Refusing to sell to a conglomerate, organic wine pioneer Phil Coturri names his successor

A pioneer of organic and biodynamic viticulture in California has chosen his successor, preserving a family dynamic in a context of increasing corporatization within the wine industry.

Phil Coturri has named his former protege Mayacamas Olds chief operating officer of his company Company vineyards, which operates 600 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties for wineries such as Kamen Estate Vineyards, Oakville Ranch and Stone Edge Farm. Coturri doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon, he said, but Olds will allow him to step back from day-to-day administrative duties.

Coturri’s decision to create an estate plan before retirement is unusual in Wine Country, where more and more successful wine companies are selling to large conglomerates – most recently, 50-year-old Napa-based Shafer Vineyards sold to the South Korean conglomerate Shinsegae Property for $250 million.

Coturri was not interested in selling Enterprise Vineyards to the highest bidder. This creates a homogenization of wine varieties and styles, he said, and could have dire environmental consequences if companies don’t prioritize watersheds and other factors as the climate changes. “If majority ownership is constantly changing, it becomes more of a commodity,” Coturri said. “So there’s no one with the passion to be accountable for their actions.”

By hiring Olds now, Coturri is ensuring that his vision for Enterprise will remain in place for future generations.

When Coturri founded Enterprise in 1979, few Bay Area vineyards were grown organically. The use of herbicides was standard; the toxicity of these chemicals, such as RoundUp, which turned out to be carcinogenic, was not yet known to everyone. Coturri has revolutionized the industry’s now widespread adoption of organic and biodynamic practices for high quality wines. Today, he is considered the go-to organic expert for top wineries in Wine Country.

Olds worked with Coturri at Enterprise as a winemaker between 2006 and 2011. Recently, a casual lunch to catch up with her former employer led to a job offer she couldn’t refuse. “It just happened like magic,” said Olds, who will also oversee Corturri’s Sonoma Valley winery, Cellar sixteen 600which favors Rhone grape varieties such as Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

“We are fully, 100% aligned with the philosophy of farming and growing high quality grapes among organic products, preserving diversity as well as what we believe in taking care of its crew and of his people,” she said.

Most recently, Olds was the general manager of Sonoma’s sparkling wine house, Gloria Ferrer Wines, where she initiated the move away from herbicide use in the vineyard; the winery is now in the process of being certified organic. But she missed working with premium red wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, she said. More importantly, the move allows him to refocus on the family business, Sky Vineyards, which Enterprise helps run. Sky is a remote, completely off-grid estate on the border of Napa and Sonoma counties in the Mayacamas mountain range.

Coturri insists on keeping his business in the family, calling the wine a “multi-generational experience”. His grandfathers worked as coopers and in the 1960s his father was planting vines and making wine in the Sonoma Valley. Coturri’s two sons are now heavily involved in his businesses: Sam Coturri is the Technical Director of Winery Sixteen 600 and Max Coturri is the Construction Manager of Enterprise.

Thus, it may seem counterintuitive that Coturri did not promote any of his sons to management, but when it came time to plan for succession, he felt that Olds was best placed to act as a glue between the Enterprises staff of more than 100 employees and to maintain the high level of breeding on which the company has built its reputation.

Sam Coturri said Olds had his full support. “She has qualifications that neither my brother nor I have, and experience that we don’t have,” he said.

Plus, Olds is family, argued Phil Cotturi. Long before their working relationship, his wife babysat Olds, and years later Olds babysat Coturri’s children.

“There’s a legacy that started over forty years ago and it’s a legacy that I want to continue for another 40 years, if not more,” Coturri said.

Jess Lander is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @jesslander

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