Much buzz in the Virginia wine industry this year has focused on Donald Trump’s purchase of Kluge Estate winery at a bankruptcy auction. But there’s been a stealth acquisition north of Charlottesville, as Steve and Jean Case of AOL fame have purchased Sweely Estate winery. True to form, they have … ideas … of what to do with the winery and how to help the Virginia wine industry as a whole.
(This article appeared, in slightly different form, in The Washington Post on December 14.)
What happens when a conservative community, hesitant to change its ways and dependent for its livelihood on the slow cycle of the seasons, meets a dynamic innovator accustomed to rapid transformations in the way people live, work and communicate?
Now that Steve and Jean Case of AOL fame have purchased a winery, the Virginia wine industry may soon find out.
The couple behind the Case Foundation (which promotes philanthropy through technology), and Revolution, a venture capital firm that supports “disruptive, innovative companies,” quietly purchased Sweely Estate, just off US 29 in Madison, in July; final regulatory approval for the license transfers was granted late last month.
The transition at Sweely, a seven-year-old winery that slipped in and out of foreclosure during the last two years, has been remarkably low key given the prominent public profile of its buyers. It is a marked contrast to the spectacularly public bankruptcy of Kluge Estate, south of Charlottesville, which played out in the media until the winery was purchased at auction earlier this year by real estate mogul and TV star Donald Trump.
But in a two-hour interview at the winery on a recent warm, sunny December morning, Jean Case described an ambitious, if not yet entirely mapped out, plan to help the Virginia wine industry expand to new markets.
“We’re Virginians for the past 30 years, and we like to see business grow in the state,” she said. “Part of that is the excitement of helping a nascent industry on the brink of success. Our goal is for us and our team to be out in some markets in Virginia and building exposure for Virginia wines. There’s a beautiful opportunity to be out there with a wine and show people the quality it represents.”
Case, 52, is a slim, vivacious woman with an easy smile that doesn’t fade even as she talks. While most winery types see a cloud and think of rain, she’s the type who finds a silver lining. And unlike most winery owners, she travels with an entourage – Erich Broksas, a senior vice president of the Case Foundation who described himself as in charge of “strategy and innovation” for the winery venture, and Allyson Burns, vice president of communications for the Case Foundation and Revolution, drove from Northern Virginia for the interview. They joined a Charlottesville-based publicist, the winery manager and winemaker, who filled out the group.
While Jean Case and her husband have enjoyed wine for years (Steve Case has written letters to the editor of Wine Spectator magazine), they hadn’t paid much attention to Virginia wines until a Charlottesville vacation three years ago. Visiting several of the area’s wineries, they discovered the growth and improvement of the state’s wines and their interest was piqued.
The winery is clearly Jean Case’s project. Her first order of business is to renovate – the winery will close to visitors later this month and reopen in the Spring with a new tasting room and refurbished events venues. The separate production facility is state-of-the-art, using three levels to move the wine by gravity instead of pumping, and with plenty of capacity to expand production.
Case has already taken steps to improve the wines, which under the previous ownership never reached their potential for quality. Six underperforming acres of the 36 acres planted to vines have been ripped out to prepare for replanting with different grape varieties and clones. (The estate is about 300 acres, of which only 38 have the slopes and soils suitable for grape vines.) Case says she plans to streamline the portfolio and concentrate on Bordeaux-style reds. All the fruit will be from Virginia, she insists.
Sweely winemaker Frantz Ventre spent the last two years of the winery’s financial troubles maintaining the vineyards rather than making wine – to ease the winery’s cash crunch, Sweely Estate sold most of its grapes in 2009 and its entire crop in 2010. The vineyard, first planted in 2004 at the relatively high density of 1,700 vines per acre, should be in its prime.
The Cases took possession of the winery just before the worst harvest weather in recent memory, with 30 out of 36 days measuring rain from late August through September. So already they’ve encountered a challenge they hadn’t seen at AOL, Revolution, or any of their other investments.
“With our previous ventures, a problem meant more time, more people, and crunching more numbers,” chimed in Broksas, the “strategic innovator.” “But we can’t control Mother Nature.”
Case has appointed Peter Hoehn, a veteran of the hospitality industry in Charlottesville, as chief executive officer to manage the winery and cope with Nature’s whims. She has also retained Ventre as winemaker. Ventre is planning to increase quality next year by limiting yields to one grape cluster per vine shoot, instead of the two he harvested in previous vintages. He recently visited Oregon to study sustainable viticulture practices popular there.
A native of St. Emilion on Bordeaux’s right bank, Ventre is especially enamored of merlot.
“We have one block in the vineyard that is doing really well with merlot, and when I taste the wine it reminds me of home,” he says.
To help with the transformation of the wine, Case decided not to hire famous French consultants, as other prominent Virginia wineries have done. “We hired Virginians!” she says almost like a rallying cry. Michael Shaps of Virginia Wineworks has been brought on board to help with the winemaking, and viticulturist Lucie Morton is consulting on the vineyard.
Beyond these immediate steps to renovate the tasting facility, Case has one urgent dilemma to resolve before she begins marketing her wine or promoting the state industry: She needs a new name for the winery.
“It will definitely not be Case Wines,” she says, referring to the obvious jokes about “Case Discounts” or “By the Case.” While her team will decide on a winery name, they plan to enlist consumers to help name their first wine to be released, probably through a poll on Facebook. “All our businesses have been about building communities, and we want to apply that approach here,” she says.
In talking about marketing over the longer term, Case is more ambitious. She talks of promoting not only her own wines but the image of Virginia wine itself as a way of elevating the industry’s profile among wine drinkers. To do that, her team will select a “family” of Virginia wines that she hopes to sell in the winery’s tasting room.
“We would love to have consumers come here and choose from a variety of Virginia’s finest wines,” Case says. Her “family” of Virginia’s top wines could be fluid, she adds, but her favorite wineries include Linden, Keswick, King Family and Barboursville, among others.
Her promotional ambitions extend beyond the tasting room, however. “We’ve been speaking to general managers and wine stewards in restaurants and wine bars, as well as retailers in Northern Virginia, and we’re seeing a lot of interest in carrying Virginia wines,” she says. “It fits in with the eat-local, drink-local movement and an interest in supporting local business.”
Virginia wineries are allowed to self-distribute 3,000 cases of wine annually to retailers and restaurants in state, through an industry-run holding company established in 2008. Many wineries don’t fully utilize that sales avenue, however, and Case hopes to use it to promote her “family” of Virginia’s best wines. She described an industry that has reached a set capacity and needs to discover new markets to expand; her target market is Northern Virginia and people who, like her before her Charlottesville vacation with Steve, haven’t yet discovered the new quality in Virginia wine.
But can this marketing revolution be “disruptive” enough to shake up the industry? Most Virginia wineries sell their small production entirely through their tasting rooms and festivals, where they earn full retail profits. There is a disincentive to put their wines in the distribution system, even through self-distribution, which takes time and resources.
“We need to demonstrate that there is a market for these wines in order to give the wineries and the growers confidence to expand and grow,” Case says. “We’re willing to make the initial investment and effort to show that it’ll work – and if it doesn’t, we take the hit.”
I spoke to three industry insiders who expressed skepticism – while asking not to be identified – that Case will be able to enlist other wineries for her cooperative venture. Why would any winery promote another winery’s product, they wondered.
Others are more optimistic. “I think she’ll be a tremendous asset,” says David King, owner of King Family Estate winery in Crozet, west of Charlottesville. “There’s all kinds of opportunity in our industry, and I’m as excited as can be about people in another sector with their energy coming in and energizing our industry.”
Case’s ambitions are more modest than Donald Trump’s, which perhaps reflects their different personalities. Trump Vineyards, the former Kluge Estate, has 220 acres of vineyards with plans to expand to 370 acres. Case has 30 acres, and talks of buying more vineyard land to increase production. Trump also has an established market for the wines in his hotels, golf clubs and casinos. Through this network, he will be able to raise the profile of Virginia wine worldwide.
Case’s focus is local, on a statewide market where only 5 percent of the wine purchased is made in Virginia. “I see no reason that Virginia wines shouldn’t ultimately compete on the global market, but we need to walk before we can run,” she says.
“We need more Virginians to drink Virginia wine.”