Guts & glory at California winery
The call for help came at 1:30 a.m. in early October as longtime California winemaker Fred Peterson slumbered before daybreak, harvest time.
The alarm was sounded as major wildfires that would destroy vineyards, homes and lives began hitting farms and wildlife sanctuaries 20 minutes from the Peterson Winery in Healdsburg.
“We were in the middle of finishing our grape harvest when my father (the founder of Peterson Winery), who’s a volunteer on the fire department, got a call in the wee hours of the morning,” recalls daughter Emily Peterson, director of sales and marketing for the popular winemaker known for its 22 varietals, including Zinfandels so popular they’re favored by celebrity Tom Selleck.
With thoughts of helping his neighbors, including the evacuation of a nearby bird sanctuary, Fred Peterson pulled on his firefighting gear, leaving the longtime family business in the hands of his loved ones to help save crops, and lend a hand where he could.
“For three days in row my Dad got up at 4 a.m. to help with the harvest and then spent the entire day at the Geyserville fire station, from about 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. After he pulled his shift at the fire station, he came back, and helped with the harvest again,” she says.
The commitment to the business, the land, and her father’s can-do spirit is a big part of what keeps the family winery going, despite competition and other challenges, Emily notes.
In this week’s Q&A with Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, Emily shares her thoughts on the challenges of running a winery and family business in a constantly changing landscape.
Q: Running a winery 20 minutes of from the California fires must have been hard.
Even though we weren’t super directly affected by the fires in the sense that we didn’t lose any of our grapes, one of our employees lost his house, and so did one of my dear friends. And with my father volunteering for the fire department, we had a few nights with little sleep as we tried to harvest, support our friends, and help as we could.
We were very lucky that our grapes were not affected—we had an amazing crop—and we were all safe. And, we appreciate that.
Q: Other than major fires such as these, what everyday challenges does the winery faced?
My father would probably have a better answer for this. But, I’d say our biggest challenge is that though we’ve been in business for 30 years, we’re still fairly new. And it’s getting harder and harder to stand out in a market so flooded with new competition.
It’s everyone dream to have their own wine label. There are wine makers popping up in Sonoma County, and all over the world. People no longer need to own their own facility, and if they have the money, they can buy a label and bulk commodity and sell it.
So, competition never gets easier, and we’re still figuring that out.
Q: As the sales and marketing person, how do you attract and retain customers?
We’re like a roots movement, underground, and our customers hear about us word of mouth.
Our biggest marketing effort is to our loyal customers, who are our brand ambassadors. In the picture with Tom Selleck on social media, he posed for us because he happens to be a big fan.
But, we also host events, wine tastings. We send direct-to-consumer emails, offer sales online and work with distributors to promote our product outside California. We have a big presence, for example, in the Midwest, in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Another one of my jobs is to keep up a social media presence. We let people know what we’re up to that way, and I love showing beautiful photos of the wines, vineyards, and people. I don’t think it drives up new customers, but I think it helps maintain our relationships with our fans and customers. Social media helps us stay connected with them.
Q: How did your father get into winemaking?
My Dad grew up in San Francisco and had a childhood friend whose family had a vineyard. My Dad visited one summer, going to the vineyard to work and to make some money. He loved it. At the end of the summer, he knew it was the path he wanted to go down. He joined the Navy and served for a while, but this was always his dream.
Q: Tell me about your wines.
We produce 22 different wines a year, with total production of 8,000 cases. In those 22 wines, we run the gamut, a lot of different varietals, but the style stays true where it’s Dry Creek Valley fruit that we’re trying to showcase. We’re known for Zinfandel, and so we six different zins from Dry Creek.
Owner Fred Peterson is an iconoclast with an old-world winemaking philosophy and a reverence for sustainable farming. The Peterson approach is to capture the essence of vintage and vineyard—a philosophy they call Zero Manipulation—with low tech, yet high touch, to produce wines of a place, wines with soul. — Fred Peterson and his family use Boxerbrand menu cover products—thank you!