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How Generational Change is Driving Marietta Cellars

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Tucked off a frontage road north of Healdsburg, California, in the Alexander Valley, is the unadorned simplicity of a previous era.

This is where Cloverdale-born Chris Bilbro founded Marietta Cellars in 1978. His premise was as simple as the facility: to make affordable red blends, many non-vintage, from a hodgepodge of vineyard sites across Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

The fruit used was often the result of the mutual respect that the good-natured Bilbro earned with local growers. Often, the deals he forged required little more than a handshake to seal.

“My father never made an enemy in this business,” says Chris’s son, Scot Bilbro. “It’s always been relationship-driven.”

Marietta’s calling card has largely been its Old Vine Red bottling. Released in lot numbers instead of vintages, it’s a mix of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and other grapes.

Old Vine Red serves as most people’s introduction to the brand and family. But Marietta has undertaken a transition.

The first change was a generational hand-off of the winery. Chris Bilbro always included his three sons in the family business: his oldest son, Jake, along with Jake’s younger brothers Scot and Sam, all in their 30s or early 40s.

Scot and Jake bought Marietta from their dad in 2012. Scot is now the sole owner, and he makes the wines.

For a time, it looked as though Jake and Scot would carry Marietta into the future together. Jake and his wife Alexis had also bought Russian River Valley winery Limerick Lane in 2011, which the brothers folded into Marietta Cellars a year later when their dad initiated his retirement. Equal ownership across all entities seemed like the best idea.

After much soul-searching, it was decided that Scot should helm Marietta on his own, with his dad and brothers offering familial support. Jake would focus on Limerick Lane.

Regarding Limerick Lane, Jake says, “I have old vine red running through my veins and, after 15 years of working for and with my dad, leaving Marietta Cellars was very difficult. But my connection to Limerick Lane, and the wines we are making here, was something I [had to] pursue.”

“Our collaboration was not leading to clarity within either Marietta or Limerick Lane,” Scot says. “[Jake and I] determined that we could be more successful individually and probably have more successful independent businesses if we separated the two businesses than by jointly running both wineries together.”

It wasn’t just the stress of their professional relationship that led to their decision to separate.

“We realized that our business partnership was overrunning our friendship,” he adds. “We found ourselves discussing business at every holiday, social function or school event. We were always great friends and brothers and did not want to lose that in an attempt to be successful business partners. I am occasionally sad to no longer be in business with Jake, but I am happy to have such a good relationship with my brother.”

Additionally, Scot says he likes the scale of Marietta. “It’s such an anomaly, 75,000 cases, all wholesale, which is exciting. We’re making excellent wine and getting it across the country. It isn’t an exclusive, tiny thing. It’s not limited.”

And yet, it competes at a production level with much bigger entities.

“I lament the loss of [wineries of Marietta’s size],” says Scot. “Now, it’s a lot of small and huge. I wanted someone to stay in that niche, to be head and shoulders above that price point [in terms of quality].”

Marietta Vineyard in Geyserville
Marietta Vineyard in Geyserville

To achieve that, Marietta owns 310 acres of vineyards. Well-regarded Napa-based consultant Steve Matthiasson has been Marietta’s viticulturalist for eight years.

“We try to make a luxury item that people can find value in,” says Scot.

Three new wines make up Marietta’s new Family Series, each priced between $15 and $20: Christo 2014, an estate-grown Rhône blend named for Marietta’s founder; Armé 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon; and Román 2015 Zinfandel, which honors the winery’s longtime cellar master, who’s worked at Marietta for 30 years.

Marietta is also releasing a series of small-production, single-vineyard wines priced between $30 and $40: Angeli 2015 Alexander Valley Zinfandel; Gibson Block 2014 McDowell Valley Syrah field blend; and Game Trail 2014, a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Yorkville Highlands, planted at 1,400 feet above sea level.

Chris still sits in on blending sessions and vineyard planting, enthused by the process of creating things. He also serves as the primary fruit checker.

His dad’s ability to not see barriers has always impressed Scot, who describes them both as uncompromising producers who avoid the limelight.

“My father never made an enemy in this business. It’s always been relationship-driven.” —Scot Bilbro

“We both share a preference for the behind-the-scenes [tasks],” says Scot. “We get the most joy in developing property and making quality wine, and I like championing this idea of family heritage.”

The family heritage goes well beyond Marietta, as the other Bilbro sons are cultivating their own wine projects. Jake is the owner/winemaker at Limerick Lane in the Russian River Valley, a historic property with amazing old-vine Zinfandel, Syrah and Grenache, among other varieties.

Youngest brother Sam—who shares a property with Scot that both brothers live on with their families—is behind Idlewild Wines, a small-production winery based in the Alexander Valley that’s devoted to Piedmontese varieties like Arneis and Cortese.

Without formally reviewing the Idlewild wines, I have tasted them with Sam, and I found the lineup impressive. The wines tend to be focused and fresh, with a thread of bright acidity and a light touch in terms of ripe flavor.

That his three sons were inspired to make wine in Sonoma County must be gratifying for Chris Bilbro. But we are also the lucky ones, who get to drink them.