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Alex Ryan

Alex Ryan, CEO of Duckhorn Wine Co. 

Tim Carl photo

In 1976, Margaret and Dan Duckhorn founded a small winery. Their goal was to make a merlot wine from Napa Valley grapes that might stand up to any wine in the world. Their first vintage was the 1978. Forty years later, their commitment to that original vision has been recognized as the Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year for their 2014 Duckhorn Merlot from the Three Palms Vineyard in Napa Valley.

“When you look at the list of the top wines from the Spectator over the last 30 years, we’re in pretty good company,” said Alex Ryan, president and CEO of Duckhorn Wine Co. “It’s a real testament to the vision and tenacity of Dan and Margaret.”

Man behind the curtain

You have probably never heard Ryan’s name before. He has maintained a low profile since starting work for Dan Duckhorn in his early teens, back in the late 1970s when the company was formed. And since then, except for four years when he was away at school getting a viticulture degree from Fresno State, he has been there, working his way up the ranks, from vineyard to the cellar. He eventually earning the title of president in 2005 after being appointed general manager and chief operating officer in 2000.

Ryan grew up in St. Helena and has shown an uncanny ability to make good decisions and then execute them almost flawlessly, growing the Duckhorn Co. from a few thousand cases of a single brand to a collection of brands — Goldeneye, Paraduxx, Migration, Decoy, Canvasback and Calera — that collectively now produces nearly 1 million cases per year.

If you ask him, he’ll point to his team, the owners and a long list of investors over the years as having the greatest influence. But I’ve known Ryan since we went to school together at the Robert Louis Stevenson Junior High School in St. Helena, and I can assure you that his force of personality and his natural business acumen are almost assuredly key factors in Duckhorn’s success.

Granted, having a strong team, such as Renée Ary, who started working in the cellar in 2003 and became head winemaker in 2014, is also important, as is having what is the force-of-nature personalities of the Duckhorns as wind in the company’s sails. It’s also important to note that a sequence of super-smart private equity firms from the Bay Area have been majority owners since 2007 — GI Partners first and the most recently, TSG Consumer Partners, who must look pretty smart for purchasing Duckhorn from their rivals in 2016.

But make no mistake, that person behind the curtain, the person who has been running the show almost from the beginning, is Ryan.

The other merlot

The last time a Napa Valley merlot was chosen for wine of the year was in 2003, when the 2001 vintage Paloma Merlot from the Spring Mountain District garnered the coveted prize. That wine was made by a mom-and-pop team — Jim and Barbara Richards — who had planted their small mountaintop vineyard in merlot because they’d tasted Dan Duckhorn’s merlot and found it to their liking.

But the Richardses were not winemakers, so they consulted with winemaker Robert Foley, arguably the Napa Valley’s guru on merlot, to help them craft a few hundred cases of the 2001 vintage.

When these “newcomers” won the prize there was grumbling in the ranks of other local vintners who found the choice void of any acknowledgement of history or long-term commitment and a lack of understanding from the Spectator that giving the prize to a small player who only made a few bottles wasn’t a good business decision.

Tasting the 2001 Paloma merlot

I distinctly remember tasting the 2001 Paloma. I’d learned about the vineyard from my father a year earlier and had even visited Barbara at her home on Mount St. Helena.

Tasting the Paloma 2001 was an earth-shattering kind of experience. The unctuous, intensely concentrated and chocolatey wine had a depth and complexity that I remember to this day. Foley had told me that year that he never removed stems or leaves from the grapes after they’d been picked, believing they added something “real” to the wine.

As I tasted that wine over the course of a few days (as is my habit), each new sip provided tangible evidence that wine can be a living, breathing, ever-changing entity, and it was a travesty when the bottle eventually stood empty on my kitchen counter. I was changed by that wine, and it was one of the reasons that led me to leave my life in Boston and come back home to the Napa Valley to start a winery.

In 2003, Marvin Shanken, publisher of the Wine Spectator, had picked a wine that seemed to nail the zeitgeist of the moment, as he wrote in his introduction to the Dec. 31, 2003, issue of the magazine:

“This wine testifies to a significant trend underway in Napa Valley: a proliferation of small-production wines from exceptional vineyards tended by vintners who will not settle for less than world-class quality. At 95 points, the Paloma received the highest score a merlot has ever gotten from Wine Spectator, yet the price ($45) is fair.”

Three Palms Merlot

The 2014 Three Palms is made up of 86 percent merlot, 8 percent cabernet Sauvignon, 4 percent malbec and 2 percent petit verdot. All the fruit for the wine comes from the 83-acre vineyard, 50 acres of which are planted to merlot. The namesake vineyard, with its distinctive towering three palm trees, is located just south of Calistoga and was first planted in 1968. The vineyard was purchased by Duckhorn when GI Partners invested $70 million as part of their effort to solidify grape sources and update operations.

I tasted one bottle of the 2014 Three Palms Merlot that I’d purchased through the tasting room. I paid $105, not the $98 that was listed on the website and pricing sheet. When I asked why the price changed, the woman behind the counter smiled, “We’ve had a lot of demand for this wine, as you might imagine.”

Like I had with the Paloma years earlier, I tasted the wine over a four-day period.

The 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms is a nearly perfectly crafted example of modern-day winemaking. The flavors are distinct: plum, sweet oak, violet, Tootsie Roll candy and earth. Over the course of four days, the wine changed very little except for a sweet, leathery element that grew over time. I came to understand that this wine would embarrass no one who’d brought it to a party but that the award was really about something more.

Whereas the 2001 Paloma award seemed wholly about the wine (and perhaps value), the 2014 Three Palms choice this year seems mostly about giving a nod to the Napa Valley’s half-century of winemaking excellence by the Duckhorn cohort and an acknowledgment that the business model has changed over the years, or as Shanken wrote in his introduction to the Dec. 31, 2017, issue of Wine Spectator, “…most of all, we were impressed by the wine’s X-factor — the story behind the bottle.”

This year’s Wine of the Year also seems to highlight the changing nature of Wine Spectator itself. With decades of experience and deep wine knowledge, the Spectator appears to be taking a more sentimental view of Napa Valley winemaking, looking to some of the stalwarts and maverick visionaries who with a strong team of smart, hard-working and loyal employees and investors might be recognized for having built something good and solid with their decades of effort.

The future of Duckhorn Wine Co.

The Duckhorns have had a wild ride, their wings lifted by many. The future remains unwritten, but the recent purchase of one of the most highly regarded pinot noir producers in California, Calera, signals that Duckhorn is likely to be making more external purchases in the future. I also imagine they are getting plenty of purchase inquires from some of their bigger competitors who see the Duckhorn brand as something akin to Gucci in the eyes of consumers. Given this award, expect the pressure from all sides on this company to increase.

When I asked Ryan his biggest concern about the future, he chewed his lip and looked out the window, his expression serious. We sat in his small office on the second floor of the Duckhorn Winery in St. Helena, pictures of his wife and three children covering the walls.

“My biggest fear is dust,” he said. “I know I am not a fix-it guy, so we need to keep things relevant and of the highest quality. I might push really hard, but at the end of the day I am working for Dan, Margaret, their family and for our employees and partners — and I take that very seriously.”