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Vintner Calls It Quits in Face of Marketing Pressures

Times Wine Writer

Ron Lipp feels that sales and marketing drive the wine business today, not quality wine, and for that reason he has closed his Mountain House Winery in southern Mendocino County and put the property up for sale.

It is a sad commentary, said Lipp, that his small, premium winery could make such good wine and still frazzle his nerves and those of his partner, Michelle Turner, with frustratingly difficult sales.

“The charm had gone out of the wine business,” said Lipp recently in a telephone interview from his Sacramento home, explaining why he left the wine business. Lipp is a lawyer with the firm Downey Brand Seymour & Rohwer in Sacramento, specializing in trademark and anti-trust law.

He said that after founding the winery in 1979, moving to the property and operating it through 1985, he and Turner found the pressure of sales was running them ragged. He discontinued operations at the winery in March, 1988, and put the property on the market.

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“When I originally got into the business in the early 1970s, my role models were Bob Travers (at Mayacamas) and Donn Chappellet (at Chappellet),” Lipp said. “That was at a time when you could go up on the side of a mountain and make an aesthetic statement, and if you made a good product, the marketing handled itself.

“But today the business has transformed into the point where marketing drives everything. Michelle and I woke up one day and said we didn’t get into this business to hustle wine.”

Lipp built Mountain House into an award-winning winery and by 1982, he was taking gold medals at major competitions and receiving excellent reviews from wine writers. But still, he would struggle to sell the wine.

“I would go on the road, to all the major cities--Washington, New York, Chicago, Miami--and I would get into the top restaurants and I would get placement on their wine lists. But each place would buy maybe five cases. Then, the following year, when I had a new release, I’d have to get back on the road. It just wasn’t economically feasible.”

More a Commodity

Lipp said that in the decade since he began in the wine business, he feels the image wine conveys to Americans is less and less a quality statement from committed producers to more and more a commodity.

“In some ways, the charm may have gone out of it as far as the consumer is concerned,” he said. “The average businessman, the average consumer, wants a good glass of wine, and it’s nice if it says Chardonnay. He doesn’t want to pay more than $3-to-$4 a glass, and the brand means nothing. It’s turned into a commodities business, and it’s called Chardonnay.”

Lipp tried for a time to sell the winery as is--lock, stock and barrels. He had no takers, so he sold off most of the remaining inventory, and is now looking to sell just the property.

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He said he would love to find a buyer who would continue to operate the winery as Mountain House, and he said he was prepared to listen to proposals from anyone who was quality-oriented and would not allow the wine under that brand to deteriorate.

The property, with a Cloverdale address in Sonoma County, is 7 miles west of U.S. 101. It has 80 acres of land, 5 planted to Chardonnay; a 9-acre-foot lake, a winery and a four-bedroom Victorian home that was an inn and stagecoach stop in the late 1800s. There are also six other buildings, including a guest cottage on the property.

The last vintage of Mountain House wines was 1985.

UC Davis is offering a two-day course for novice wine tasters called “Introduction to Sensory Evaluation of Wine” and a one-day advanced tasting seminar aimed at those with experience in wine.

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John Buechenstein (pronounced Bix-en-stine), wine maker at McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino County, will instruct both courses.

The introductory course, scheduled Feb. 11 and 12 on campus, has a $225 fee. Buechenstein will conduct a series of blind tastings of commercial wines to instruct students in the proper method for evaluating wine and in how to develop a “wine memory.”

The class is limited to 50 students and early enrollment is suggested.

The advanced course, with a $120 fee, is scheduled March 11 on campus. Buechenstein will focus on the qualification tests prospective wine competition judges face and will include a segment on defect identification and the testing of tasting consistency.

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For enrollment: call (800) 752-0881.


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