Benovia Winery owners Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane were power players in health care before diving into wine in 2002.
Anderson, 67, co-founded Phoenix-based managed plan provider Schaller Anderson in 1986. He sold it to Aetna in 2007 and exited in March 2008. Dewane, 65, was founding CEO of CalOptima when the Orange County Board of Supervisors created it in 1993 as a county organized health system, and it is the largest of six such agencies in the U.S., with 796,000-plus members.
The couple talked with the Business Journal about how a harvest peddle through Wine Country has led to a decade so far of peddling prized pinot noir and chardonnay wine and building a bounty of contributions to Sonoma County charities.
Give us a thumbnail sketch of your operations.
JOE ANDERSON: We’re about 7,500 cases now, and 50 percent of that goes direct to consumer and the other 50 percent in the three-tier system. We bought the winery in ’05, and our first commercial release was in 2008. It’s growing at a pretty steady pace. We’re not about bottling wine you can’t sell. People say, “Joe, you’re in the wine business.” No, I’m in the wine-selling business.
MARY DEWANE: We did a soft release in 2005 to family and friends. We ran around 2,000 cases for a while. Then we were at 4,000 and leveled off during the downturn.
ANDERSON: We’re growing at about 7–8 percent. As you get bigger, that percentage is more difficult to maintain. We came at this business in the old-fashioned way, with an estate focus rather than negotiant.
I bought the first vineyard in ’02, which was the old Cohn Vineyard on Westside Road. It was planted in 1970s, and it’s one of the oldest pinot vineyards in California. (Williams Selyem co-founder) Bert Williams’ first vineyard-designate from it was in 1987.
I bought the (former Hartman Lane Vineyards and Winery) in ’05, when Cecil De Loach was having some difficulties. This winery was one of his production facilities. That came with 15 acres of pinot noir and a 5,000-case-permit winery. I hired Mike Sullivan as the winemaker at the end of ’05, and he identified the need to have a cold-climate coastal appellation. (He became co-owner and general manager later that year.)
In 2008, I bought a property west of Sebastopol that had a dying apple orchard on it. We planted 12 acres of pinot noir there (at Tilton Hill Vineyard).
Then the property next to the winery, which was the 40-acre Cutting Horse Ranch, came on the market at the same time (as the 12 acres), and we bought that. We planted 32 acres on Cutting Horse Ranch [now Martaella Vineyards].
Now we have 72 acres of pinot that Mike Sullivan and vineyard manager Chris Kangas manage and total (production)capacity of 15,000 cases.
Since we have excess fruit — we were early adopters of closer spacing of vines at the winery (Martaella) and Falstaff (now Tilton Hill) properties — and farm so meticulous(ly), we sell to Kosta Browne, Williams Selyem, DuMol and Gary Farrell.
When we first got started, 80 percent of what we made was purchased fruit from others. Now 80 percent of our production is from estate (vineyard).
We still buy fruit from the Martinelli family. They are great growers. We get fruit from Zio Tony Ranch and from Three Sisters Vineyard on the coast for chardonnay. I always like to buy high-quality fruit, because it mixes things up a little bit and it strengthens the relationships.
What have been major successes as a wine business?
ANDERSON: Planting the vineyards, building the winery and building a loyal customer based. I call the planting and building the winery product development. Last year, we finished a 10,000-case red wine facility that Mike Sullivan and the architect designed from the ground up. He refers to it as a precision instrument for making red wine.
That’s all finished now, so it falls to the sales side. We have great loyal customers around the country and we have a great VP of sales and marketing, Bob Cooley, since 2012. He has really worked on the three-tier business and getting us into some really important markets: New Jersey, Florida, California and Illinois.
Direct to consumer is a lifeblood, especially, for a small winery. We have no desire to be more than 15,000 cases.
DEWANE: Both of us were CEOs of health care companies. We both loved wine. I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and always loved the idea of growing things. We saw the Cohn property as we were biking a lot in the area. We had started, through friends, working crush, doing the kinds of things you do when you’re just visiting during peak times of the year.
Both of us were not ready to simply retire. We loved the whole idea of acquiring a winery. We’ve enjoyed it so much, especially the people we’ve met who are consumers as well as other people in the community at other wineries. Sure, we’re competitors, but it is really a friendly group.
It’s always been important to us to give back to the communities we’ve lived in. We’ve become involved in the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction and were co-chairs in 2015 with Jean-Charles Boisset (of St. Helena-based Boisset Collection). We bought the DeLoach winery, and he bought the DeLoach (Vineyards) brand. We raised $4.5 million that year to support literacy programs.
We enjoy having our fingers in the business there and growing the winery. Although we’ve already done that in our prior life, so we’re more interested in the lifestyle aspects of the winery and not making it huge and taking it public.
ANDERSON: We’ve helped other charitable issues in the county. That’s part of what we think is our responsibility as business to do those sorts of things.