Jackson Family Wines CEO Rick Tigner mixes business with advocacy in fight against Parkinson’s disease

Rick Tigner leads Sonoma County's largest wine company while raising funds for research and treatment for Parkinson's disease, which his wife, Wendy, was diagnosed with in 2006.|

Rick Tigner’s day job as chief executive officer of Jackson Family Wines is pretty demanding on its own.

After all, the 56-year-old Tigner has to guide Sonoma County’s largest wine company with 1,700 overall employees into an increasingly competitive marketplace. His wines must vie for the attention of American consumers who have around 125,000 different selections to choose from - more than double the number from less than a decade ago.

His day-to-day worries include everything from more restrictive policies that make it harder to find land for new vineyards within California coastal regions to major rivals such as E&J Gallo Winery and Constellation Brands. Both are angling to expand their share of the premium wine market, which Tigner’s company has long dominated since Jess Jackson introduced his Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay to customers 35 years ago.

In recent years, Tigner also has carved out another role as a top fundraiser for research and treatment for Parkinson’s disease, working with the Michael J. Fox Foundation. The issue is personal for Tigner. His wife, Wendy, was diagnosed in 2006 at the age of 46 with the central nervous system disorder that makes it difficult to control body movements.

And for the fifth year in the row, Tigner is spearheading the Wine Country stop for the Tour de Fox charity bicycle ride to raise funds for the actor’s foundation as well as the local GOALS Foundation, which supports special needs children and adults sport activities. It will be held Saturday at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Garden, located at 5007 Fulton Road.

“Rick and Wendy Tigner are the heart and soul of the foundation’s Tour de Fox Series,” said Deborah W. Brooks, co-founder and executive vice chairman of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, in a statement.

Tigner estimates the local rides - which have featured celebrities such as former Giant Barry Bonds and local U.S. Olympian cyclist Levi Leipheimer - have raised around $2 million.

“We got to keep it a really cool ride,” Tigner said. “I don’t want to be so worried about the money that it becomes an uncool ride. The money will come.”

But those two worlds - wine and biking - come together much more frequently for Tigner. He is an avid bike rider, one who has completed Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo ride. He also leads his employees on weekly “Ride with Rick” excursions to promote wellness and camaraderie within the ninth-largest U.S. wine company, which produced around 6 million cases last year, according to Wine Business Monthly.

Bicycling has become more popular as a recreational activity for those ages 50 and over, Tigner notes. It is a trend that Sonoma County, with its bucolic rural roads, is primed to capitalize upon. “Ten years ago, what did they do? They played golf,” he said of his cohorts.

The bike treks also allow him to appreciate the beauty of the local area - from its rugged coastline to its green and gold hills - and have propelled him into another prominent role as a top tourism booster for Sonoma County.

That job is especially crucial as Jackson Family Wines’ fortunes are very much tied with its home in Sonoma County, where the company farms more than 3,000 acres of vineyards. The fastest-growing sales channel in the wine industry is the direct-to-consumer model - whether through wine clubs or via the internet - and attracting tourists to tasting rooms throughout the North Coast is key into turning them into loyal customers for the region’s wine.

“I travel all around the world. This is the best place to live,” Tigner said. “I want to expand our local footprint to have Kendall-Jackson Wine Country events in other parts of the world.”

After graduating from San Diego State University, Tigner went into sales jobs at Miller Brewing Co., Gallo and Louis M. Martini before coming to Jackson in 1991. He has been there ever since.

He still retains much of his persona as a salesman. For example, Tigner is on the board of directors for Vinexpo, a worldwide wine and spirits trade organization, and persuaded the trade group to hold its next conference in Sonoma County this September. Key global wine buyers and media will come to the area to learn more about the county’s different wine regions, from the old-vine zinfandel of the Dry Creek Valley to the premium cabernet sauvignon of the Alexander Valley, which is much more affordable than similar wines produced in Napa Valley.

“We still got a job to do to educate people around the world about Sonoma County,” he said. “People in China don’t understand the diversity of California appellations.”

Despite the increased competition, Jackson Family has two brands in the top 10 of premium wines - $10 a bottle and above - by overall retail sales last year, according to Impact Databank. Its flagship Kendall-Jackson brand ranked first with ?$542 million in sales while its La Crema label ranked sixth at $323 million.

Tigner believes a rising tide helps lift all wineries in Sonoma County. Vintners such as Francis Ford Coppola Winery of Geyserville and Rodney Strong Winery of Healdsburg, Tigner said, are two such wine businesses that can help also elevate the county’s products on a global scale. He is open to working with them in future philanthropic efforts to promote the area.

“I don’t see them as competitors. I see them as advocates promoting Sonoma County,” Tigner said. “Those are family-owned business. ... I do see them as partners. They help elevate us.”

The company is bullish on the future, whether it involves attracting visitors or making new acquisitions. For wine tastings, it’s primarily known for its Kendall-Jackson estate located off Highway 101 in Fulton. Two years ago, it refurbished the old barn owned by Richard and Saralee Kunde and used it as the showcase for its La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard, allowing for self-guided walking tours around the 200-acre grounds known for its Russian River Valley chardonnay and pinot noir. It now draws more than 30,000 visitors annually.

“It is the showcase of what the potential is,” Tigner said of the La Crema property. “As a winery in Sonoma County, you got to be diverse. You still need to have your brands sold in America. I would argue that you need your brands sold internationally.”

Multimillion-dollar improvements are planned in the future for its Verite winery east of Healdsburg to provide a more exclusive and premium experience for visitors. “We believe in the DTC environment to bring consumers there,” Tigner said.

Jackson Family has made less splashy acquisitions than some of its competitors. Last year, Gallo purchased the 600-acre Stagecoach Vineyard just above the Napa Valley, which followed acquisitions of a large custom-crush plant in St. Helena and three premium Napa labels: Louis M. Martini, William Hill Estate and Orin Swift. And this summer, Duckhorn Wine Co. of St. Helena - owned by a private-equity group - purchased Kosta Browne winery in Sebastopol, one of the top pinot noir brands in the country.

“Our strategy is to find wineries. There are wineries and there are brands. We are mainly in the winery business, not the brand business,” Tigner said. “You are getting the assets (wineries and land) along with the brand.”

The company locally has purchased Siduri Wines of Santa Rosa and Copain Wines of Healdsburg, but has concentrated much of its recent effort on coastal Oregon with wineries such as WillaKenzie Estate, Penner Ash and Gran Moraine, which are typically less expensive purchases than those in the North Coast.

The industry’s focus currently rests on labels that can charge a higher price for their bottles, which is especially critical given margins have been squeezed as grape prices in Sonoma County have escalated considerably. For example, the pinot noir crop in Sonoma County averaged more than $3,900 per ton last year.

“We are trying to raise the bar on the definition of what premium is,” he added. “In Sonoma County, we want our wines to be in between that premium category of $25 and $85 (per bottle) if not more.”

Whatever new wine trends come along, Tigner said the business philosophy will be the same for the company established by the late Jackson and carried on by his wife, Barbara Banke, in her role as chairman and proprietor.

Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay is a perfect example, Tigner added, as the wine has been the best-selling chardonnay in the country since 1991.

“It’s 100 percent chardonnay. It’s 95 percent barrel fermented; 95 percent. You know how many barrels that is?” he said.

“The reason why people don’t stay No. 1 is that they dilute. They chase market share. ... We are not a market-share driven company. We are a prestige premium wine company,” Tigner added. “Market share is a result of a good product. It’s not our plan.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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