Juan Muñoz-Oca, chief winemaker at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), the Pacific Northwest’s largest winery and one of the largest wineries in the U.S., will leave the company early next month. He has accepted the position of chief winegrowing officer at California’s O’Neill Vintners & Distillers.

“It was just impossible for me to say no to this opportunity,” Muñoz-Oca says. “I’m incredibly excited about what’s ahead.”

At O’Neill, Muñoz-Oca will be in charge of all winemaking operations from grape to bottle. This will include overseeing grower relations and managing the company’s wineries. He will also oversee the company’s distillery.

“We’ve been on the hunt for a winemaker who’s got incredible experience, not only domestically but internationally,” says CEO and founder Jeff O’Neill. “Culturally, he’s a great fit. He believes in all the things we do in terms of sustainability and regenerative farming.”

Founded in 2004, O’Neill Vintners & Distillers is the 10th largest winery in the U.S. The company initially focused on a business-to-business model, supplying wine to other wineries. More recently, O’Neill has also been building national wine brands, which include Line 39, Fitvine, Harken, Rabble, Intercept, Robert Hall, Gamebox, Allegro, and others. O’Neill makes approximately 7M cases annually, which includes private label wines for Total Wine, supermarket chains, and other retailers. The winery works with 180 growers, farming 15,000 acres of vineyards. 

Jeff O’Neill previously built Golden State Vintners into one of the country’s largest wineries. He subsequently took it public and later sold the company to The Wine Group in 2004 for an estimated $111M.

Now O’Neill’s eponymous winery is growing. It is a company with a distinct ethos.

O’Neill is the largest B-Corp certified winery in the U.S, and close to 100% of grapes crushed are certified sustainably grown. The winery has a solar-powered bottling line and built a worm-powered wastewater system. O’Neill is also notable for its diversity throughout the organization.

“We’re trying to find everywhere we can to make improvements,” O’Neills says. “We think that’s a great way to advance our industry,” 
Jeff O’Neill was recently named Wine Enthusiast’s 2022 Person of the Year for his myriad accomplishments. In 2021, he was named one of the most inspiring people in the wine industry by Wine Industry Advisor.

“It feels like the company is at the beginning of something great,” says Muñoz-Oca, who has known O’Neill for some time. Ste. Michelle and O’Neill have done business in the past.

A native of Mendoza, Argentina who grew up in the wine industry there, Muñoz-Oca holds degrees in agricultural engineering, enology, and viticulture from the National University of Cuyo in Mendoza. He is also a graduate of Columbia University Business School.

Muñoz-Oca started working for SMWE as a viticultural intern at Columbia Crest in 2001. After subsequently making wine on four continents, he returned to SMWE in 2003 as an enologist.

Muñoz-Oca’s star rose quickly at the company. In 2011, he succeeded Ray Einberger as head winemaker at Columbia Crest. From there he moved to increasingly higher positions, including senior director of winemaking, overseeing Columbia Crest, Borne of Fire, and Intrinsic. Muñoz-Oca played an integral role establishing the latter two brands. He became vice president of winemaking in 2018.

In 2019, Muñoz-Oca was promoted to chief winemaker at SMWE, overseeing all of Ste. Michelle’s winemaking operations. This includes the company’s numerous brands in Washington (Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, 14 Hands, others), Oregon (Erath and recently acquired A to Z Wine Works, Rex Hill), and California (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Patz & Hall). Altogether, Ste. Michelle makes approximately 7.3M cases of wine annually.

“Juan has contributed enormously to both Ste. Michelle and to the greater Washington wine industry. We wish him the very best as he pursues his next challenge in the wine world,” says Ryan Pennington, vice president of communications and corporate affairs for SMWE. “While Juan will soon no longer be a Ste. Michelle employee, he will always be a part of the Ste. Michelle family.”

With a team of winemakers in place throughout the company’s portfolio, Muñoz-Oca’s departure is not expected to have an immediate effect on day-to-day winemaking. Ste. Michelle is currently evaluating how best to fill Muñoz-Oca’s responsibilities. No timeframe has been announced.

At O’Neill, Muñoz-Oca will, at least for the moment, split his time working remotely in Washington and working at his new employer’s corporate offices in Larkspur (Marin County), its viticulture office in Lodi, the production winery in Parlier (Fresno County), and Robert Hall Winery in Paso Robles. (O’Neill purchased Robert Hall in 2016.)

Muñoz-Oca is keeping one foot in Washington as he has children in school. His wife, Jessica Munnell, is also co-owner at Wautoma Springs winery in Prosser. (Read a recent feature about Wautoma Springs.)

“It’s not the kind of thing that you can just put in a U-Haul and take to San Francisco with you,” Muñoz-Oca jokes.

Muñoz-Oca’s departure comes amidst a series of changes at Ste. Michelle. The company was purchased by a private equity group for $1.3B in 2021. Ste. Michelle put its signature Woodinville property up for sale in whole or in part last year to generate money to reinvest in the brand. In October, CEO and president David Dearie resigned after two years at the helm.

Just last week, Ste. Michelle reduced its workforce by 5%. Muñoz-Oca, who at 47 has spent almost his entire career at the company, says these changes were not the driver of his decision to accept the position at O’Neill.

“The future is bright for Ste. Michelle,” he says. “I think we’re doing the right things as an organization to position the company for success. Truly, I’m running toward something that I felt like I couldn’t not run towards. It isn’t a matter of running away.”

While Muñoz-Oca is leaving Washington winemaking after two decades, he remains bullish on the Pacific Northwest. It is also possible there is another chapter to his story in the region.

“I am still a believer in the quality and the potential of Washington, Okanagan, and Oregon,” Muñoz-Oca says. “I’m hoping I can bring my employer to make some wine in the Northwest at some point.” 

O’Neill, meanwhile, believes in Muñoz-Oca’s long-term potential at his winery. “I think, over the long haul, you’ll see [Juan] take on more responsibility at O’Neill beyond winemaking,” he says.

Muñoz-Oca’s last day at SMWE will be March 3rd. He starts at O’Neill March 13th.

Image courtesy of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. 

This article has been updated to reflect that close to 100% of grapes are sustainably grown, not 100%. 

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