When Ted Bennett began scouting quiet Philo, Calif., for a vineyard site in the early 1970s, he took note of the fruit stand on Hwy. 128, Anderson Valley's only thoroughfare.
"One of the things I marveled at when I got here was Gowan's [Oak Tree]," he recalled in an interview for the June 15 issue cover story on Anderson Valley. It never closed. "There were always cars there. It didn't matter which time of year," he said. When fresh fruit wasn't available, they sold preserves.
It didn't take long for Bennett to decide to copy Gowan's business model for Navarro winery. It's now a can't-miss winery along the highway for those heading to or from the coast. "As soon as that thought dawned on me, that's how we proceeded," he recalled. "At some point I realized that wine is sold bottle by bottle, not case by case, whether it's selling to a retailer or repeat customers." That and you needed to have something to sell year-round. Navarro made a little of everything, from Cabernet and Chardonnay to Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. Its Rieslings and Gewürztraminers helped define the winery, and Pinot Noir came along steadily.
Most traffic at Navarro comes from tourists. That prompted Bennett to start what might have been one of California's first wine clubs. "The problem with having repeat customers," he laughed, "is you can't change your product much and you can't change your prices much. You're locked in. The advantage is you can make wines that please you and know they'll like them too."
Navarro has been a model of consistency. Its wines have always been excellent. The tasting room is charming. The label has never changed. The mailing list is the envy of any vintner.
One customer in particular remained paramount in Bennett's mind, a woman named Alice, now in her 90s. Her favorite wine is Gewürztraminer and, over the years, Bennett said she's spent $86,000 on Gewürz alone. "I never wanted to raise prices because I wanted Alice to keep buying my wine, and she still is," said Bennett.
Navarro's wine also appeals to academics, Bennett said: "They have an intellectual interest in wine, but don't have much money," he said. And that's kept the wines smartly priced as well.