, a cabernet sauvignon-focused project in Washington’s Red Mountain appellation, and, of course, the seemingly ubiquitous Decoy brand that offers a plethora of fine wines at more value-oriented price points. It’s a pretty formidable lineup for the company that is owned by TSG Consumer Partners, an equity finance group that houses itself in the famed Transamerica Pyramid in downtown San Francisco.
A key part of the Duckhorn strategy is to have individual winemakers at the helm of each of their individual entities, allowing for a singular focus on the strengths of their vineyards and their brands. For Kosta Browne, that means that winemaker Nico Cueva, who began his stint as an intern working with company founders Michael Browne and Dan Kosta, is in charge of production of the highly allocated wines, the majority of which are still sold to longtime mail list members.
“We make 22 to 26 different wines each year depending upon the vintage,” said Neil Bernardi, the vice president of winemaking for Duckhorn, and as of August of last year the general manager of Kosta Browne. “They include our appellation series wines from the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast. And, farther south, the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Sta. Rita Hills are areas we are really excited about.” But it is the Single Vineyard designates and the micro-production Observations Series wines that pinot-philes covet.
“We’re really fortunate to have 170 acres of vineyards, including Keefer, Cerise and Gap’s Crown, that we can source from,” Bernardi says about the near embarrassment of vineyard riches that Kosta Browne enjoys.
But as important as the collection of pinot producers is to the Duckhorn story, I contend that their growing collection of California’s historic winemaker legacies is perhaps even more impressive.
Dan Duckhorn started the company on a whim — and a few borrowed dollars — at a seminal moment in the history of American wine. About the same time, an impassioned former Yale rower was traipsing through the Gavilan Hills of Central California, where there were no vineyards, looking for a mountain of limestone to build his West Coast Burgundian dream.
And then there are Kosta and Browne, two more modern daydreamers who pooled their respective tips while working at the John Ash restaurant so they could buy a few grapes and make some wine.
All of these men have gotten rich in the best American traditions by following their grape-fed ambitions. But beyond wealth they have created wines that brought not just acclaim, but infinite pleasure to thousands of wine drinkers. Along with global respect for American wines.
It is ironic, but somehow appropriate, that all three of these dreams are now housed under a single moniker: The Duckhorn Wine Co.