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In America’s Family-Run Wineries, the Kids Are All Right

A new generation of vintners is bringing fresh ideas and innovations

L.M. Archer By March 29, 2022
children picking grapes at Elk Cove Vineyard
The early picking crew at Elk Cove Vineyards. Photo courtesy of Elk Cove Vineyards.

It’s sunrise in Oregon’s The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, and second-generation winemaker Brooke Robertson of Delmas surveys her family site, SJR Vineyard. Draining the last of her morning coffee, Robertson tapes her hands and fingers, boxer style, and dons pruning gloves. Bud break is coming.

After running through a series of calisthenics to limber her body for the grueling work ahead, Robertson readies her pruning tools. Kneeling, she examines each vine “always thinking about what I can give the vine this year that will facilitate future advantageous positioning.” 

First cut complete, she stands, walks four feet to the next vine, kneels, and repeats. Robertson will replicate this ritual 12,000 times, once for each of SJR Vineyard’s 12,000 vines. “It is what makes these vines so unique, it is what makes these wines so unique, and it is why I will likely lose all cartilage in my hands by the time I am 50,” she says.

Robertson, age 35, represents the next generation of winery owners taking over from their baby boomer parents. More educated, well-traveled, entrepreneurial, and open to new ideas, these younger makers are ushering in a wine renaissance, offering consumers new styles, approaches, and better-quality wines. And some surprising twists.

Rising generation

Dubbed the rising generation by Professor John Davis, faculty head of family enterprise at MIT Sloan School of Management, this incoming generation of new winery owners expect more influence, leadership, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

The international family business authority attributes this new attitude to both changes in the world at large, as well as in family dynamics. “Since 2000, the world has sped up,” says Davis. “Change is more constant than it has ever been.” In addition, he says, “Families have become much more focused over the last few generations on helping individuals achieve the lives they want as individuals, as opposed to serving the family, even feeling responsible for the family.”

Like other rising generation winemakers, Brooke Robertson gained valuable technical and educational experience abroad before returning to her family’s wine estate. “Travel and outside experience in this industry 100% shaped the way I look at my career,” she says. This included studies at the University of California Davis, work in Napa, Sonoma, and Australia, and earning a Simonit & Sirch Master Pruner Designation in Italy. “How I think about wine growing as a whole has influenced greatly the approach we take to making the wines at Delmas,” she says of her work at the estate founded by her parents Steve and Mary Robertson in 2007.

For example, Robertson employs innovative mini-head-trained pruning methods.

“We are not the first ones to implement an MHT structure in our vineyard,” she says, “There are folks doing modified versions of this all over the world in similar deep-freeze regions. But we were the first to do it here, in The Rocks District — a tailor-made, terroir-centric approach to farming in The Rocks. Had I not experienced what own-rooted 125-plus years-old vines look like in the Barossa, or the glory of head-trained vines in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, I would not have thought that creating this training form would be possible in my region.” 

Not all incoming winemakers initiate changes right away. “When I first took over the reins from my dad, I was extremely cautious about making any changes in regards to winemaking style right off the bat, since the wines my dad was creating at the time were tasting phenomenal, winning awards, and beloved by our loyal wine club members,” says Jamie Benziger of Imagery Winery in Sonoma. 

A millennial, Benziger took over winemaking from her baby boomer father Joe in 2017. Part of the sustainable Benziger family, Joe Benziger founded Imagery Winery in the mid-1980s because he wanted to experiment with uncommon varieties. This emphasis on creativity extended to the winery’s art-themed labels. Jamie continues this creative tradition but adds her own youthful take on packaging, online marketing, and retail. 

Joe and Jamie Benziger of Imagery Winery

Joe and Jamie Benziger of Imagery Winery. Photo courtesy of Imagery Winery.

Winner of the 2019 Best Woman Winemaker in the International Women’s Wine Competition, Benziger has also started experimenting more in the cellar. “While I continue that focus with our estate wines, for the Imagery Wine Collection, I’ve crafted each wine to take a traditional varietal and add a little twist, blending it with a small amount of another varietal for something unexpected, something out of the ordinary, something very Imagery,” she says. “For example, our Imagery Wine Collection Sauvignon Blanc includes a touch of Muscat, and our Chardonnay has a bit of Chenin Blanc. Last year, I branched out and made Imagery’s first rosé of Tempranillo, which turned out to be a hit, and we are going to continue making it.”

New dynasties emerging

Sometimes, new dynasties emerge from the old. “When I took over Elk Cove Vineyards from my folks, I knew that the key to that transition was growth,” says Adam Campbell. His parents Joe and Pat founded Elk Cove Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1974; Adam helmed winemaking in 1995. “Like most of the first generation of Oregon wine pioneers, my folks didn’t have a plan for retirement, and I knew that our business would have to be sufficiently sized and successful enough to pay for their retirement, as well as provide for a sustainable business.”

Pat and Adam Campbell crushing grapes at Elk Cove Vineyard

Pat and Adam Campbell crushing grapes at Elk Cove Vineyards. Photo courtesy of Elk Cove Vineyards.

Consequently, Campbell started leveraging banking relationships in the mid-1990s to acquire vineyards, increase production, and invest in sales and marketing. His sister Anna joined him in 2012, after a decade of working in commercial photography.Wine is such a visual process, and we have such an engaged audience — I was able to use my background in photography and working on creative teams to build up our online presence,” she says.

The result? “We now own and farm 400 acres of estate vineyards for Elk Cove, and we have also founded a sister winery called Pike Road,” says Adam. “We have two thriving tasting rooms, and sell our wines throughout the USA and in 15 export markets.”

Many new dynasties focus on enhancing quality. Fourth-generation farmer Ron McManis and wife Jamie founded McManis Family Vineyards in 1990 and built their winery in 1998. Located in Ripon, California, the state-of-the-art facility produces about 450,000 cases, all bottled, labeled, and packaged in-house. Vineyard acreage totals 4,000 acres, located within the northern interior and Clarksburg Delta regions of California.

“My mom and dad are still involved at the winery, but when the day comes that they fully step away from the business, it will be something that my brother-in-law, vineyard manager Dirk Heuvel, and I take on together,” says fifth-generation Justin McManis, who works alongside his parents. “We’ve built the foundation of our business on family, so no one person will ever run it by his or her own self.”

The family has long farmed using the rigorous Lodi Rules. Three years ago, they earned California’s Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance certification. “At the end of the day, one of our main focuses is continuing to make great wines,” concludes McManis. “But in order to do that, it starts in the vineyard. By doing this, we ensure that we are doing our part to maintain healthy vineyards and that the winery is around for many more generations to come.”

Surprising twists

Finally, a few dynasties take surprising twists. In 2012, Luisa and Anna Maria Ponzi accepted ownership of Willamette Valley’s Ponzi Vineyards from their parents, pioneers Dick and Nancy Ponzi. 

Luisa Ponzi took over the role of winemaking from her father in 1993, after returning from studies in Burgundy. “I just fell in love with white Burgundy,” recalls Ponzi. “And I came home and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, why aren’t we doing this? Why can’t we do this?’ And so that program, I just completely took over.”

Her Pinot Noir program evolved more slowly. “I felt like my father was making great Pinot,” says Ponzi. “He had been hailed as one of the greatest winemakers in the country at that point, and so, my job with the Pinot was really just don’t mess it up.”

Over time, improvements like expanding vineyards, signing on new growers, and purchasing new tools and technology also altered her winemaking approach. “Of course, over time, the Pinots definitely became mine,” she says. “I think in my early years, I was probably doing the young winemaker thing, where I was trying to make kind of bigger wines that were a little showy, to get people’s attention. As I’ve gotten older, I think my wines have actually come back kind of full circle back to my father’s style, looking for more elegance, looking for more complexity. A little more subtle.”

Eventually, however, attitudes changed. “This business is hard, there’s no question,” says Ponzi. “To run this business, especially in this climate now, you’d better love it, there’s no question. And there was a point where we were not having fun. That’s when we said, how can we change this?” 

In a surprising twist, the sisters sold their iconic winery to Champagne Bollinger in 2021. For Ponzi, who retains her winemaking role, Bollinger’s acquisition brings international marketing savvy, a commitment to premium terroir and wine production, and operational support. It also brings more freedom and fun. “This last vintage was so fun for me because I was doing what I love again,” she says. “I had the passion again, that I kind of lost for a while.” 

5 family dynasty wines to try: 

bottle of Elk Cove 2019 La Bohème

Elk Cove Vineyards La Bohème Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir 2019 (~$60)

A brooding blackberry and baking spice beauty with aromatic, textural drama.

bottle of Ponzi Vineyards 2017 Laurelwood Pinot Noir

Ponzi Vineyards Laurelwood Pinot Noir 2017 (~$65)

A floral, red cherry, and spice stunner, with seamless structure, supple tannins, and sublime finish.

bottle of 2020 Imagery Cabernet Sauvignon

Imagery Estate Winery California Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 (~$20)

Opulent notes of dark fruit, baking spice, and vanilla and a plush finish. 

bottle of McManis Chardonnay River Junction

McManis River Junction Chardonnay (~$9)

A luscious stone fruit, melon, and pear pour with a toasty, vanilla finish. 

bottle of Delmas 2019 Syrah SJR Vineyards

Delmas SJR Vineyards The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater Syrah 2019 (~$85)

92.5% Syrah, 7.5% Viognier. Dense dark fruit, floral, and spice notes, intense minerality, and savory bacon finish.