After last week’s announcement of the sale of Betz Family Winery, I stayed up late into the night talking with several friends about the potential implications for the winery and for the Washington wine industry more generally. One question that gnawed at me after the Betz sale is whether Washington’s many small wineries will face succession issues.
The hallmark of the Washington wine industry is small, family wineries where the winemaker also serves as salesperson, bookkeeper, and janitor. As Carrie Simon noted in a recent post, a quintessential part of the Washington wine country experience is talking with the person who makes the wine or someone in their family. What does this mean though when it comes time for the winemaker to retire?
There are really only three options available: transfer the business to someone in the family, sell it, or shut it down. In terms of transferring a winery to a family member, this of course requires a willing participant. Especially in America, people like to go their own way and establish their own identities. How many folks out there are working at a small business passed down across generations or can imagine doing so?
Selling the winery is, of course, always an option. However, this can lead to numerous challenges and changes. Especially in Washington where most wineries do not own their vineyard sources, these may include significant stylistic changes beyond those accompanied by a change in winemaker (Betz Family Winery it should be noted has largely sourced from the same vineyard blocks for many years and will presumably continue to do so).
Another significant issue for many Washington wineries is that the winemaker is often a significant part of the brand. The response I heard from people across the industry last week about the Betz sale was a range of emotions akin to the stages of grieving. Few were ambivalent about the change because many consumers have a connection to this winery and the people involved in it. This is the case for numerous Washington wineries where the persona of the winemaker is inseparable from the brand. This is seldom the case with larger wineries where the winemaker is often seldom seen.
Several Washington wineries, such as Quilceda Creek, Leonetti Cellar, and L’Ecole No 41 have successfully managed the transition to a second generation. A number of Washington wineries that have recently reached the fifteen to twenty year mark face a decision point in the not so distant future.
For many Washington wineries that have sprung up in the last ten years, this issue may seem far off at the moment – paying the bills is far more urgent. However, when that moment comes, there will be interesting decisions to be made and some interesting implications for the industry as a whole.