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Interview: John Grant, CEO, Cline Family Cellars

June 6, 2022

Sonoma County, California fixture Cline Family Cellars is hitting a key milestone this year, celebrating four decades in business. Among the festivities is the release of a limited-edition bottling of Cline’s Old Vine Zinfandel with packaging designed to evoke the earliest days of the winery. The Cline portfolio covers a wide variety of varietals and price tiers, from the Cline Classics range upward to single vineyard wines, with total volume at around 400,000 cases. SND senior editor Shane English spoke with Cline Family Cellars CEO John Grant to discuss what’s next for the longstanding Sonoma stalwart.

SND: How has Cline Family Cellars’ overall business progressed lately?

Grant: Our sales enjoyed a boom during the heaviest times of Covid, because “go-to” brands did well. That has tailed off some, but we’ve seen some real recovery in our own retail room, which is now open seven days a week, and we’ve made nice progress in the on-premise. We’re probably going to sell about the same amount of wine as we did in 2019, but with more of the noble varietals being sold at higher price points. Cline has become quite active in the on-premise arena. It wasn’t historically, because it was so largely based on Zinfandel and there’s a relatively small on-prem following for Zin. There’s a family transition going on at Cline where the founders Fred and Nancy have stepped back a pace or two and the void’s being filled by the next generation, Megan and Hilary Cline, who are interested in other Sonoma varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

SND: Which wines are driving that on-premise growth?

Grant: One of the early movers was Seven Ranchlands. We launched that in January of last year when restaurants were still down on their luck. As restaurants have recovered, we’ve started to get some nice distribution with that Seven Ranchlands range, which is four wines under screwcap to make them easy to serve. The wine that’s doing best of all is the Cabernet, then the Pinot and the Chardonnay, and then the Sauvignon Blanc in that order. Historically, we had none of those wines being offered on-premise. It’s only been in the last six to eight months that we’ve gotten traction but it’s good to see it growing now.

SND: What role does DTC play in Cline’s business?

Grant: Volumetrically it’s less than 10% of our total. But I think it’s actually worth twice that in terms of equity build for the brand, because once you have club people join they become brand ambassadors. We have a pretty loyal following, which has hung in through Covid.

SND: What does the future look like for Cline?

Grant: Hilary Cline launched a new Sonoma AVA series last year with an item called Fog Swept Pinot Noir from our vineyards in the Sonoma Coast. Our emphasis is on gaining distribution in restaurants with a by-the-glass program. It’s been followed more recently by Rock Carved Cabernet from Alexander Valley. That’s one of the top three sellers in our retail room, and we only launched it this year. There’s also a project that Hilary and Megan have been working on since the 2017 vintage, and that’s Gust. They take the very best blocks in the Petaluma Gap AVA to make that brand, where the AVA is distinguished from its neighbors by the unique fog and wind conditions. It’s a Pinot, Chardonnay, and a Syrah. They’re only making a couple thousand cases but it’s selling out. Overall, we’ve had an influx of young, smart winemaking talent come into the business. It’s a good alignment with the Cline kids. They’re all at a similar energy level.

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