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Hot Potato Winery

May 11, 2011
Hot Potato Winery
The famous Gary Farrell winery was sold yet again--but its founder says it's all good.

gary_farrellA couple weeks ago, the famous Gary Farrell winery in Sonoma's Russian River Valley was purchased by a company called The Vincraft Group, which also owns the popular Kosta Browne brand. Normally, this news wouldn't register a blip--but it's the fifth time that Gary Farrell has changed hands in the past seven years.

Farrell sold the winery to spirits giant Allied Domecq in 2004, and it's been a hot potato ever since. It next went to conglomerate Fortune Brands' wine division, Beam Wine Estates. They sold it to wine giant Constellation Brands. Six months later the winery was sold to a company called Ascentia Wine Estates--and now it's with Vincraft. Somehow, through all this, the Gary Farrell winery has continued to make fairly priced, great-tasting wines--particularly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel. But how?

According to Farrell, who left his namesake winery in 2006 and now works solely on his boutique label Alysian Wines, none of the owners have taken his old brand, style or quality for granted. And his former assistant winemaker, Susan Reed, is still at the helm.

Read on for our Q&A with winemaker Gary Farrell, who's watched the Russian River winery he established in 1982 turned over more times than a handbag on eBay--yet still survive and thrive. What's more, Farrell even thinks his old winery's best years might be ahead.

Bottlenotes: Since you first sold your namesake winery it's been turned over a few more times--yet has consistently made good wines. How or why do you think this is possible for your old winery, where it wouldn't be for so many others?
Gary Farrell: Fortunately, we have not had an owner who has deviated significantly from our (original) promise to deliver quality above all else. Thanks to Susan Reed (current winemaker and my assistant winemaker prior to my departure in 2006), most of the same vineyards are utilized and winemaking philosophies have not changed significantly. I believe subsequent owners understood the importance of delivering the style of wines expected from the Gary Farrell brand to preserve their client base.

Do you feel that your old winery is now in the best possible hands-the same group that took over Kosta Browne?
Though previous owners meant well, most were incapable of catering to the needs of a small, high-end brand. This is not the case now. With winery partners such as Kistler and Kosta Browne (rather than Geyser Peak and Buena Vista [which were owned by Ascentia, along with Gary Farrell]), the needs of Gary Farrell winery will be understood and met. I cannot think of a owner more capable of preserving, protecting and enhancing the reputation of my namesake brand.

What did you learn from owning and running the Gary Farrell winery that's helped you be successful with Alysian?
Spend the money to ensure quality and don't be concerned about profit. That will come later. Also, conduct yourself with the utmost integrity with each and every business decision. Understand the importance of nurturing good business and employee relationships.

In terms of the winemaking, what do you do differently at Alysian that sets your current wines apart from the Gary Farrell wines of today?
Due to our extremely limited production (at Alysian), I am now able to perform all winemaking tasks rather than delegating such tasks to others. Rather than dealing with employee issues, bankers and insurance brokers, I can now focus on vineyard testing, fermentation decisions, punch-downs and wine maintenance. This can only occur at our current production levels, which (by the way) have remained constant in each of our first five vintages. Our focus remains "making wine for the love of making wine." If we do a great job at what we do, I firmly believe good things will follow.

What were some of your favorite wines that looked up to or admired early in your career, and what are the brands--or who are the winemakers--that inspire you today?
This is a question I could write a book about. Not because there are so many winemakers I aspire to emulate (we all believe in what we do individually), it's just that I am so disappointed by the style of wines critics are encouraging winemakers to produce. High marks are too often given for excessive ripeness, weight and alcohol, with total disregard for the wine's balance or structural integrity. Those willing to buck this trend tend to be those I admire.

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