Sonoma County’s boutique wineries find their sweet spot, making not too much and not too little
“Have you tasted your wine with this dish?”
This was the question Barb Gustafson asked husband-to-be Mat Gustafson when she met him in 2004 at a Sonoma County wine event, initiating an ongoing conversation that has spanned nearly two decades.
Today the co-vintners of Graton’s Paul Mathew Vineyards are still talking nonstop about food, wine and travel, with their boutique winery as the focus of their creative pursuit.
Most people in the wine industry define boutique wineries like Paul Mathew Vineyards as those producing 5,000 cases or less cases a year. Yet this category of small producers accounts for the lion’s share of all the wineries in the United States — 82%, or 9,454 of the 11,545 wineries in the U.S., according to market data site Statista.com.
Despite the challenges they face as boutique producers, the Gustafsons say they prefer their independence so they can be true artisans. They refuse to have company directives interfering with the quality of their wine. What’s more, they see winemaking as a way of life; they don’t mind putting in long hours because they’re living a life immersed in food and wine adventures.
With boutique wineries the fabric of American winemaking, we take a close look at two: Paul Mathew Vineyards and Healdsburg’s Leo Steen. The vintners behind these brands have stood the test of time with more than two decades of success. How does their business model enable them to compete with larger wineries? And just what is this passion, the engine driving it all?
Paul Mathew Vineyards
It’s “the sweet spot,” the goal of producing roughly 1,500 cases a year, that Mat Gustafson, 64, and wife Barb, 57, are building their brand’s business model around.
“It’s what we can sell ourselves without getting any distributors involved,” Mat said. “Making more than that, we might not be able to sell it. Making less, we might not have enough. We’re trying to thread the needle and be in the right spot.”
A wine club of roughly 500 members is the winery’s steady pool of buyers, with the brand’s core varietals pinot noir and chardonnay.
“Our wine club is our No. 1 bread and butter,” Barb said. “We call it our wine family because they call us by name, and we know their children because we see them so regularly. ... We have wine club members who come in every other month and buy three cases.”
In addition to their wine club efforts, the couple taps into 25 restaurants to sell their wine, with placements throughout California.
“Wine by the glass can really drive the tourists to our tasting room and even the locals,” Mat said.
The duo’s work ethic has played into the brand’s success: They both worked other jobs to keep them debt-free while they built Paul Mathew Vineyards. For example, Mat worked a second full-time job from 2001 to 2017 while the couple built the brand. Mat worked as a winemaker at Dutton Estate from 2001 to 2009 and then as the co-winemaker running the custom crush facility at Moshin Vineyards from 2009 to 2017.
In seminars today, wine entrepreneurs encourage people to begin a brand with $500,000, Mat said.
“I started with $5,000,” he said. “I guess they didn’t think someone would be working full-time to pay the bills.”
One of the biggest challenges to date, Mat said, is competing with more moneyed vintners from Napa for prime vineyards in Sonoma County. But, he said, he and Barb often come up with creative solutions, like producing more wine from another vineyard.
Mat makes the wine and Barb sells it, while maintaining their independent status is their inspiration. Mat said that in 1999, he was at a crossroads. His options were to become a master sommelier or a winemaker.
“I thought if I became a sommelier, I’d just work for some big hotel and I wouldn’t be independent,” he said. “So I decided to start a wine label.”
The couple met in 2004 at the Pinot Forum, a wine event in Sonoma County.
Mat said his passion for making liquid art has never wavered.
“I couldn’t imagine selling widgets,” he said with a grin.
Leo Steen Wines
Leo Hansen founded his brand in 2004 and started off producing 100 cases a year. Today that figure is 4,000 cases — and that’s Hansen’s goal.
“I want to be sure it’s comfortable for me to make it myself,” he said. “As soon as you scale up, you need more help. It’s kind of a fine line of what makes sense.”
Hansen, 51, said his business model revolves around his tasting room — The Drinks — and his wine club. But the winemaker also works with distributors who sell his wines to restaurants throughout California, in other states and around the world. The distributors also sell to retailers, but to a lesser degree.
What brought him notice, Hansen said, was having his flagship wine a chenin blanc, something refreshing and exotic in America in the early 2000s.
A native of Denmark, Hansen grew up with parents who worked in the restaurant industry. He went to college in Denmark in the early 1990s and studied business, sales and marketing. He later became a sommelier, and tasting great wines at restaurants piqued his interest in winemaking.
Drawn to America in 1999, Hansen began his winemaking odyssey as an intern at Geyserville’s Clos du Bois. He later became a winemaker at Healdsburg’s Stuhlmuller Vineyards, from 2002 to 2016, before creating his own brand.
Hansen rents a production facility in Alexander Valley that overlooks Clos du Bois where he got his start.
“A coincidence,” he mused, “or have I come full circle?”
Ten wines are in Hansen’s lineup, including a late-harvest chenin blanc and a fortified chenin blanc, with a sparkling chenin blanc in the making.
What Hansen’s most passionate about is finding unique vineyards, hidden gems in California.
“It’s very interesting for small guys like me,” he said. “Like a chef with produce, I wonder what I can get out of it.”
Sometimes Hansen thinks about having a “normal job” and being off at 5 p.m. on Friday afternoons. When you work for yourself, he mused, you tend to work around the clock. But in the end, he said, his passion for wine makes “normal” look much less attractive.
“I wouldn’t want to get up every morning and do something I wouldn’t enjoy,” Hansen said. “That would be awful. My best advice to my kids (Max, 13, and Aksel, 11) is whatever career path you choose, make sure it’s something you’re passionate about.”
You can reach wine writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @pegmelnik.