The Business of Innovation

CEO of Francis Ford Coppola Presents recalls successes and missteps at Unified Wine & Grape Symposium

by Kate Lavin
wine tracy geldert Unified
Nick Goldschmidt (right) listens as Tracy Geldert discusses the process of innovation at Francis Ford Coppola Presents on Thursday during the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.
Sacramento, Calif.—When Francis Coppola decided to remove his movie memorabilia and rename Niebaum-Coppola winery Rubicon Estate Winery (now Inglenook), the move was met with confusion and resistance on the parts of its Napa Valley neighbors and even members of the winery’s own staff. But as with all true innovations, skepticism is par for the course, said Tracy Geldert, CEO at Francis Ford Coppola Presents.

Geldert was part of a group of alcoholic beverage producers participating in a panel about innovation Thursday at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, which revealed that the official number of attendees reached 14,000 this year, an increase of 600.

She shared that the award-winning film director wanted to clear Niebaum-Coppola, which hosted 350,000 visitors per year, of “people who don’t care about wine.” The move went against everything Geldert had learned about getting and retaining customers, but with an estimated 70% of people not participating in a wine tasting when they visited the tasting room in the Rutherford AVA, Coppola’s idea was not without merit.

People were equally horrified when Coppola bought the beloved Chateau Souverain property in Sonoma County and immediately dug a giant hole on the grounds for a swimming pool. But after re-homing all of the cinematic treasures and non-Inglenook wines to this site, and creating a family atmosphere that includes the swimming pool, cabanas and a restaurant, the new Francis Ford Coppola Winery drove visitation up to 200,000 per year and gave wine country tourists a reason to venture beyond Healdsburg and into Sonoma County’s Geyserville, Calif.

“By year three it was really fun being looked at as a leader and having the courage to do what we did at the property. But it took a lot of courage, and we had to spend a lot of time managing expectations,” she said.

One difficult hurdle Geldert had to jump during the changeover was releasing Niebaum-Coppola employees who were resistant to the transition. By the time the company opened the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Geldert knew what needed to be done. “We had a lot of fun with it and hired a whole lot of people with a can-do attitude that loved it as much as we did,” she said.

As for the ever-innovating Coppola, his company recently acquired the Geyser Peak Winery building, and Geldert promises there are many more surprises on the horizon. “My job working for Francis Coppola was never to ask ‘if,’ but ‘how.’”

Improving efficiency
Nick Goldschmidt, who owns vineyards in four countries (including Goldschmidt Vineyards in Healdsburg, Calif.), is a winemaking consultant in seven countries and sells wine in 10 countries, contends that the U.S. wine industry is full of inefficiencies.

He advocates more vertical integration within the industry, saying, “We have to consolidate to increase our profits.”

Equipment is one area where the international winemaker thinks things could be better. “Suddenly basket presses are cool,” Goldschmidt said. “Here in California we’re buying one or two. But when you put banks of them in, they’re really efficient.”

And rather than having a winery spend all its capital on cellar equipment, Goldschmidt says U.S. winemakers should share more equipment.

The New Zealand-native winemaker doesn’t advocate the rampant use of all cellar tools, however. When it comes to desetemmers, he said, “I think we need to be careful. We grow one grape, one berry size, no jacks, no raisins, and we’re losing some of our natural complexity.” Stripping wine of its personality goes against one of the things Goldschmidt did praise about the U.S. wine industry, which is that it embraces diversity and originality. “I love appellations for that reason,” he said.

To further this idea, Goldschmidt encouraged wineries to stand firm against exporting U.S. wine to be bottled elsewhere. “Look what happened with the Australians: The Brits went down there and turned their wine into shit. We don’t want U.S. wine made in a different place.”

“In Australia the supermarkets started buying wineries. Now 60% to 65% of the wine is grape to shelf, and we cannot have that happen in the United States,” he said. “We need the three-tier system to protect us.”

Fear of failure
Adam Firestone of Firestone Walker Brewing Co. said failure is a natural part of innovation. He cited the example of his family company’s foray into the non-alcoholic beer sector in the 1980s, which he said failed due to incorrect pricing for the product.

“It’s a sad tale when you get everything right and you miss it,” Firestone said. He offered these tips for thinking innovatively:

• Constantly think about intelligence gathering: You’ve got to watch what everyone’s doing.
• Have a lot of hooks in the water.
• Go in with the view that absolutely nothing is sacred.

After years of trial, error and innovation, the company has turned its beer program into an unmitigated success. Some of Firestone Walker’s more expensive craft beers sell for a higher price per bottle than the estate wines from Firestone Vineyard in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, which his family founded but is now under different ownership.

Innovation with mixed results
Lance Winters of St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif., said he’s been responsible for a fair share of mistakes during his tenure in the distilling business, too. Although he owns the unsuccessful experiments and speaks of them with such fondness that it is evident he does not regret innovation missteps such as Dungeness crab brandy at all. (For the record, he said, the beverage smells like Fisherman’s Wharf on a hot day.)

Winters' St. George Single-Malt Whiskey initially confused consumers and trade members alike, but the product eventually caught its stride, and today the cellar staff is scrambling to keep up with demand.

As a relatively small-production spirits producer, Winters knows a thing or two about the situation boutique wineries face when competing for shelf space with large wine corporations. “As a craft distiller, you can’t undercut the price. You can’t market with them because they have a gazillion dollars to market with,” he said. The same is true in the wine industry.

In the absence of a gazillion dollars, he said, “It’s absolutely vital for our category to stay innovative.”

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