The House That White Zinfandel Built

How the Trinchero family of Sutter Home Winery made a fortune from a fluke
Issue: May 15, 1994

By Robyn Bullard

In 1981, brothers Louis and Roger Trinchero of Sutter Home arrived at a sales meeting with their national representative, Vintage Wine Merchants, with a plan to double production of their white Zinfandel wine, from 15,000 to 30,000 cases. John Skupny and Jim Miller, salesmen at the time for the distributor, balked at the idea and warned the Trincheros that an increase like that was going to be very difficult to sell.

Skupny remembers the result. "Upon the Trincheros leaving, our boss, Fred Holzknecht, got all mad, started screaming at us and told us, 'Well, you guys, the Blue Nun of California just walked out that door.'"

Holzknecht's comparison of Sutter Home White Zinfandel to Germany's sales sensation of the '70s was prophetic. Skupny, now vice president and general manager of Niebaum-Coppola estate in Napa Valley, said they reluctantly agreed with the Trincheros' plans. Then the wine sold out in less than six months.

Miller was so impressed that in 1984 he joined Sutter Home to build its national sales force, and today heads the department that last year sold more than 5 million cases of wine; 3 million of that was white Zinfandel. The wine varietal as a whole is the country's best seller, and has probably done more to turn Americans on to wine than any other product.

With achievements such as these, it might seem the winery has peaked and the Trincheros can rest on the laurels and proceeds of white Zinfandel well into retirement. However, after doubling production year after year throughout the '80s, Sutter Home is now concentrating its efforts on horizontal expansion, constantly broadening its position in the marketplace with new products. Case production in 1992 and 1993 remained the same, 5.3 million cases, though the winery predicts growth in 1994. A couple of years ago, white Zinfandel comprised about 80 percent of the winery's production; today, it is around 50 percent.

But, as they tone down production of the pink wine that made them famous, the Trincheros are pushing ahead on a number of other fronts. Sutter Home now promotes and produces alcohol-free wines and is planting Italian varieties in the Sierra foothills region. Most notable to lovers of fine wine, however, the Trincheros have stepped into the high-priced, high-quality arena of winemaking by producing a new line of Napa Valley reserve wines.

Sutter Home Reserve? It's an oxymoron of sorts, with the winery's phenomenal case production and $5-a-bottle reputation. Some may suggest they stick to their formula for success, but the Trincheros say they are serious about the program. The first of those wines, a 1990 Napa Valley Centennial Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($12), was released late last year and earned an 87 on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. It wasn't among the top 20 Napa Valley Cabernets, but it was very good quality and not too highly priced. The winery plans a reserve Napa Valley Chardonnay as well. The new products are icing on the cake for Napa Valley's largest winery, where 1992's revenues tallied $243 million.

And to think it all started with leftover grape juice.

Born in New York, brothers Louis "Bob" and Roger Trinchero and their sister, Vera, were uprooted in their youth and brought to Napa Valley in 1948, after their Uncle John convinced their father, Mario, to come to California and help him run the dilapidated winery he had purchased. "At the age of 12 1/2, I was plucked from midtown Manhattan and dropped into this godforsaken place and oh, holy mackerel," recalls Bob, 57. At the time, the valley was much more rural than it is today and seemed to be home to as many cattle as people.

Sutter Home Winery was founded in the early 1900s, when a Swiss family bought and renamed the property. When the Trincheros took over, winemaker John, Mario and their wives ran the operation, with help from their children on the weekends. Bob left in 1954, at age 18, and joined the Air Force, vowing never to return to Napa Valley. Four years later, he was home, married and asking his father and uncle for a job.

"It was just temporary, I told myself, because, of course, there was no future in the wine business," recalls Bob. When John Trinchero retired in 1960, however, Bob was persuaded to buy out his uncle's half of the winery, and his temporary job suddenly turned permanent.

Bob and his father worked feverish ly to make a living, but their wine business was not profitable. "Dad was 65 and still working, and we almost lost the winery," recalls Bob. Bank of America, the only bank in town, turned them down for a loan and the winery soon went on the market. With no takers at their asking price, the Trincheros found their prayers answered when a new bank moved into town in a lending mood. They paid their bills and, with $5,000 left, began to rebuild the winery and their product.

Bob had taken over as winemaker, but he had no formal training, which meant a good deal of trial and error. "The wine was actually drinkable by the late '60s," laughs Bob. In 1968, he learned of some Zinfandel vineyards in Amador County, in California's Sierra foothills region. With no vineyards of his own and burdened by the high prices of Napa Valley grapes, Bob gave the Amador vines a try. Sutter Home made its first Amador County Zinfandel in 1968 and began receiving the first of its accolades. Sutter Home still makes a red Amador Zinfandel labeled Reserve, but it doesn't stand out from the pack of quality Zinfandels anymore; its performance in Wine Spectator tastings has been average to good in recent vintages.

In 1972, Bob was still experimenting with his Zinfandel, trying to find a way to make the wine more robust. He drew off some of the free-run juice and, for lack of something better to do with it, fermented it like a dry white wine. Just for fun, about 220 cases of the wine were bottled, though it was not an overwhelming success. It was originally called "Oeil de Pedrix" (eye of the partridge) but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told Bob there had to be an English translation on the label.

"It was white, and it was Zinfandel, and if anyone wants to know where the name came from, it was from the BATF forcing me to do it," says Bob.

By this time, younger brother Roger had come aboard as well. His parents had always encouraged him to be a college graduate and avoid the wine business, and he ended up at UCLA on a football scholarship. As fate would have it, however, he eventually received a draft notice and did time in Vietnam, and his plans to teach and coach football fell through. By 1972, he was home helping his brother with the winery.

Bob was still making a small amount of white Zinfandel each year when, in 1975, another accident occurred. He made about 1,000 gallons of the wine this time and ended up with a "stuck fermentation"--for whatever reason, the wine just stopped fermenting. With no time to mess with it, he topped the tank and, a few weeks later, sampled it and noticed that it was a little bit pink, a kind of blush hue. It had 2 percent residual sugar and Bob decided to bottle it just as it was, putting the word "blush" on the label.

For a few years the wine remained a novelty, and most of it was sold in the winery tasting room on Napa Valley's main thoroughfare, Highway 29. Besides, Bob's hopes were to turn the entire production--about 7,000 cases at the time--into red Zinfandel, but that was happening slowly.

Bob recalls sitting with Roger after one particularly rough day, both men feeling as if their wheels were spinning. The rest of the industry seemed to be moving quickly, but Sutter Home was stagnating.

"We got a bright idea, after a couple of glasses of wine," says Bob. "It seemed the consumer wanted something besides what we were giving them, but how do you know what the consumer wants? We looked at the wines we were making, and this thing called white Zinfandel seemed to be the only wine we had a shortage of."

From then on, the Trincheros concentrated their efforts on the wine that had been Sutter Home's equivalent of a love child. They doubled production. And they doubled again the next year. And again and again, until they found themselves at the 3-million-case mark for white Zinfandel, which is where they are today.

By 1983, they needed their own space. Up until then, they had been "custom crushing" at facilities in the Central Valley such as Bronco, Delicato and Mondavi's Woodbridge. The Trincheros purchased the old Nu-Laid chicken farm on Zinfandel Lane in St. Helena and spent the next year tearing down wire coops. Today they crush about 40,000 tons of grapes at that facility; another 45,000 tons of white Zinfandel are still crushed at Bronco, because of its location in central California. With more than 300 employees, Sutter Home outgrew its facility and purchased the posh, ex-Heublein facility across the highway, which now houses its main offices.

Sutter Home got into California Chardonnay rather late in the game, with its first release in 1990. In good years, the wine has been a friendly bargain, though never outstanding. Sutter Home produces a number of other varieties as well, most of which retail in the $4 to $10 range. The Trincheros also own more than 3,000 acres of vineyards.

The popularity of white Zinfandel and Sutter Home's recognizable name have undoubtedly prompted followers to try the winery's other varietals, but Sutter Home's marketing finesse and down-home image have also worked wonders. In short, they have created a whole new product, a whole new category of wine drinkers and a small fortune.

Sutter Home's success formula is a direct outgrowth of a belief that winemaking, like the production of any other consumer product, is a business.

"We've always approached the wine industry differently than other people," says Roger, whose title is president. At 47, he has demonstrated a natural talent for the marketing end of the business. Ruggedly handsome, he maintains a Dennis Weaver voice and a casual public persona, but has been a driving force behind the winery's massive success.

Roger says that instead of making a bottle of wine tailored to the Trincheros' tastes, Sutter Home asked consumers for their advice.

"If you're getting into the wine business, you've got to look at it as a business," Roger advises. "If you think all you've got to do is make good wine to have people line up at your door, you're kidding yourself, because that's not what's gonna happen."

Bob, the chief executive officer, echoes those sentiments. "One of the problems this industry has is a difficulty coming to grips with the American consumer," says Bob. "What wineries did was create a wall of intimidation that for many years kept people away from drinking wine. They felt they would be laughed at if they mispronounced Cabernet Sauvignon in a restaurant."

While Bob knows there's certainly a segment of the population that enjoys the elite trappings that surround wine, he has built an empire around the nation's majority. "There are many more people who simply want a beverage to fit into their lifestyle," says Bob.

Sutter Home's prices have also been key. Roger says those figures are imperative to the winery's success, especially today. Nowadays, it's price-driven costing, rather than cost-driven pricing. "If you do it the other way, you're in for a real big surprise," says Roger.

The popularity of Sutter Home, which came about in just a short decade, still astounds many in the industry. Bob won't name names but he recalls a prominent vintner who said he'd never come out with a white Zinfandel. Two years later, Bob says, that vintner had one on the market. Most major players, such as Glen Ellen, Gallo, Fetzer and Beringer, have followed in Sutter Home's footsteps and are selling hundreds of thousands of cases of white Zinfandel.

Louis Martini, Sutter Home's across-the-highway neighbor and a white Zin producer himself, recalls his first reaction. "I thought it might be reasonably popular, but I never expected it to get to the stage that it is now," says Martini. He also says white Zinfandel has done wonders for the popularity of its red creator, the Zinfandel grape. White Zinfandel took off at much the same time that Zinfandel was losing popularity, and some wineries were beginning to rip their old Zin vines out of the ground to plant Chardonnay and Cabernet, which bring more money per ton when harvested. The new surge in white Zinfandel, from Sutter Home and wineries that followed its lead, developed a whole new demand for Zinfandel and, says Martini, helped save the grape.

Sutter Home White Zinfandel has, however, received its fair share of criticism. Though it sells like hot cakes, the wine itself has never been a big critical success. It tastes simple, bland and sweet. Some have even accused the winery of bastardizing a red wine. Yet, while the Trincheros agree that high ratings are good for business, reviews don't seem to be a big concern.

"None of that stuff really affects us," says Roger. "It rolls off our back like water off a duck." He grins at an obvious question. "Do I like white Zinfandel? There's no doubt about it. White Zinfandel is my favoritest wine."

He credits Bob with an invention that, high scores or low scores, has been a tremendous success and moneymaker. "I don't know anyone who's created a 14-million case market and, like it or not, that part goes to my brother."

Ex-salesman Skupny has known the family for years. "They searched out a need and filled it," he says. "In a business full of egos, they've always kept level heads and they've taught a lot of people how to take a cork out of a bottle."

That may well be the Trincheros' biggest achievement, though they never really intended to be mentors to new wine consumers. Since white Zinfandel began to take off, Sutter Home has presented its wine in the friendliest of ways, as an unintimidating refreshment meant to be enjoyed by anyone. In short, Sutter Home's wines appeal to the masses. That attitude, coupled with the strong tie-ins to family and food that Sutter Home preaches, has helped to sell many a bottle of wine to people who had never before bought one.

Bill Wiebalk, former wine buyer for California's Cost Plus stores, and now working with former Liquor Barn chief Steve Boone on starting a chain of stores called Beverages and More, has watched Sutter Home over the years. "They've not only expanded their own base, but they have been instrumental in expanding the base for consumers as a whole," says Wiebalk. He says the Trincheros are businessman, first and foremost. "Their reason for success is they haven't fallen in love with their product," says Wiebalk.

In the early '70s, Bob began shipping wine to Nebraska. "People asked me why on earth and I said, 'Some day I'm gonna want Nebraska,' " recalls Bob. "They now sell tens of thousands of cases for us. We have never looked at a market and said, 'If I have any surplus, I'll send it to you.' "

Sutter Home's Victorian-style tasting room on Highway 29 is a slice of Americana, where old-time displays of porch swings and kitchens illustrate the winery's creed. "Nothing was quite so pleasurable as relaxing at twilight with family and friends, a glass of cool white wine in hand," reads a placard on the wall.

Early on, Sutter Home recognized the importance of portraying wine as an integral part of the family meal. These days, the winery licenses McCormick-Schilling to use its name on a pasta sauce made with Zinfandel wine, and puts its name on a mustard and a wine vinegar as well. Brochures on home and holiday entertaining, plus the winery's Build a Better Burger contest, have all contributed to Sutter Home's objective.

"Sutter Home is all about food and family," says Bob. "We've always been saying home, food and moderation."

The winery spoke to moderation in the ultimate form when it introduced Sutter Home Fré, its non-alcoholic Chardonnay and white Zinfandel wines, in 1992. Already outselling Ariel and St. Regis, the two other major non-alcoholic players, Sutter Home Fré is targeted at pregnant women, designated drivers and those people who simply don't drink alcohol. But the motive runs deeper than that.

"We believe wine is to be consumed with food," says Roger. "We saw it as an opportunity to approach the vast majority of Americans who don't drink alcohol. If I'm enjoying a nice salmon dish and I'm a non-drinker, I would probably like a nice bottle of non-alcoholic Chardonnay with this, rather than a glass of iced tea." A non-alcoholic sparkler and red wine are due on the market this summer.

While some wineries will not ponder such products, Sutter Home refuses to rule anything out. "For the survival of our industry, we have to think of as many ways as possible to create new consumers," says Roger. "I think if you offer products to fill those opportunities, you do nothing but good for the industry as a whole."

Bob believes it is ultra-important to continue bringing new, first-time wine drinkers to the industry. "Sure we believe in taking market share from others," he says. "But we believe in taking market share from Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola and Evian."

This aspiration has also led to the winery's recent introduction of the VinLoc closure, an alternative to cork, by marketing white Zinfandel, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Cabernet in magnums with VinLocs--modern screw caps--instead of corks. "Name me one other beverage in the U.S. that, after you buy it, you have to spend $5 on a tool to open it," says Bob. So far, the response has been positive, and Sutter Home looks for history to repeat itself when skeptical wineries try the closure for themselves.

There are also Soléo, a red wine meant to be chilled, and Classic Singles, the company's 187-milliter single-serving bottles. In 1989, Sutter Home became the first American winery to market a single-serving premium wine. And although both Soléo and Classic Singles paint a portrait of a winery paying attention solely to the marketplace, Sutter Home has never lost the desire to make fine wines and to explore promising growing areas and wine types.

In 1989 the Trincheros acquired Montevina Winery, an Amador County producer, to embark on a planting program specializing in classic Italian grape varieties. So far, more than 100 acres of grapes such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aleatico have been planted, but Bob says there will be no visible results until after the turn of the century. Most of the Montevina wines lately have been unremarkable, but one experiment, a light red wine from the 1990 vintage, called Brioso, was a refreshing departure at $7.50, winning a Wine Spectator rating of 86.

Has anything ever backfired for the Trincheros? "We didn't do too well with our sparkler," admits Roger, speaking of the company's short-lived sparkling wine. "We missed our guess on what we could do with it. I don't think the timing was right." They may, however, give it a second try.

Their sister, Vera Trinchero Torres, is involved in the administrative division of the company, and has worked at the winery in one capacity or another since it began. Bob's daughter, Gina, 30, worked for three years as the assistant winemaker, but says that she has now found her niche in the company's human resources division. Her brother, David, works at the winery as well, as do Vera's two sons, Tony and Bobby.

Success has been sweet for Bob and Roger Trinchero, but both say they never dreamed they'd hit the big time. "I could say I fully expected to become a huge winery and a multimillionaire, but I didn't," says Bob. "After a while, I found myself in a different situation than I'd ever been in. I could afford things I'd only dreamed about 10 or 15 years earlier. Actually, I don't think it's really caught up with me yet."

Both brothers are lovers of red wine and collectors as well: Bob collects wine and Roger collects cars. But for all their fame and fortune, Bob and Roger remain two guys from Napa Valley, active in local church, charity and industry activities.

Sutter Home also funds a local day-care center that is open to employees of Napa Valley wineries. And that Bank of America branch that wouldn't loan $5,000 to a struggling Sutter Home? Bob now owns the building.

Neither Trinchero gives an indication of a slowdown. "Never let the fact that you're selling 5 million cases blind you to the fact that an additional 20,000 cases somewhere else would add to it," says Bob. Both brothers firmly state that Sutter Home, owned 100 percent by the Trinchero family, will never follow in the footsteps of Fetzer or Glen Ellen by selling out, though offers come in weekly. "We've been here since 1947 and we're gonna be here until 2047," says Bob. "And we'll never stop experimenting."

 

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