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Family name keeps sales growing at Napa winery

When the Trefethen family began their Napa Valley winery 41 years ago there was no need to emphasise the family qualities of their business because almost all vineyards were family run. Now the Trefethen's display "family" on its wine labels to differentiate it from corporate wine makers and as a mark of quality, as Bryce Hubner discovers

Meet Janet Trefethen, cofounder and co-owner of Trefethen Family Vineyards along with her husband, John. If she seems less worried about the economy than her peers, it's because her sales remain rock solid, especially across the company's $50 to $200 per bottle price ranges. How has Trefethen positioned itself to weather the storm? The answer lies somewhere in what amounts to a decades-long amalgam of serendipity, shrewd business maneuvers and attention to detail.

Known simply as Trefethen Vineyards for almost 40 years, the company added "family" to its label two years ago in the face of a trend that saw many family-owned Napa icons devoured by massive corporations. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, for example, helped put Napa on the map in the 1970's; it was family-owned until Warren Winiarski sold it to Chateau Ste Michelle (a subsidiary of UST Inc) for $185 million in 2007.

"We simply had a passion for agriculture when we started 41 years ago," says Janet Trefethen. "There was no such thing as the wine industry and we couldn't, in a million years, have imagined the success or growth we've had. The valley had fewer than 25 wineries - most were family operations so there was no need to put "family" on a label because everyone assumed it anyway.

"Now, we're competing with thousands of wineries, many of which are owned by large companies," says Trefethen, adding that they decided to employ "family" to help consumers distinguish their brand from an increasingly nebulous slew of conglomerates. The implication being that large beverage companies are perceived as less committed to detail and quality than boutique and family-run wineries.

"We are also in the very enviable position of having a large [500-acre] vineyard," says Trefethen. "We select the very best from our vines for ourselves, then sell approximately one quarter of our fruit to other wineries."

More than merely having extra fruit to sell, though, the large vineyard has helped sustain Trefethen's quality and stature. Trefethen is the only winery in the United States more than 40 years old that's never bought an outside grape for its brand.  So, in addition to controlling the quality of the fruit it procures, this also means Trefethen produces 60,000 cases per year of 100% pure estate wine - a very prestigious distinction among its peers in the US, where grapes are constantly bouncing between wineries throughout California, Oregon, Washington and points beyond. That Trefethen's high-end wine sales remain steady in the current economic climate is surely testament to their strong reputation and brand.

The business acumen that has helped Janet and John Trefethen was handed down by John's father Eugene. Eugene's advice - as a former CEO of Kaiser Industries - never fell on deaf ears. According to Janet, her children, Loren and Hailey, are proving equally astute, gradually assuming more responsibility as they help the family business appeal to passions and sensibilities of a new, younger generation of wine consumer. The winery has recently sought to increase the visibility of its green initiatives; the vineyard was "Green Land" certified three years ago and, in June, Trefethen became one of only a handful of certified "Napa Valley Green Wineries" by virtue of its energy conservation and waste policies.

Still, the bottom line is making a quality product. Earning the title of "Best Chardonnay in the World" at the Gault-Millau Wine Olympics in 1979 jump-started the business, but Trefethen continues to garner the some of the industry's highest honors every year. In April, their Chardonnay was a gold medal winner at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles and at London's Decanter World Wine Awards in 2007, Decanter Magazine declared Trefethen's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon the single best red Bordeaux varietal in North America.

Janet Trefethen cites her relationship with her husband as another pillar of business success. "We have a very rare relationship," she says. "We have an uncanny ability to support one another [as times dictate] ... And despite what happens at the office each day, generally, I still make him dinner when we come home at night."

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