Navarro Vineyards: Creating a brand – and a market – from the ground up

Ted Bennett with daughter and General Manager, Sarah Cahn Bennett

In challenging economic times and a competitive global wine market, Navarro Vineyards prevails by staying true to a particular style of wine and cultivating consumers one by one.

Ted Bennett, his wife Deborah Cahn and their children Sarah and Aaron Cahn Bennett are proprietors of Navarro Vineyards, one of the first wineries in what is now the Anderson Valley wine region in Mendocino County.  From their first vintage in 1975, they have made dry aromatic white wines such as gewürztraminer, pinot gris and riesling which are today among the fastest growing categories of wine for their elegance and affinity with food.  But this wasn’t the case when they first started out.

Ted and Deborah’s love affair with these aromatic white wines began in the 1960’s in Berkeley, where they lived when Ted was a partner in the well-known California audio chain, Pacific Stereo.  They lived in Berkeley when it was the epicenter of the emerging California food and wine scene, where they discovered French cuisine at the Pot Luck, then owned by Narsi David, explored artisanal cheese from the Cheeseboard and tasted French wines from a certain Kermit Lynch who was still in graduate school.  They bought organic food at People’s Park and dined on mis-match plates at a new restaurant called Chez Panisse.

When Pacific Stereo was sold to CBS in 1970, Bennett and Cahn decided to become “back to landers” and sought a cool climate region that would be suitable for the aromatic gewurztraminer they had come to love.  They had the opportunity to harvest grapes at Edmeades, the first grower in Mendocino’s modern history in October of 1972.  Bennett remembered that the weather was “wet, cold and miserable when the grapes were ripe” and that it was just perfect.  They acquired a 910 acres sheep ranch across the street in 1973 and made their first wines in 1975 using purchased grapes as their newly planted vines matured.

They marketed their first estate wines in 1979.  Bennett remembers how excited he was about selling his wines and had scheduled a full day of appointments, beginning with influential Corti Brothers in Sacramento.  From his retail experience, he knew that if he started the day with a big sale, then the momentum would carry him through the rest of the day.  But Darrell Corti wasn’t interested.  After all, this was a time when most California wine consumers only knew chardonnay, white zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.

Corti told him blatantly that no one knew about gewürztraminer, that no one was familiar with a dry-style of gewürztraminer and furthermore, that no one had even heard of Navarro Vineyards.  Crushed, Bennett called his wife and told her to cancel the rest of the day’s appointments.  He learned then, in the days before the rise of wine magazines and critics, that no retailer or distributor was going to sell his wine for him, and that he certainly wasn’t going to change his wines to what was popular at the time.

What he did know from his own experience was that if he liked a wine from a particular producer, that he would like all of that producer’s wines.  He knew he had to find people who had a similar palate – even if he had to do it one by one.  So he immediately started building a tasting room which today is an important source of revenue.  Their long-time tasting room staff are provided full benefits making them loyal employees and ambassadors to the public.

They also started a wine club, a brand new concept at the time, which Bennett says is the 2nd oldest wine club in the U.S.  They began publishing a highly-regarded newsletter in 1981 that is part wine sales and a lot of story-telling that helps to develop and retain their customers.  They struggled financially in the 80’s as they worked to build the brand and educate consumers about their wines but always stayed true to the grape varieties and style despite changing fads and trends.

Today, over 90% of their wines are sold direct which has helped them through a difficult wine market in the last three years where large distributors have worked down inventory and then focused on high-volume accounts.

Their children Sarah and Aaron are actively involved in the family business now.  Sarah, who has a Masters in enology/viticulture from UC Davis, spends much of her time overseeing the vineyards and the flock of sheep used to reduce weeds sustainably.  Ted Bennett says that they have come full circle because Sarah now wants to learn to shear sheep 30 years after he donated the original shears from the former ranch to the local historic society.

Sarah says she and her dad get along well and share the same philosophy about winegrowing and wine style.  She is developing her own vineyards just south in Booneville called Pennyroyal Farm where she is also raising sheep as well as goats for a new creamery to be opened soon.  Like her parents, Sarah is continuing the tradition of reaching out to the consumer.

Knowing how difficult it was to grow, produce and sell gewürztraminer would he do it again?  Bennett said he was stubborn and wanted to do it.  After all, he said, “the worst thing that could happen was that I enjoyed my life.”

Navarro Vineyards is located on scenic Highway 128 in Philo, CA 95466, on the way to the coastal town of Mendocino.