Living The Dream

Winery/Winemaker Profile: Doug Boeschen, Boeschen Vineyards

With over 400 wineries in Napa alone, including some of the largest PR juggernauts in the wine world, competition for consumers’ attention is fierce. It's no surprise that many of the smaller guys get overlooked. Nevertheless, you can only keep extraordinary quality under wraps, no matter how small, for so long.

Boeschen Vineyards is one of the last remaining truly family-operated small wineries in Napa Valley. With a staff of only two employees (brothers-in-law Doug Boeschen and Shawn Heffernan), this is the quintessential Mom & Pop (or bro and bro) winery.

We first met Dann and Doug Boeschen of Boeschen Vineyards at an enormous trade tasting last year. Despite being awash in new faces and wines, the tall, soft spoken Boeschen men and their wine were among the few standouts. Since that first meeting we've exchanged a little Q&A with Doug. From pricing their wines to handling a mop, he gives a personal look into the pleasures and challenges of running a small winery.  If you've ever wondered what it would be like to have your own small winery (and who among us hasn't?), read on.

How small? Tiny. Only 270 cases of Estate Cabernet ($75) and 150 cases of the Carrera Bordeaux blend ($70) are made each year from their seven acres of Estate vineyard. Very limited quantities of Sauvignon Blanc ($35) are also released to Wine Club members. Despite tough economic times and ultra premium prices, Boeschen sold out of both the 2006 and 2007 vintages shortly after release. Not bad for a new kid on the block. In fact, it’s very impressive considering the market has all but turned its back on wine over $30.

Doug, Dann & Shawn
 Founded and designed by Dann Boeschen (Doug’s father), the facility is beautiful, both above and below ground (where the cellar is), yet the running of the winery isn’t always glamorous. “I don't like running the business: paying bills, dealing with compliance, taxes, accounting, permits, etc. That stuff is no fun.”, says Doug, who also wears the hats of winemaker, vineyard manager, and head janitor. Shawn handles infrastructure including all tractor work, irrigation, and fertigation. Both work on sales and promotion. Though they occasionally bring in crews for the big vineyard jobs (pruning, harvest, etc.), they also do much of the work in the vineyard and 100% of the work in their smaller blocks themselves.

They do get some help from the younger generation, though. Doug and Deborah’s sons Sam and Henry (7 and 5) both like to help out during crush, joining in to help sort the fruit, their little hands perfect for picking out bad berries.  They also have fun suckering vines (pulling off the new green growth on the trunks) in the spring. Their short height and love of the vineyard make them ideal for it. But bar none, their favorite activities all have wheels: tractor, ATV, and forklift. "Sam is a real talker and quite happy giving the winery tours" - at least until it's time for a lemonade break.

Hearing Doug talk about it, it’s hard not to begin fantasizing about a life like this for yourself: surrounded by bucolic nature, making incredible wine, and raising kids who think everyone grows up with a vineyard in their backyard - clearly there are worse legacies to be perpetuating.

For Doug, winemaking is a second career after being a strategy consultant – something he quickly acknowledges he would never want to go back to. After returning to school at UC Davis to study viticulture and enology, he had stints at a handful of venerable wineries, including Sequoia Grove, Spottswoode and Chateau Mercier, in Bordeaux. But it’s clear that the family winery has proved to be Doug’s biggest learning experience yet. “I learned a great deal from Mike Trujillo and Molly Hill at Karl Lawrence/Sequoia Grove, but I would say my most influential winemaking mentors were Jennifer Williams and Rosemary Cakebread at Spottswoode. They are both fantastic winemakers and even better people. [Here at Boeschen] I've learned that it's an incredible luxury to work with our own fruit and make such a small amount of wine…We are able to put our stamp on the wine and business in a way that we couldn't do other places. Of course, it's not all upside. There's alot of pressure that comes with running your own small business: as farmers we're subject to the variability of mother nature, and we don't get alot of sleep in the Fall!”

With the control of running their own winery also comes the risk associated with small production lots – any mishap could cost a large portion of production. To manage that risk, Shawn and Doug are very particular with their winemaking practices, but still acknowledge that not every barrel evolves like you would want it to. They purposely bring in more fruit than they know they’ll want to bottle making it possible to spend a great deal of time on each barrel and whittle out the lots that aren’t up to their standards.  Leftovers get sold off as bulk wine after blends are finalized each year.

But even before the wines are blended, the marketing machine is in motion. To come up with prices for the wines, the Boeschen team does blind competitive tastings to price relative to other labels in a similar quality range. “It has always been very important to us that our customers feel they are getting a strong value for the quality and price. The wine isn't cheap, but for the limited quantity we make, we think we've hit that quality value we look for. The wines sell out quickly, so, so far I think we're doing alright…Our business goals focus on making great wine, working together as a family, and being responsible, sustainable members of the community. It's a model that I first saw in action when I worked at Spottswoode, and I think it's very powerful and important.”

For a real taste of living the dream of having a small winery, call Doug to arrange for a visit to Boeschen east of St. Helena.  Or you can find Doug's wine at a small handful of restaurants and wine shops within 20 miles of the winery or online at