Twisted Vine

Our Blog

Interview with Jeffrey Cruz of Duckhorn Vineyards

December 9th, 2017

By Brent Bracamontes

On Wednesday, December 13th, we have an event scheduled with Duckhorn Vineyards. We’ll be welcoming Jeffrey Cruz into our shop, who works as the Southern California Key Accounts Manager for the brand. In this post I provide some background information on the Duckhorn brand, as well as some perspectives from Jeff, who understands the pleasures and challenges of representing these wines in a gargantuan region like Southern California.

Duckhorn Vineyards was founded in 1976 by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, who produced and marketed merlot at a time when cabernet sauvignon was peaking in popularity. Dan and Margaret were strongly influenced by wines from Bordeaux’s right bank, specifically, Château Pétrus. Right bank Bordeaux wines are considered by many to represent the pinnacle expressions of the merlot grape, and served as inspiration for Dan and Margaret to realize its potential success in California. In a market somewhat dominated by cabernet sauvignon, it is noteworthy to document their interests in exposing more consumers to the pleasures of merlot for domestic fine wine production. The Duckhorns seem to have made numerous astute decisions for their brand in its early days. As Jeffrey Cruz explained, they began by concentrating on a unique grape variety in comparison to their competition, sourcing their grapes from their estate vineyard (which is now Three Palms Vineyard), and offering it at the premier price point of $12. A merlot bottling at this price point was practically unheard of in those days, which surely piqued consumer curiosity. In all, these strategies all seemed to lay important foundation for Duckhorn’s eventual successes.

I asked Jeffrey a series of questions focused on his perceptions of the brand through the years. Previous entries to this blog have been based on interviews with vintners, but this struck me as a wonderful opportunity to acquire insights from business and marketing perspectives. Although we may occasionally succumb to tendencies to overly romanticize wine by focusing on “harmonious” winemaking and “ethereal” drinking experiences, the fact remains that wine is a business, and the ways we think about the wines we buy and drink must be informed by the status and current trends of the trade.

My first question for Jeffrey dealt with his views on the evolution of the Duckhorn brand, specifically with respect to its presence in different types of establishments in our local market (e.g. wine bars, restaurants, retail shops). Jeffrey noted that while some of the wines from Duckhorn’s main label remain on allocation as a way of creating and sustaining quality partnerships with certain customers, the growing popularity of ancillary labels has made Duckhorn wines accessible for consumers with ranging taste preferences and wine budgets. Decoy, in particular, serves as a label that will provide all interested customers glimpses into Duckhorn’s styles of wine, but at the more enticing price point of approximately $20. Considering that Duckhorn still distributes its own wines (a rare circumstance for a brand of its size), the ability to provide a range of wines that may appeal to many different customers puts them at a tactical advantage over others who are not able to do so effectively.

Considering the importance of merlot to Duckhorn’s operation from its founding to contemporary periods, I asked Jeffrey what impact, if any, the film Sideways had on perceptions of the flagship merlot wines. While it may seem somewhat silly to think that a single motion picture could significantly impact an industry as vast as wine, the impacts of Sideways on the American wine landscape are well documented. Based on some merlot sneering by the film’s main character, many consumers abandoned merlot as a go-to variety for their own consumption. Jeffrey does not perceive that the film derailed Duckhorn’s merlot operations as much as it did for some producers, but he does find that the film led retailers and restaurants to significantly limit the merlot they bring in. So, while Duckhorn may have emerged reasonably unscathed in this situation, the sad fact remains that merlot producers are still facing an uphill battle when it comes to demand for their products. Moreover, these economic conditions lead growers to abandon merlot in favor of planting more lucrative varieties like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. In his response, Jeffrey was clear in recommending consumers support Napa merlot, zinfandel, sauvignon blanc, etc., in order for the long term diversity to remain. Napa is so much more than cabernet sauvignon.

Duckhorn was recently honored with the prize for #1 wine of the year from the Wine Spectator magazine for its 2014 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot. Despite Duckhorn’s already impressive pedigree in California and other parts of the American wine industry, this is an incredibly impressive and distinctive prize to be handed down. When asked what this accolade does for the brand, Jeffrey responded, “Of course the recent press will continue to grow the demand consumers have for Duckhorn Vineyards, but it also has a halo effect that will bring awareness to all of our wineries.” This is an important point, considering the scant availability of the Three Palms Merlot in the wake of this recent press. Jeffrey also mentioned that he doesn’t view the 2014 Three Palms as being too drastically different in taste profile from other vintages of the wine, stressing that, regardless of vintage, the Three Palms vineyard “deserves to be recognized as one of the premier vineyards in the world.” And while not all wines in the Duckhorn portfolio will taste like the Three Palms Merlot, it is also true that throughout their range of wines, Duckhorn offers an impressive range of well-crafted wines for consumers with different tastes and price demands.

We are looking forward to welcoming Jeffrey into our shop this next week. We encourage you to stop in to taste through a flight of wines and strike up a conversation. See you then!