Wharton Wines: Emphasis on Family

Posted on August 27, 2012

What goes into a bottle of wine? What’s behind the label? Where does your favorite wine come from?

To be clear, I’m not asking about the location of the vineyard or tasting room. I’m not asking about the varietal, whether the winemaker used French or American oak, or how long the wine was aged. I’m talking here about people. I’m talking about the person whose name is on the label. For some consumers, that means something.

For others (and perhaps for most), price and quality are what matter. Many consumers are not particularly interested in who makes the wine they buy – whether it comes from a big producer for whom wine is strictly a profit-driven business, or a small winery for whom wine is some mixture of livelihood and labor of love.

Perhaps like me, though, you are interested in supporting and getting to know small, family-owned businesses. If so, let me introduce you to Geoff and Rhonda Wharton of Wharton Wines in Napa Valley.

Geoff and Rhonda Wharton

Small and Family-Owned: Unique in Napa Valley

Wharton Wines is the very definition of a small family business, and in that respect they’re not like the typical Napa Valley winery. Take a drive up highway 29 from Carneros to Calistoga and you can’t help but admire the stately wineries that line the road, with their beautiful vineyards and elegant tasting rooms. As Geoff pointed out when he, Rhonda, and I spoke recently, for many of these wineries money is no object. There is no shortage of corporate investment in this area, and many wineries are in fact part of large conglomerates like Constellation Brands that own dozens of wineries (and other businesses).

Not so with Wharton Wines. Unlike the great Napa estates, these are truly vins de garage, as they say in Bordeaux. “The fact that we’re a small winery and family-owned is something that people care about,” Geoff says. In an industry where each winery must compete with thousands of other labels, being small and family-owned is a point of differentiation – and pride – for Geoff Wharton. His customers like the idea that they know the winemaker himself, that they know where the wine comes from.

And when Geoff says “small,” he really means tiny. In 2008, the Whartons made 115 cases of wine. This year they expect to make about 200. Each year they hope to increase capacity slowly and steadily, with the long-term goal of reaching 2,000 cases. (By way of comparison, consider Robert Mondavi Wines; just up the road from the Whartons’ home, Mondavi produces several hundred thousand cases per year.)

By remaining small, the Whartons can focus on quality and value. “Our goal is to make great wine at a reasonable price,” Geoff says. The retail price of both the 2008 and the 2009 Wharton Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon was just $30, a modest price for wines of this quality. These are beautiful wines that are comparable to Napa or Sonoma cabs at twice the price. My tasting notes from the 2008 cabernet describe it this way: “Good structure with sturdy tannins and oak balanced by bright fruit and classic cabernet flavors of eucalyptus and mint.”

Unfortunately both 2008 and 2009 are also sold out. The 2010 will be bottled in mid-September and available for purchase shortly there after.

For Wharton Wines, Giving is Growing

2010 Wharton Napa Valley ChardonnayOne quality of family businesses that appeal to me is that they often make decisions that are not motivated by profit or “shareholder value.” In 2010, for example, the Whartons produced a few dozen cases of chardonnay, and did so for reasons other than financial. I wrote about this wine in an earlier blog post, noting flavors of lime, butterscotch, pear, and wet stones. However, I also noted that perhaps the wine’s most important quality was something you couldn’t taste, see, or smell.

Rhonda Wharton tells the story: “Geoff and I were out walking one day, and he said he’d like to make a chardonnay to honor his father, who had been diagnosed a couple years back with lung cancer. Chardonnay was his dad’s favorite wine.” The Whartons donated the net proceeds from the sale of their 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay to the Lung Cancer Foundation of America in Al Wharton’s name. “Unfortunately his father wasn’t able to taste the wine, but we were able to share that vision with him before he died. I’m very proud of Geoff for doing that,” Rhonda says, noting Geoff’s strong sense of family and civic responsibility.

Geoff Wharton and his father Al

Geoff Wharton and his father Al

Another way the Whartons give back to the community is by pouring their wines at charity events. Supporting causes like cancer research through wine tastings allows the Whartons to do good with their business while also building awareness for their wine. In fact, it was at just such an event earlier this year that I met Geoff and Rhonda and discovered their wine.

Because Wharton Wines is such a small producer whose wines sell out quickly, it’s not possible for them to have a tasting room. “A ton of people want to visit us after tasting our wine,” Geoff says, recognizing that not having a tasting room is a limitation. As a result, they must find more creative ways to market their product and develop a customer base. Participating in charity wine tastings has been an effective approach for them, a win/win that’s good for the business and good for the heart.

“We create great relationships through the tastings we participate in,” Geoff says, and the people they meet often become regular customers. It’s definitely a slow process. But for many small businesses like Wharton Wines, that’s how you grow, one customer at a time. At the end of the day, it really is about the relationship, isn’t it?

To learn more about Wharton Wines, visit their website.

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