From eponymous to anonymous: what happens when winegrowers sell their name?


When he sold his eponymous wine estate, Charles Shaw quickly discovered exactly what his name was really worth.

And when Walter Taylor’s family merged the “Taylor” wine brand with Coca-Cola, the New York state winemaker decided if he couldn’t use the Taylor name on wines produced at his winery in Bully Hill, then he would happily assume a different identity.

But it was Robert Pepi who came up with the cleverest and most ironic name for his new winery after selling his first business – Robert Pepi Winery – and the rights to his name with it.

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Shaw, Taylor and Pepi are not alone. When American winemakers start a winery, many proudly name it for themselves. And not just using their last name. Often they add their first name and sometimes a middle name or initials – about as eponymous as a vineyard brand can get. But these winemakers may not have considered what would happen if they were forced to sell their winery because of one of the dreaded Ds of disaster: death, debt or divorce. Because generally, their name is sold with. Not only does this mean they no longer use their name commercially; the new owner could use his birthright in embarrassing ways.

But why sell the name rather than the domain? This often happens when the buyer is someone who wants to put their own brand – and a different name – on their new price. But usually the buyer is a company that owns a portfolio of wineries and sees valuable brand equity in the original name.

That’s what happened in the case of Charles F. Shaw, a young investment banker who saw an unmet market need for a Beaujolais-style wine produced in Napa Valley. Shaw opened his eponymous winery in 1974 with funds from his wife’s inheritance, and his wines were well received. But by the early 1990s, things had turned sour – phylloxera had damaged his vineyards, an expensive shipment of barrels had been tainted, and he and his wife had gone through a nasty divorce. By 1992, Shaw was $3 million in debt and filed for bankruptcy.

Enter Fred Franzia, who died last September at age 79, and his Bronco Wine Company. Franzia was famous for producing cheap pitcher and box wines and for feuding with those he considered Napa Valley snobs. Franzia had no interest in Shaw’s humidor, but bought the brand name for a whopping $27,000 and kept it – bragging to a CNN reporter: ‘We buy humidors to some Stanford guys going bankrupt,” referring to Shaw’s alma mater.

Franzia found her chance to strike after the turn of the century when there was a grape glut in California, allowing her to purchase unfinished grapes and wines for pennies on the dollar. In early 2002, Franzia struck a deal with Trader Joe’s to sell Charles Shaw wines for $1.99 a bottle, prompting an employee to call them “Two Buck Chuck”. Online publications and wine bargain hunters pounced on the story, and Two Buck Chuck became an instant hit nationwide – although wine critics called it “Two Buck Upchuck”. . Franzia eventually sold over a billion bottles of Charles Shaw wine, and today it is still sold at Trader Joe’s, although now his Cabernet Sauvignon has become “Ten Buck Chuck”.

Years later, Shaw returned to his native Michigan and founded a Riesling-based winery called Oerther Vineyard. In 2019, he told a Stanford alumni magazine writer, “Funding is tough, and I’ve been stubborn about not having partners and trying to do it myself. So we didn’t do very well.

For years, upstate New York wineries have competed with California in the decanted wine market. One of them, a huge family business called the Taylor Wine Company, was purchased in 1976 when Coca-Cola decided to get into the wine business. Soon after, one of the family, Walter S. Taylor, put his name on Bully Hill wine labels in larger type than the winery’s name and added a portrait of the family members. . Coke sued him for copyright infringement and won. The verdict prohibited Taylor from using family photos and his name could only appear on the back tag.

Following the decision, Taylor invited the public to the winery and gave them black markers to cross out her name on labels and draw masks on photos of family members. Continuing the ad campaign for many years, Taylor began calling himself “Walter S. Bully” on the increasingly colorful and humorous Bully Hill labels. By the time Coke decided to exit the wine business in 1983, Taylor was laughing all the way to the bank. He passed away in 2001, but his Bully Hill winery lives on, and so does the Taylor brand. His Lake Country Red sells for $3 a bottle.

Robert Mondavi was already 53 when he founded what is one of America’s most famous wineries in 1966. For several years, as the company grew and went public, Mondavi also acquired and formed partnerships with other wineries around the world. After the turn of the century, the Robert Mondavi brand ran into financial difficulties of its own, and the winery and its name were sold to Constellation Brands in 2004.

Mondavi died four years later at 95, but he has a grandson who shares his name – Robert Mondavi Jr., known as Rob. Today, Rob Mondavi continues to produce his own wine, but not under his own brand, and with his father Michael under the eponymous banner of the Michael Mondavi Family Estate of which he is president.

Of course, not all eponymous wine ventures end badly, especially if the founder passes the winery on to his family, as Louis M. Martini did when he died in 1974. When later generations grew weary of the wine trade wine in 2002, they sold it to Gallo, and the name lives on.

And the eponymous transfer is easier if only a last name is involved. Ironically enough, Richard Arrowood sold his Arrowood winery to Robert Mondavi in ​​2000, and it is now owned by Jackson Family Wines. Arrowood continued to produce wines under the name “Amapola Creek by Richard Arrowood” until his retirement in 2019.

Jackson Family also has its own eponymous winery in Mendocino County, but it is not named after any immediate family member. On the contrary, Barbara Banke, co-founder of the business with her late husband Jess, shared Jess’s love for thoroughbred horses and named the winery after one of her favorites – a filly named Maggy Hawk.

Robert Sinskey founded his eponymous winery in 1986 with his father, an eminent ophthalmologist. “The first Robert Sinskey was my dad,” Sinskey said in a recent interview. “I did my best not to use our name. My argument then, as it is now, is that viticulture and winemaking is a team effort. I would be hesitant to sell my name, but if I had changed I would have created a fancy name similar to one of our wines like Abraxas, Orgia, POV, Capa, Vandal, Marcien – anything but Robert Sinskey!

And then there’s Robert Pepi, who founded a Napa Valley winery with his father in 1980. “His name was also Robert, but we each had a different initial,” Pepi says. “We called the winery Robert Pepi almost by default as we couldn’t think of a better name.” Years later, the pair had a temporary misunderstanding, which led to the elder Pepi selling the winery and name Robert Pepi to the Jackson family in 1994.

“They called the wine just Pepi for a while,” he says, “then they sold the brand to Golden State. I thought about buying the name back, but I was sure it would have been expensive. Either way, he says, he wanted to check out other wineries, which he still does. The desire to own his own winery remained, but he had time to think about what to call it. when it opened in 2000.

“Since Robert Pepi was already taken,” Pepi says, “I did the next best thing. I called my new winery Eponymous Wines.

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