Ridge Vineyards’ Sales & Marketing: An Abridged Modern History

Blog Post

September 2022

Written By: David Amadia, President, Ridge Vineyards

For the winery’s 60th Anniversary, Paul Draper recently penned a historic overview of Fine Winemaking at Ridge Vineyards and concluded his synopsis by writing:

Paul Draper in the barrel room at Monte Bello

“I’ve focused entirely on production, that is, the winery and vineyards. From the beginning, our success has been built on our attempt to make some of the finest wines being produced today. However, any successful company depends on much more than just production. In the last twenty years, we have assembled an incredible team that has brought the other essential aspects of our operation to a level that has placed Ridge among the most respected wine producers in the world.”
—Paul Draper, Chairman of the Board

This article will focus on the development of Ridge’s Sales and Marketing Team over the past two decades and the important role this team has played in establishing Ridge Vineyards as one of the world’s most respected wineries. The key responsibility of any executive is to assemble a high-performing team and provide the group with a motivating vision. The following is the story of sales & marketing at Ridge.  

Understanding the Modern Landscape of Ridge’s Sales & Marketing

In the beginning the founders of Ridge would take turns pouring and selling wine at Monte Bello on the weekends. A customer mailing list was started, and customers would be informed when new wines were released. The wines were sold to a few fine wine shops in the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Southern California. When Paul Draper was hired as the first full time winemaker in 1969, he made time to travel and present Ridge wines to journalists and customers, both within California and beyond. Donn Reisen joined Ridge as a cellar hand and tractor driver in 1977; four years later in 1981, he became Ridge’s first dedicated sales employee with the title of Marketing and Sales Director. Donn had a magnetic personality and developed strong relationships with wholesalers, restauranteurs, retailers, collectors, and journalists. He was a passionate promoter of Zinfandel and served as both a board member and board president of ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producer). Through Donn’s dedication, he was able to establish distribution for Ridge in all 50 states. In the mid 1980’s early Ridge employee Kathy Martinich helped create the first ever wine club – the Advance Tasting Program. On the international side, Paul Draper traveled to the wine capitals, establishing beachheads for Ridge in London, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, and other important world markets.

In 2004 Donn suffered a devastating bike accident that ultimately required several surgeries. The significant recovery time kept Donn from traveling which led to an immediate downturn in sales in 2004. There were other market forces at work as well. The wine distribution business had massively evolved over the preceding decade driven by consolidation. In 1995 there were 3000 distributors in the US, and by 2004 this number had dropped by half to 1500. At the same time, the number of wineries in the US had grown from 1,800 to over 5,000. There was a growing lake of wine trying to push through a smaller and smaller distribution pipeline causing a backup of unsold wine, mostly with small and medium-sized wineries who did not have the muscle to demand performance from their wholesalers.  

The winery commenced a search in 2005 for a head of US Sales to report to Donn, who had been promoted to President in 2001. I had met Donn in Napa at Copia in 2003 where we both sat on an industry panel to discuss screwcaps. We were on opposite sides of the argument as I was the head of sales and marketing for Bonny Doon, the first winery in the US to move to 100% screwcaps for its wines, and Donn was an advocate for traditional cork. We had a spirited debate that was full of humor and good-natured barbs. I think we both walked away with mutual respect.

So, when the opportunity at Ridge came across my radar, I was very interested to work with Ridge and with Donn. I had enjoyed my four-year run at Bonny Doon where we grew sales to over 300,000 cases and I had the good fortune to build a great sales and marketing team. 

I joined Ridge in June of 2005 as Vice President of US Sales. Donn focused on international and left me to manage and figure out the US Wholesale side of the business. When I arrived, Ridge was already deep in discussions with a national marketing company desiring to take over our US distribution. I was opposed to this direction, feeling this would put an unneeded layer between Ridge and our customers. But I did not yet have the internal sway as the ‘new guy’ to simply kill the concept. We planned a distributor council meeting and asked the potential national marketing company to present to this group. Our distributor council quickly dismissed the national importer and made it clear that they wanted to maintain a direct relationship with Ridge.

Building a Wholesale Team

One potential disaster averted. But there were many other challenges to overcome. We did not have depletion, account sold or inventory information from any of our distributors. We only evaluated our wholesalers based on shipments. We had significant inventory built up in many markets around the US, and these distributors were dumping Ridge into the market at significant discounts. We had not taken a price increase on Monte Bello in seven years, it remained steady at $120 per bottle from 2000 to 2006. Many of our wholesalers were rejecting their full allocations. We were not sufficiently utilizing our next generation of winemakers and production team in the market. We did not have creative and modern marketing programs to drive business, awareness, or reputation. But mostly, we lacked a team to properly manage our wholesalers on a regular basis. With consolidation it was no longer sustainable for one person to manage our wholesalers, no matter how much our partners desired a direct relationship.

Over the next 15 years, there would be dozens if not hundreds of new initiatives that would work to drive the business forward. But none of this would have been possible without the support and trust of Mark Vernon and the Executive Team. Many of the new ideas required investment, many were unfamiliar to the existing culture, and all of them required an assumption of risk. But our leadership trusted, supported, and encouraged our Sales and Marketing Team to challenge the status quo and to strive for continuous improvement.

Our first Regional Manager was an internal hire, Christina Donley, who had been managing the Lytton Springs Tasting Room. Christina began by managing a handful of markets in the Midwest in 2007, and 15 years later, Christina is a Director and oversees our Western Division. After kissing a few frogs (hires that were not fits) we established our full Regional Sales Team in 2009 with Christina managing the Northwest, Dan Buckler the Southwest, and Michael Torino the Eastern Region. This was a significant turning point for Ridge. With a strong, dedicated, directed, and motivated team that had access to quality depletion data, we were able to begin to effectively manage our wholesalers reasserting control over inventory, pricing, and the quality of our distribution. The US Wholesale team through their excellence has allowed Ridge to weather the recession of 2009, to thrive through the chaos of COVID in 2020 and 2021 moving our business to retail and then back to restaurants in 2022, and through strong inventory management has allowed us to take price increases on Monte Bello every year since 2011.

We also moved on the marketing front to shake the dust off the Ridge Vineyards brand and to ensure the winery remained relevant particularly with younger Sommeliers and consumers. Some of the key new programs were the Somm Symposium which launched in 2011 and has brought nearly 200 top-level sommeliers to Ridge over the past decade, the Wholesale Ambassador Program, and the Virtual Tasting which debuted in 2010. Over a decade before Zoom Tastings took the wine world by storm during COVID, we were impacting hundreds of distributor sales reps and accounts through our spring and fall virtual tastings.

A Pivot to Direct-to-Consumer

In 2009, after Donn’s passing, I was promoted to head of global sales at Ridge including International and Direct to Consumer (DTC). This was a very chaotic and traumatic time for everyone. Donn had been an institution at Ridge for 30 years.

We took a fresh look at our DTC operation and found significant opportunities. In 2009 we picked some of the low-hanging fruit. We introduced two levels of tastings and began to pour Monte Bello at both tasting rooms; we introduced optional shipments for the clubs; we increased direct e-mail marketing; we started First Friday events and began to utilize shipping-included promotions.

But the real revolution in DTC began when we hired Ryan Moore in 2010. We were patient in the search for the Director position and passed on many candidates before extending an offer to Ryan. We realized this was going to be a significant role and critical to the long-term success of the winery. I cautioned the Executive Team after Ryan’s hire that the changes were going to come and come quickly and to brace themselves.

Between 2010 and 2014, Ryan and his team executed a long list of changes that moved our DTC business forward in a very big way. This is an abbreviated list of those initiatives:

  • Built the VIP Room at the Monte Bello Barn turning unused office area into a five-star entertainment space.
  • Converted the board room at Lytton Springs to a hosting space.
  • Opened the Lytton Terrace to outdoor hosting.
  • Expanded guest experiences and offerings.
  • Redesigned the website.
  • Expanded our email marketing efforts.
  • Rolled out a new online shopping experience.
  • Added Estate wines to the Collector program.
  • Rolled out Salesforce as a CRM system integrating it with our existing Orion software.
  • Transitioned to Salesforce’s Marketing Cloud as our email marketing solution.
  • Expanded and enhanced the employee training and development programs.
  • Began to offer the Century Tour at Lytton Springs utilizing an electric cart, and a journey through our organic old vines.
  • Spearheaded the Monte Bello landscape project which is now in phase 3 that has transformed a rattlesnake-infested hillside and abandoned bocci court into an elegant but rustic outdoor tasting space.
  • Moved the primary tasting space at Monte Bello to the historic barn dramatically improving both customer and employee experience.  

Ryan was promoted to Vice President in 2016 and to Senior VP in 2021. The innovation in DTC continues today and we continue to grow our business annually. In 2010 the DTC group sold 14,000 cases of wine; in 2021 this number had more than doubled to 31,000 cases. During this same 11-year period, revenue increased from $6.0M to $17.7M, and club memberships increased from 8,900 to over 18,000. This growth continues to be led by Ryan’s core team including Liz Brosnihan (Sr. Manager, E-Commerce), Cecilia Aguilar (Senior Manager, DTC Operations), John Musto (Analyst and E-Commerce Coordinator), Sandy Johnson (Manager at Lytton Springs), and Michael Foley (Sr. Manager at Monte Bello). The improvement continues with plans to retire the legacy Orion system in 2023 and replace it with a combination of Salesforce and Commerce 7, and a plan to build an outdoor consumer pavilion at Lytton Springs in the coming years.

Going Global

The international business in 2009 was stable with revenue steady at around $3M. With an increase in attention, an increase in travel by me and the production team to key markets (China, Canada, and the UK) and the opening of new distribution (in Norway, Germany, Duty Free and the Caribbean), business began to grow. By 2019 revenue had grown to $5M, to $6.4M in 2021, and is expected to reach $7M in 2022. Much of the recognition that we receive today is the result of the quality distribution we have established in markets around the world. Paul Draper said early on in his tenure at Ridge, “If you want to have a global reputation, you need to have global distribution.” Ridge’s first export shipment was to the UK in 1976 to Avery’s of Bristol. Today we sell Ridge in 50 countries around the globe. This recognition of having established a ‘global reputation’ has come in several forms.

April 2022 – Drinks International:

Drinks International annually releases its list of the “World’s Most Admired Brands,” which is voted on by the Drinks International Academy of leading wine buyers, sommeliers, wholesalers, Masters of Wine, writers, and educators from six continents around the world. In 2022 Ridge made the list for the 11th consecutive year.

October 2021 – Golden Vines:

In 2021 at the inaugural Golden Vines Awards, Ridge was awarded the Best Fine Wine Producer in the Americas Award. Those who voted included 57 Masters of Wine, 31 Master Sommeliers, 140 DipWSET, and 77 Advanced Sommeliers.

In 2016, I was promoted to President, and Michael Torino was promoted to VP US Wholesale in recognition of the consistent results that he and his team had delivered over the previous five years. In 2021 he was promoted to Sr VP Global Sales overseeing both the US and International markets. At the same time, we promoted Katie Blakely to the position of International Sales Manager responsible for all our export markets. Katie had been with Ridge since 2014, working for three years as the Tasting Room Manager at Monte Bello and then transitioning to the role of Regional Sales Manager for the Central Region of the U.S., covering 20 states. Katie had excelled in both roles bringing tremendous energy and focus to her work, and she continues to excel in this new role.

Ridge Global Sales Team. From left to Right: Poppi Monroe, Tom Deaso, Daniel Dominguez, Michael Torino, Marie Bourdet, Murphy Young, Katie Blakely, Christina Donley, Mary Bagley, and David Amadia

Today, the US wholesale regional sales team consists of Tom Deaso (Eastern Regional Manager), Poppi Monroe (Central Region Manager), Christina Donley (Director, Western Region), supported by Murphy Young (Trade Development Manager), and led by Michael Torino. They continue the legacy of success first established in 2009. The team recorded record sales in 2021, and are on-pace to beat the record for on-premise sales in 2022.

Recently, we have invested in a Digital Marketing Coordinator responsible for Ridge’s messaging in the growing world of social media. As in the past, we chose not to relegate this function to an outside agency but rather bring the function in house to ensure the voice is authentic and consistent with Ridge’s messaging and values. This role is held by Micayla Roberts and is guided by our Director of Marketing, Ryan Johnson. A fine example of how constant improvement is engrained in our collective DNA.

For any organization to excel it needs to have all aspects of its business executing at a high level. Paul Draper spent 50 years at Ridge focused on making world-class wines. My mission when I arrived in 2005 was to professionalize sales and marketing, to build a sales and marketing organization of the same quality level as the wine being produced by Ridge, and to build a sustainable distribution model able to withstand recessions and other industry shocks. This was primarily accomplished by hiring great people, mutually agreeing on strategy and vision, and trusting them to do their work. What we have developed is indeed an envy of the wine world. We all should have a collective pride in the recognition that is regularly afforded to Ridge.

But we cannot be complacent, and I know that the sales and marketing team will not rest on their laurels. They thrive on pushing the envelope and the concept of constant improvement. 

—David Amadia, President