Family Affair

Why some of the most enduring family businesses in the world have roots in the vineyard

At Thanksgiving, it’s fitting to raise a glass of wine to family, as viticulture is one of the most successful of family businesses – with dynasties begun as far back as 1000 AD still in existence today.

Agriculture is arguably as traditional a family endeavor as it gets, and when grapes were the crop wine became one as well. Fast forward a century (or ten), and we see that some of the longest-lived family dynasties in the world have roots in the vineyard.

“Families plan long term – what will my kids inherit – while businesses look quarterly, as in what will the shareholders think,” says Dan Gustafson, owner of Gustafson Communications, with 36 plus years advising individual wine producers. “If you grow your own grapes, it takes trial and error, so you have a relationship with the land. Family members get involved with family wine operations, they provide cheap labor then they get the bug. It’s a lot of fun to make wine, to share it and sell it and frankly, to see your name on the label.”

In fact, wine has more staying power than any other family-run business. Of the top 20 oldest continuously family run companies worldwide, a quarter of them are wine producers: Château de Goulaine (founded 1000), Barone Ricasoli (1141), Antinori (1385), Baronnie de Coussergues (1495), and Codorniu (1551). The Henokians, a society whose members hail from successful family businesses over 200 years old and still run by a direct descendant, boasts 48 members from around the world, many of which produce wine or spirits. They meet regularly to share ideas that bolster family-run business as an alternative to corporate ownership.

The secret for multi-generational vinicultural success, along with long-term vision, seems to be the most basic of entrepreneurial tenets: innovation. Though Codorniu winemaking can be traced to 1515, it was heir Josep Raventós (the last Codorniu, Anna, married Miquel Raventós in 1659) who first made Cava in 1872. In 1971 Piero Antinori, fed up with the tired reputation of Tuscan wines, created a wine from Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, matured in French oak barrels. ‘Tignanello’ was the first of the Super Tuscans which quickly propelled the region back to international prominence.

“Ancient family roots play an important part in our philosophy but they have never hindered our innovative spirit,” says the current Marchese Piero Antinori, whose daughters Alberia, Allegra and Alessia now oversee the day-to-day operations. The next generation not only learns the vicissitudes of the vine, but looks for ways to make their own mark, often by improving process, marketing and distribution.

Here in the US, many brands that started as family dynasties have since become corporate, such as Mondavi, while some are still family run, like E&J Gallo Winery, with 15 members of the family still in service. Founded in 1933 by brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo, their enterprise has flourished by expanding, and now encompasses 90 brands distributed throughout 90 countries, with 6,500 employees. But in their native California, and indeed worldwide, smaller family wineries have also proliferated.

Wine is a passion project, and a relationship business, the essence of family.

“When a last name corresponds to the label, that becomes a personal relationship with a winery. Where you see family wineries surviving now is in the direct-to-consumer area, where they have a tasting room, conduct e-marketing,” says Gustafson. “There really isn’t a lot of choice, because there’s such a proliferation of labels that distributors are just jammed to the gills with large producers that there’s no room for small producers.”

Gustafson, who arrived in Sonoma County in 1982, says while he knew most of the winery owners personally at that time, now most of those are owned by large corporations because the industry has consolidated. “But that always leaves room for the niche player,” he adds.

When large companies buy smaller producers, they often keep their name, and their story, to entice the consumer. And sometimes, when you look behind the label, there is no winery there at all, just some purchased juice and a made-up story, some good graphics for the label.

In fact, in 2005 Gustafson made his own family wine, creating a label called Dysfunctional Family Wines. (There is an actual Gustafson Family Winery in Dry Creek Valley, funnily enough, but no relation.) An artist friend portrayed his kids, then 7 and 8 years old, sipping wine and smoking cigarettes. The label never took off.

“The idea of a family winery was so appealing we thought, why not?” said Gustafson.

Whether your family is dysfunctional or not, we here at WG wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.