Duckhorn Wine Company, a Napa-based Winery, Is Making an Impression on Sonoma County

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Duckhorn Wine Company, a Napa-based Winery, Is Making an Impression on Sonoma County

Article and photo by Rachel LaFranchi

Published April 1, 2016

P.J. Alviso at Duckhorn’s St. Helena Winery.

Duckhorn Wine Company was founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976. Their first vintage in 1978 focused on single varietal wines, specifically Merlot and Cabernet.

Forty-three years later, Duckhorn has sixteen estate vineyards and five brands spread throughout Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties.

The Paraduxx brand was launched in 1994 as a counterpoint to Duckhorn Vineyards with a vision of a uniquely Californian wine. They started growing Zinfandel which evolved to Zinfandel-Cabernet blends, and built the Napa Valley Winery in 2004. Duckhorn bought their first Mendocino County property in Anderson Valley in 1996 following this with the construction of their LEED-certified Goldeneye Winery in 2007.

Duckhorn’s first Sonoma County venture was their Migration Brand, which started as a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir in 2009.

Decoy, one of Duckhorn’s most well-known brands, is also a Sonoma County brand. Duckhorn made their first Sonoma County vineyard acquisition in 2012, procuring the Ridgeline Vineyard in Alexander Valley especially for the Decoy brand. Following in step, Decoy acquired the Alexander Valley Brownell Vineyard the next year.

Although Duckhorn started out as a Napa Valley brand, their presence is Sonoma County is only growing. P.J. Alviso, director of estate viticulture, sees Duckhorn’s Sonoma County holdings increase in the foreseeable future.

With approximately 275 full time employees, they now have more employees in Sonoma County than Napa County.

Despite their growth and changes, Duckhorn’s core values and commitment to quality still remain the same. Founders Dan and Margaret still sit on the board of the company. The company’s CEO and Senior Vice President of Sales have been with the company 25 and 19 years, respectively. 

“Even though company has changed and expanded, we still have a guiding influence. We have this guiding core of maintaining this culture and who we are,” said Alviso.
All of the Duckhorn brands are still committed to wine quality, and making single varietal wines is still a focus of the original brand.

“My main point of pride in what we do is producing wines of place and wines that are varietally true,” said Alviso. “We want to make a merlot that tastes like a really good merlot and we want to make a cab that tastes like a really good cab. It’s easy to make wines that taste the same, but to make wines that are very distinct and true to their place is a challenge. The varietal is very much a key focus of ours.”

Alviso said there wasn’t a single wine he wouldn’t open for his friends. While he admits that not all their wines will be exactly to another person’s taste, he said they’re all still good solid wines and a product the company is proud to produce.

One of the biggest issues Duckhorn has been working on is farm workers. Recently, they have extended the company’s full benefits package to seasonal workers. Field workers during harvest time have the same benefits (including heath and 401k) as someone working in their office year round.

“The whole trend of farm workers moving around and working for different vineyards has changed,” said Alviso. “Guys come across the border work nonstop for four years, and then they go home and don’t come back; you’re seeing a depletion of the work force and talented workers. Now the guys we get are 18, they’ve never worked in a vineyard before, and by the time we get them trained, they go back to Mexico. That’s tough. So keeping and cultivating that part of the work force is huge to us. Not just because it’s going to get us the best grapes at the end of the day, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

In addition to labor issues, Duckhorn has worked diligently on water related problems. Their mentality is to think ahead instead of hoping for the best. They’ve invested in measurement systems and new technology to minimize useage.

With water, Alviso said Duckhorn is approaching water use intellectually rather than reflexively. He said the first instinct is it’s easier and safer to overwater rather than underwater. However, they’re approaching water with a conservative approach, using their tools to back it up and asking, “do I really need to water today?”

While Duckhorn is actively working on many issues including water and farm labor, Alviso said there are a lot of issues which are easy to overlook on a day to day basis. “Having Farm Bureau saying the right thing to the right people in Sacramento is important for us and the sustainability of agriculture.”

Duckhorn Vineyards is a Premium Member of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and also maintains memberships with the Napa County and Mendocino County Farm Bureaus.

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