By Becky Hurley | Aug 25, 2017
Rosenblum Cellars made headlines in fall 2016 when Bronco Wine Company, one of the nation's largest family-owned wine companies, acquired a dozen California wine brands from Australia'sTreasury Wine Estates.
Rosenblum Cellars is a small, prestigious Zinfandel winery known for limited single-vineyard production and has produced some of the nation's top-rated wines. In 2005, its 2003 Rock Pile Zin ranked third on the list of Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of the World. Rosenblum wines have earned 90 points or better from Wine Spectator since the 1990s and the winery has won a slew of awards. "By 1990, we had collected so many ribbons and medals that it took three 4-by-8 sheets of plywood to hang them on," says Rosenblum founder and Consulting Winemaker Kent Rosenblum.
Annual production peaked at 220,000 cases before 2008 when the vintner was taken over by beverage giant Diageo and its volume scaled back. Sales of its higher-end, harder-to-find brands averaged 10,000 to 20,000 cases, generated by on-site tasting room business and loyal customers.
This unconventional pairing faring between Bronco and Rosenblum Cellars adds to Bronco's reputation of premium wines built on high-quality, high-volume mid-tier and value-tier brands, including "Two Buck Chuck." It is the nation's fourth-largest wine sales operation with more than 45,000 acres of high-yield vineyards. Since Bronco Wine Co. represents about 180 brands and produces 10 to 15 million cases annually, the volume provides a powerful marketing edge when competing for shelf space at Costco, grocery stores, or mass-distribution liquor stores.
It also gives Rosenblum Cellars a distinct supply-chain advantage. "Bronco's established relationships with Portuguese cork, Italian capsule, and both domestic and European barrel suppliers, provides increased purchasing clout," says Rosenblum. "Right away, they asked if we needed more equipment and tanks?"
The acquisition also brings with it additional marketing know-how. "The process of making wine -- usually two years from grape harvest to market -- isn't hard, but selling it is," says Rosenblum. "Our brands are fortunate to have Bronco Wine Company's marketing firepower behind them." Bronco mastermind Michael Franzia is Rosenblum's direct- to-consumer manager. Components of his program include special events, meetups, and classes at a stylish Oakland tasting room, as well as a wine club membership and a strong e-commerce campaign.
DTC marketing allows smaller producers to compete with value-tier brands selling for under $20. "Online, Rosenblum Cellars wine sales have been very effective," says Franzia of his e-commerce program's year-over-year double-digit success. "Tasting rooms and wine clubs are many wineries' bread and butter, and the scarcity of a wine can actually help sell it."
Why commit significant resources to bolster Rosenblum Cellars' profile? "A key factor is Kent Rosenblum's dedication and reputation for quality," Franzia says. Rosenblum, a practicing veterinarian, and his wife began experimenting with winemaking in 1973. The couple's skills grew to the point they could sell to friends rather than give it away. "We figured it [home-based production] would allow us to write off trips to Europe," says Rosenblum. ”
But not-in-my-backyard pressures altered those plans. That's when the "Zin Guy" decided to open his first winery in Oakland's abandoned Dead End Bar near an old Amtrak depot. "On opening day, 300 people showed up and bought all of our wine."
Rosenblum Cellars' operation has relocated to Rosenblum's Rock Wall Wine Co., headquartered in Alameda, California. Its hand-picked grapes, "brix" (sugar content), monitoring, and careful human oversight continue to set it apart.
The winery's grower supply chain includes 30 to 35 small family vineyards rather than large estate farms. "A good relationship with your growers is better for the wine and more fun for everyone," says Rosenblum. In fact, several Rosenblum Cellars brands are named for growers and their farms: Maggie's is named after a Sonoma vineyard owner, and Carla's is named from grapes raised in the Carla Meadows vineyard.
"The right vineyards will yield the right grapes," says Rosenblum. He emphasizes the importance of full sun during the day and cool evenings. He promotes old clones of Zinfandel grapes that are grafted onto new woodstock. "Managing the agricultural aspect of winemaking is vital to a superior product" says Rosenblum. "We work with our growers not to overcrop. Achieving just the right brix level provides increased flavor potential and distinguishes the boutique brand from mass produced wines."
Zinfandels remain the brand's primary focus, but Rosenblum and his daughter, Shauna, founder of Rock Wall, are exploring new varietals. Among them are two Petite Sirahs, a Bordeaux-blend (Petite Verdot and Malbec) Sirah, and a Napa Chardonnay.
During the winemaking process, harvested grapes are poured into a crusher/de-stemmer before going into a small, open-top fermenter macrobin or closed top-tank. The mixture is chilled for three days and eventually warmed and inoculated with specific yeast strains. At least twice a day, a crush crew punches fruit and liquid down. This keeps the "cap" of grape skins moist and allows more "character and color" -- important to a wine's ultimate taste.
Rosenblum prefers the control and outcome of open-top fermenters. Fermented "must" is finally put into a grape press which separates the skins and seeds from the wine. The liquid then goes into a settling tank, and eventually, into oak barrels. Periodic testing is performed for a year to 1.5 years before the wine is bottled and sold.
This careful monitoring has generated industry accolades and national acclaim for Rosenblum Cellars. But for Kent Rosenblum and Bronco Wine Co., delivering sumptuous wines is just business as usual.
Challenges: The importance of a good tasting room that's inviting, friendly, and has a restaurant or free parking can't be underrated. "Getting the fruit to where we want it for great wines," says Rosenblum.
Bronco's challenge and opportunity is to be a good steward, and Rosenblum Cellars brand ambassador, Franzia adds. "We want to continue to source family-owned vineyards or partners that allow us to release new and interesting wines."
Opportunities: Both Rosenblum and Franzia see an opportunity to grow business through innovative tasting-room experiences and programs as well as wine club membership. Rosenblum Cellars currently offers 21 different wines. Both depend on e-marketing through sites like Instagram and Facebook.
"We don't have shareholders so we can make the best decisions based on our growers and customers," says Franzia. "That impact flows to the bottom line."
Needs: Vineyards are facing a critical shortage of workers. Workers can make $15 to $30 per hour, but jobs are very physical and sometimes seasonal. "Americans won't do the work for that amount of money," says Rosenblum.
Franzia also would like to see a few new wines in the Rosenblum portfolio to also bolster the brand. "Scaling e-commerce," he says, "is both an opportunity and a need we're addressing."