Hendry: Wine tasting in the great indoors

Hendry: Wine tasting in the great indoors

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Just over the hill from Alston Park, out of sight of dog walkers and trail joggers, the Hendry family has tended vines for three generations.

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, more people than ever are flocking to the popular Napa park to escape the pressures of shelter-in-place. In an oddly related turn of events, wine enthusiasts across the country are heading to their computers and smartphones to participate in virtual tastings of Napa Valley and other California wines.

It’s an escape to the great indoors, and Hendry Ranch is part of the novel experiment.

As they contribute to a rapidly evolving definition of wine country hospitality, winemaker George Hendry and his nephew and grapegrower, Mike Hendry, find themselves in unfamiliar roles. For their staff at the historic Oak Knoll estate, promoting wine through a virtual format is becoming the new normal.

When the winery notified its club members and email list in late March that the “Hendry at Home Virtual Tasting Series” was around the corner — Friday afternoons at 3, complete with BYO wine and optional cheeseboards — it was a new marketing approach for the low-key ranch George Hendry converted to an estate winery nearly 20 years ago. Ironically, for his nephew, it was as much a step back in time as a technological leap forward.

“You know what’s funny about this? I feel like this coronavirus thing has taken us back 50 years because it’s so quiet here now. And this is the way it always used to be,” the younger Hendry said on the phone.

“Before we had the winery, and even when we built it, we didn’t really plan for a lot of visitors. The whole wine tourism thing was not something we thought about,” Hendry confessed while recapping the virtual tastings he and events manager Megan Carter have hosted for their online audience. “And like that room where we’re doing the tasting, we didn’t really even build tasting spaces into the winery. It was supposed to be offices. I feel like recently it’s very quiet and very private — more like it used to be, you know, many years ago.”

“That room” referred to by Hendry is an office, now repurposed as an online studio set, within the barn-like winery his uncle had built in 2001. The construction followed George Hendry’s mid-1990s purchase of a neighboring property to expand the ranch his parents — Mike’s grandparents — acquired back in 1939.

After an early-1960s stint in the navy and electrical engineering degrees from UC Berkeley, Hendry spent a successful career designing particle accelerators for the Cyclotron Corporation. Having grown up on his parents’ ranch, he also had farming in his blood. “When he wasn’t designing cyclotrons,” the winery’s website notes, “George was usually working on the ranch.”

The inventor and astute businessman took note in the 1970s of changes in Napa Valley’s wine industry, particularly a rise in wine grape prices and the increasing popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon. Between 1973 and 1975 he reverted most of the 200-acrce ranch back to its earlier state as a vineyard and began to sell fruit to Robert Mondavi. This led to Opus One becoming a grape client in the 1980s.

Another important, if somewhat less-famous, customer at that time was the late Kent Rosenblum, who bottled vineyard-designated Hendry Zinfandel under his Alameda-based label, Rosenblum Cellars.

Among other clients, the high quality of the wine he made from the ranch inspired Hendry to start his own label in 1995. He was helped by a business partner, Jeff Miller, and his neighbor Susan Ridley, who ran sales for many years. The 1992 vintage wines they released included a pair of Zinfandels that, much like Rosenblum’s, turned heads.

The intervening years have seen less and less Hendry fruit sold to other wineries and more turned into wine at the Redwood Road estate.

At 82, George Hendry still leads the winemaking, assisted by Cellarmaster Rafael Melgoza and his son, Luis. Miller and his wife, Jan, known around the winery as the “reigning queen of fermentations,” also play key roles. Production has risen to a substantial 14,000 cases per year.

Flashing forward to 2020, neither George nor Mike Hendry could have predicted the changes brought to the wine industry by the pandemic. The winegrower is taking it in stride.

“It’s interesting, the way that wine sales have been changing constantly,” he observed. When his uncle debuted the Hendry label and then built the winery, national distribution was the sales model for other Napa Valley wineries. “In the last 20 years, I feel like there’s been a trend toward less [distribution] and more direct-to-consumer. And then direct-to-consumer has turned into wine clubs and online sales.”

He added that, while he thinks sales channels will continue their web-based transition, “what’s different these days is that the sales aren’t just online; it’s the meetings and the tastings that are online. And that’s very new for us.”

If necessity was ever the mother of invention in the wine business, now is certainly the time. In this vein, Megan Carter, who doubles as one of Hendry’s wine educators, proposed the idea for wine club video conferencing to her colleague, Angela Douglass. That was on March 16, the day after Governor Gavin Newsom requested that wineries up and down California close their tasting rooms.

“I thought it was such a neat idea but then saw lots of other wineries roll out virtual tastings — so much for originality!” Carter half-jokingly wrote in an email. “Since then, the whole team has weighed in and helped get it to the point where we could launch it.”

That launch point was the first Friday of April, another date that will likely find a permanent place on the Hendry Ranch timeline.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a winery so closely associated with Zinfandel had its best turnout yet for the second tasting, with more than 250 people logged on. That webinar featured Carter and Hendry sipping and discussing the two current Zinfandels from the excellent 2016 vintage.

“Open a Hendry Zinfandel and join us,” Angela Douglass urged participants from behind the scenes on the webinar chat screen. “We’re drinking the 2016 Blocks 7 & 22 and 2016 Block 28 Zins.”

Meanwhile, commenters typed greetings from their various locations: Seattle, Colorado, Montreal, Oklahoma, Oslo. And New Orleans, where, at 5 p.m. Central, they were getting a late start.

With a sleek, new microphone centered on a polished wood table that Mike Hendry built from a fallen bay laurel on the ranch, and a backdrop wall adorned with old black and white photographs taken by his grandfather, the “Hendry at Home” title could’ve been pulled from an HGTV menu screen: it’s a fitting theme for a homemade series that is both impromptu and well-executed.

Carter and Hendry have enjoyed an easy rapport during the tastings. Their exchanges of information, between each other and facing the camera, come without awkward pauses or stumbles.

Hendry pointed out, however, that “it’s difficult, because you have a completely unpredictable range of wine, experience, and interest among users on the other side of the computer.” So he and Carter have been meeting Fridays at noon to go over their notes on the wines to be discussed. The preparation is evident during the hour-long webinars.

“It’s kind of like putting together a lecture,” he explained. “Megan’s, you know, doing a bunch of research on the topics. And I’m doing the same thing and coming up with sort of a pattern for what I want to go through.”

At the beginning of the Zinfandel tasting, George Hendry was introduced by Carter, who stepped out of the frame to give an appropriate six feet of distance to her boss. In jeans and a plaid workshirt, the elder Hendry looked more like a rancher and less like a science engineer. His appearance and comments were brief but heartfelt.

“We are doing well here. We’re very fortunate in that we’re able to keep all of our employees at work, in both the vineyard and the winery,” he said, standing over the mic, “and we are especially appreciative to you, because you are sending in the orders that actually keep this operation working, and that is very important. So, thank you all.”

The pleasing “quiet” that Mike Hendry had earlier referred to around the winery, and which would’ve been normal procedure for his uncle up until just a few years ago, cuts both ways: the coronavirus is hurting the winery’s sales. George Hendry’s message to the participants was therefore even more meaningful.

The virtual tastings have, his nephew noted, brought some sales. “It’s kind of filling a hole that’s left by no tours and no tastings. And, you know, that’s made a difference. It’s actually very important to our sales under the current circumstances.”

Few people connected to Hendry Ranch understand the challenging business climate as well as Sybil Ajay Sanford, founder of the Petaluma-based Springboard Wine Company, which has distributed the Hendry wines in California for the better part of the last decade. While Sanford can’t predict what lies at the other end of the coronavirus tunnel, she’s optimistic for the brand’s future, based on her past experience.

“If you look at the Hendry sales,” she said over the phone, “what you see is we have a broad range of restaurants and retailers that support Hendry throughout the state. It’s not pooled in Napa or Orange County or Palm Springs. You know, it’s everywhere.”

The wholesale veteran added that, to her, “this is really sort of the through-line with this brand. Susan [Ridley] did a very good job of building an awareness around Hendry, and we’ve been able to take that up a bit and improve on it over time. They have a really good following.”

To wineries and distributors, it’s already clear that some of their restaurant and retailer customers won’t survive this enforced economic downturn. Sanford gets this, as do Mike and George Hendry.

But, at the appropriate time (in California, anyway), shelter-in-place will be lifted, and the numbers of dogs and joggers and families using Alston Park might actually start to drop to normal levels.

Just over the hill, Hendry Ranch visits will resume, along with those to other wineries around the state. On the phone, Mike Hendry wondered about the future relevance of non-viticultural terms and concepts like video conferencing and virtual tastings — and microphones.

“There’s a lot about this stuff that, you know, could ultimately be positive,” the grower said, expressing confidence in a technology-driven future at the ranch.

“I think we all agree that, in the right moment, there’s no substitute for sitting down face-to-face with somebody. But, you know, that’s not always possible or practical. So, I think that virtual tastings are something that people are going to be forced to get familiar with soon. And a bunch of them are going to ultimately become comfortable with it. I think that’ll have a lasting effect.”

Whatever happens, Hendry probably hopes to continue to put his bay laurel table to use, whether guests sitting across from him are three feet away, or 3,000 miles.

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