For These Influential Families, Life is Like ‘Succession’—But With More Wine

GO WITH THE FLOW These California wine families draw on multigenerational knowledge and continue to innovate as younger players come of age.
GO WITH THE FLOW These California wine families draw on multigenerational knowledge and continue to innovate as younger players come of age.

Summary

  • Some of the top companies in California wine are intergenerational concerns. How do these families manage to pass the torch gracefully, and what can we expect from the next generation?

IN ITALY, THEY have a saying about family-run companies, shared by an Italian winemaker I know: “The first generation builds it, the second maintains it and the third destroys it." I’m happy to report that under the stewardship of this winemaker and his sister—the second generation to run their winery—his family business is flourishing. How do some families fit the personal with the professional to create successful intergenerational businesses, while others do not? I talked with three prominent California wine families who seem to have figured it out.

Ramey Wine Cellars, Healdsburg

It was never a given that David Ramey’s children, Claire and Alan, would take over the family winery. “You can’t force it. It had to be natural," said the elder Ramey, who has been making notable wine in California for 45 years, for other wineries as well as his own. Founded by Ramey and his wife, Carla, in 1996, Ramey Wine Cellars produces a range of high-scoring wines, notably single-vineyard Chardonnays. David Ramey said, “We had a defining moment in March 2020 when a French company wanted to buy the winery." While both Claire, now 32, and Alan, 31, were already committed to the winery, by collectively choosing to turn down the offer, they reaffirmed that commitment to their parents. Both siblings hold the title co-president; each focuses on different aspects of the business, though all decisions are made jointly and their duties often overlap. Both Ramey children and their father taste all the wines together with Cameron Frey, vice president of winemaking, and Lydia Cummins, associate winemaker, and make final blending choices. But David Ramey is no longer at the forefront and no longer has an office at the winery. The second generation is making decisions, from pricing to production to experimenting with new wines, and that’s fine with their dad. “If you are going to do it, you’ve got to start to cede control to the younger generation," he said.

Bien Nacido Vineyards, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County

The Miller family has been farming in California’s Central Coast for five generations. When fourth-generation brothers Steven and the late Bob Miller planted the Bien Nacido Vineyards in 1973, the Central Coast wasn’t highly regarded. Today, the 640-acre vineyard is considered one of the greatest in California and the source of some of the state’s most notable Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Syrahs. The Millers sold grapes to famous names such as the late Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Bob Lindquist of Qupé and many others, but it took the fifth generation—Nicholas and Marshall Miller, together with their father, Steven Miller—to go ahead and finally produce their own Bien Nacido-designated wines and to open a tasting room. The family produced their first Bien Nacido wine in 2007, and just two months ago, the Millers opened the Gatehouse at Bien Nacido tasting room at the vineyard. The younger generation continues to expand the business. For example, they just launched the nonalcoholic wine brand Hand on Heart, in partnership with Iron Chef Cat Cora. The secret to their success? “We are a very experienced team, and we understand each other deeply," said Nicholas Miller.

K&L Wine Merchants

With three retail wine stores spread out between the Bay Area and Los Angeles and two more slated to open early next year, plus a large online sales operation, K&L Wine Merchants is one of the best-known names in retail wine in California and also one of its most dynamic. K&L was founded in 1976 with one store and two partners: Clyde Beffa, Jr., a former dairy rancher, and Todd Zucker, who got his start in the insurance business. Today, the K&L empire is owned and operated by two generations of Beffas and Zuckers. In the early years, the founding partners divided responsibilities, with Zucker in charge of liquor and Beffa handling the wine. As the wine side grew, Zucker transitioned to accounting and finance. Since joining in 1997, Zucker’s son Brian, focused on technology and marketing, has developed software critical to the expansion of K&L. Beffa has turned much of the wine buying and wine-buyer oversight over to his son Clyde “Trey" Beffa III, who joined the company in 1997. The elder Beffa still buys a lot of the Bordeaux for K&L, however. “He’s kind of a control freak," said Trey of his father. The two Beffas share a fondness for Bordeaux, but their tastes diverge. The father prefers older Bordeaux, whereas the son likes to drink Bordeaux when it is relatively young. “Before it begins to decline," Trey explained. “I like a little more fruit in my wine.

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