When Baker and Jean Ferguson, founders of pioneering winery L’Ecole N° 41 in Washington State, learned that their daughter and son-in-law Megan and Marty Clubb would take over the family business in 1989, they were thrilled.
“Jean said ‘Thank you for saving my retirement,’” says Marty, who also serves as L’Ecole’s winemaker and co-owner. Upon their retirement, the Fergusons moved a few miles away to give the younger generation space.
Marty may have benefitted from more guidance in those early days, but having to figure things out was invaluable.
“My father-in-law, Baker Ferguson, was very wise…. He probably instinctively understood that I would have certain ideas that might clash with their original ideas,” says Marty, who immediately added Cabernet Sauvignon to L’Ecole’s lineup. “He decided to literally hand it to us and somewhat walk away.”
A clean and drama-free transition from one generation to the next is rare in any industry. In most family wineries, succession is a process, with founders and their children working together sharing duties and decisions. Succession can pose a challenge unless the family defines expectations and specific roles.
“When I see estate battles, it’s nothing to do with money,” says Jamie Watson, a partner with GVM Law, a wine and estate planning firm in Napa, CA. “It’s one sibling or someone who felt wronged or not understood.”
Each family approaches such transitions differently.
“The clients that really succeed at the highest level push forward with whatever the mission is that makes their wines great,” says Watson. “At the end of the day, you have to have a passion for the business.”
We spoke to a handful of wine families to explore how they’re transitioning from one generation to the next.
Megan Hughes is so proud to be a second-generation winemaker that she put it in her email signature. Her father, Rob Griffin, known for his award-winning dry Sangiovese rosé, is the longest-tenured winemaker in Washington State.
Hughes now makes their white wines like Viognier and Albariño, while her dad manages red wine production. Though he’s eased back on giving advice, they still walk the vineyards, make harvest decisions, and perform tasting trials together.
“He gets to do the parts he likes to do,” Hughes says.
Hughes is carving out her domain with a line of sparkling wines called Gorge. The méthode champenoise wines are sold with the lees in the bottles. Consumers get to disgorge the wines and see what extended time on yeast does to the flavor.
For now, she’s OK with the uncertainty about when she’ll take over.
“I don’t think I’ll ever know,” she says. “That’s the beauty and the curse of a family company. Why would he ever leave? He’s built this circus, and now he gets to play in it.”
Nearly 30 years ago, Bay Area realtor Sarah Schoeneman discovered that her father, Kurt, a residential developer, wanted to own a vineyard. She found a two-line ad for an Anderson Valley vineyard planted to Pinot Noir.
“It said something about a contract with Williams Selyem, but they spelled the name wrong,” Schoeneman recalls.
It turned out that the owner have a contract with the iconic winery, but at the time, the Ferrington vineyard was in disrepair. Kurt restored the vineyard, now a premier source for both Williams Selyem and Arista wineries.
In 2012, when Sarah and her husband Guy Pacurar started Fathers + Daughters, her dad returned the favor. He gave them start-up capital and Ferrington Vineyard fruit.
After two vintages, her dad encouraged them that it was time for Fathers + Daughters to be self-sufficient. While the image on the Fathers + Daughters label shows a father with a little girl, Sarah says their roles are shifting.
“When it’s handed down to the next generation, that’s their chance to put their mark on it,” she says. “As an adult woman, it’s about what I can add to the business. Now Guy sends me in to do the negotiation with my dad.”
Robin Daniel Lail grew up playing in the vineyards at Inglenook, the Rutherford winery founded by her great-granduncle Gustave Niebaum in 1879. But aside from trimming vines at Spottswoode for a high school fundraiser, her daughters Shannon and Erin didn’t get involved in the family trade.
“We knew that was part of the family story,” says Shannon. “We knew how passionate my mom was about it. So we grew up in the resonance of it.”
When their mom joined a winery called Sunny St. Helena (now Merryvale), the sisters worked as summertime cellar rats, cleaning out fermentation tanks. When Robin launched Lail Vineyards in 1995, Erin handled winery administration for several years, while Shannon worked in the film industry with Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios.
Today, they’ve swapped places: Shannon handles communications for Lail, while Erin runs independent estate management and real estate businesses.
The shifting roles are a reflection of the company’s—and the sisters’—evolving needs and desires. But Lail, whose wine career started in the 1970s, knows that her days running the show may not last forever. That’s why she and both daughters are partners of the company, and share decision-making responsibilities.
Shannon says it’s exciting to continue the family tradition of innovation.
“We both feel humbled by the legacy, and [we’re] very proud to watch my mom,” says Shannon. “She’s the hardest worker either of us has ever seen.”
Like many small wineries in the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Washington State, Delmas Wines is a family business. Founders Stephen Robertson and his wife, Mary, work closely with their daughter, Brooke Delmas Robertson.
“The three of us are all equal partners,” says Brooke. “Every decision that has been made, from early on to today, is a family decision.”
Her background includes a degree in philosophy from Oregon State University and a winemaking certificate from UC Davis, with stints at Barbour Vineyard Management and the Napa Valley Reserve. But she’s also part of decisions regarding the website, label and marketing design.
Stephen Robertson’s work to establish The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater as an AVA, and to showcase the beauty of the Rhône varieties grown there, has made him an Oregon wine icon. But when asked which decisions he leaves to his daughter, Robertson says, “Everything. She’s constantly correcting me, and that’s the way it should be,” he says. “She sees every check I write.” At this stage, Stephen says his focus is to make decisions to set his daughter up for a profitable future.
Chris Phelps has a long history as a key winemaker for luxury Napa Valley wine brands like Dominus Estate and Inglenook. But in a role reversal, Phelps said his son Josh sat him down to discuss his future.
“He asked me what my retirement plan was,” the elder Phelps recalled of a conversation with Josh, who had launched two affordable wine brands by the age of 22. Today, Josh’s Grounded Wine Co. portfolio includes pop culture-inspired brands like Space Age Rosé, Public Radio red blend and Collusion Napa Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards across the West Coast. The wines are available across the U.S. at places like Target and Total Wine & More.
“[Josh] said… ‘You need to make your own wine.’”
Drawing on his expertise, the younger Phelps guided his father in the founding of a pair of boutique brands: Ad Vivum Cellars, which makes Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from Yountville’s Sleeping Lady Vineyard, and Coil Wines, which produces Napa Chenin Blanc and Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir.
“I’ve kind of had my path, which has been focused on accessible, high-quality wine, but simultaneously have always worked with my dad on his side as well,” Josh Phelps says.
The pair collaborate regularly: Chris helps his son with winemaking, while Josh advises his dad on marketing strategy. Elizabeth Phelps supports her brother and father behind the scenes and has taken winemaking classes. When the time comes, Chris, who’s 65, looks forward to his offspring taking over his brands.
“I think it would be cool, and I have a lot of hope for that.”
Last Updated: May 9, 2023