I really enjoy good wine. Almost as much as I enjoy the wine, I like learning the stories behind the wine. Bruce Prothro of Prothro Family Wines was gracious enough to carve out some time for this interview. The first thing that struck me about Bruce is his passion for his wines. Some people are getting into the wine business to make a quick buck. But it is evident that it is the passion and love of the wine itself, by both Bruce and his wife Ronda, that is driving force behind Prothro Family Wines.
Wines of Note (WON) – Reading over your story on the website, I see where you took a lot of time off from wine making. But obviously it was still in your blood. Can you tell me more about how you were called into the business after such a long time?
Bruce – Making wine is something we always thought about doing again, it was really just a matter of timing. We came to a crossroads in our lives that brought with it a lot of change with careers, kids nearing college, and a reinvention of who we were both as individuals and as a married couple.
Part of these changes included selling our home and purchasing a new one where we live in Austin, Texas. During the process of unpacking boxes in our new house, we rediscovered some old photos of the two of us making wine a long, long time ago… we like to say back when Bruce had hair and Ronda wore her “momma” jeans. We had a lot of fun looking through the photos and thinking back to that time in our lives… We had just been married for a few years, hadn’t started a family yet, and were very limited on money… but we shared this incredible winemaking experience at a time in Napa that was pretty special. We looked at those pictures and knew we wanted to reconnect with that couple again… and bring those parts of our past into our present. A few months later, we were on a trip and decided that this was the time to re-embark on our wine making journey and the timing was perfect. So, we made a few calls, contacted a few custom crush facilities, and found the place where we are making our wines today. The transition was easy given our experience as home winemakers and our wine making facility’s resources.
WON – What is your wine making philosophy?
Bruce – We strive to make our wines with balance and structure. We’re not trying to make wines that are dominantly fruit-forward or oaky. We want the fruit to be present and balanced, and we’re looking for oak that doesn’t dominate but is well integrated into the wine… oak that complements it. We want our tannins to be present, and we like wines that are bright, so we strive to achieve a good level of acidity because acidity and tannin work together to help the wine age. We want the wines to be immediately appealing, but also built with the perfect blend of balance and structure that will allow it to age from 7-12 years. We like using a variety of cooperage of French Oak with a medium toast. And, most importantly, we want to craft a wine that delivers a full palate experience. We not only want it expressed on the front and mid palates, but we also want it to continue that expression all the way to the back palate. A lot of Cabernets reach the mid-palate and then fade. We want our wines to have a little more “reach”… a little more in the way of the back palate. We find that’s where the wine lingers and gives that seductive quality. That’s where blending comes in. We focus heavily on blending the wine…we will spend hours conducting blending trials… and we won’t make concessions that potentially jeopardizes our full palate experiences. That means if we have to blend in a way that doesn’t allow a vineyard designation, then that’s exactly what we’ll do. We did that with the 2014 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon… we gave up the Beatty Ranch designation to achieve a better full palate experience. We did the same thing this year with our 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon… we created a wine of great balance and structure and a full palate experience and gave up the Broken Rock vineyard designation. As a small producer, we can do that because it’s the quality of the wine that matters to us… so it’s important for us to deliver a consistent experience in every bottle. How we vineyard designate, or if we vineyard designate, is secondary to achieving that consistency we want to be known for.
WON – For you, is wine making more art or more science?
Bruce – It’s absolutely both. Bruce earned a Bachelor of Science degree in college studying chemistry, and Ronda earned a Bachelor of Arts degree studying communications… so we’ve always blended science with art. Cooking and culinary expressions have also been important to us throughout the years. When we began as home winemakers many years ago, we discovered at that time how science and art both play important roles. When you think about it, winemaking is truly an imperfect chemical reaction, because even though the fermentation process is well understood and repeatable, there are always outside variables that influence the result of that fermentation process. And those variables, affected by weather, soil, and other things, change from year to year, vineyard to vineyard, and appellation to appellation…but the fermentation and extraction process is based on chemistry. That’s the science part. The art part comes into play with blending, and blending is something we take our time with. We blend together as a team… and fortunately we have similar palates. Our main goal throughout the blending process is to create a full palate experience in every bottle. We don’t follow a scientific formula during this process, it’s really more of a feel… some wines may be blended with higher amounts of different varietals and some may not… we look at each blending session as unique and work through the session to provide the best full palate experience possible. As an insight, when we blend, we almost always find ourselves leaning toward Petit Verdot as a dominant blending component.
WON – What struggles have you faced being a newcomer to the marketplace?
Our biggest struggle is trying to get everything done. We market and sell the wine ourselves, and that takes time and we’re often learning as we go. We sell direct to consumers, so we don’t have to compete for the time and attention of distributors, which probably helps. At the same time, taking on the entire responsibility… from designing the labels and website, choosing vineyards, determining which bottles to use, and figuring out a strategy for selling to our customers… is time consuming and a lot of work. We don’t have a staff, there’s no marketing coordinator or sales person, and we weren’t born into the wine business nor did we grow-up in wine drinking households. We’re really just neophytes coming into it without all of the contacts or understanding that larger operations possess… and we have to learn in real time. But we think it gives us an advantage because we have a fresh perspective. We can stay consistent to our vision and style because there’s no board of directors or committee of marketers or investors to answer to. We are entirely and 100% self-funded. We are writing the checks as we go… sometimes using credit cards for rewards points… and we always have that balancing act of paying for our grapes years before we release the wine and realize the revenue. When you are a small operation, without the economy of scale like many of the large wineries, margins are tight but we account for that with careful and well-planned expansion. In the end, we are having a lot of fun and are really proud of where we’ve progressed in the first couple of years. And the wines are great!
WON – You’ve got access to some pretty amazing vineyards; Beatty Ranch, Broken Rock – pretty big names. Most folks just starting out would have a hard time getting access to these grapes. How have you been able to pull it off?
Bruce – We are incredibly blessed to have great vineyards in our portfolio! In addition to the vineyards you mentioned, we also have secured contracts with Beckstoffer Georges III and Stagecoach for some upcoming releases. And our Sauvignon Blanc is from Morgaen Lee Vineyard in Yountville, which is also phenomenal. We have a small partnership in a wine making facility based in an industrial section of Napa. It’s not glamorous, but it’s all state-of-the-art equipment with fantastic vineyard contacts that we’ve been able to utilize. We’re very fortunate to have access to these vineyards, which we don’t take for granted. And we have specifically selected these vineyards because they allow us to make wines in the style that’s important to us. As a small label, we want the quality of the fruit and the source of the grapes to be immediately recognizable. In fact, we were contacted by one gentleman who joined our Wine Club because he heard about our label and then read about our vineyards on the website. His commented that he bought the wine when he saw the vineyards we used. Later on, he emailed us and told us how great the wine was. That was very gratifying and a huge compliment.
WON – Going back all the way to your home wine making days until now, what’s your favorite wine that you’ve ever made? Why was it your favorite?
Bruce – There are really two wines that are most notable. We made a 1992 Russian River Zinfandel from Olivet Lane that delivered everything that vineyard had to offer. We still remember it to this day… consistent with Russian River Zinfandels, it had bright fruit, elegance, underlying pepper and spice, and bramble. It was very much like the older Limerick Lane Collins Vineyard Zinfandels from the 1990s, which was always one of our favorites. The second wine has to be our 2014 Howell Mountain Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Beatty Ranch. That was the first wine under our new label and it won a Gold Medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition… after only being in the bottle for 3 months! It’s a wine that’s continuing to evolve… elegant and seductive and balanced. It lingers on the back palate and then draws you back to the glass time and time again. It has remarkable maturity for a young wine, with the ability to continue to evolve for many years to come. And, the comments from people who have bought the wine and tried it seem to validate how special it is.
WON – I want to talk about the consumer for a bit. I think the average wine drinker probably drinks the inexpensive stuff during the week and saves the better wine for the weekends and the more expensive wine for special occasions. It doesn’t appear that you’ve had this issue but what would you say to someone to convince them to buy your wines sight unseen?
Bruce – We agree with you. Our mid-week wines are at a different price point than our weekend or special occasion wines. We are big fans of Bogle Phantom for a mid-week wine and it retails for about $17 a bottle. We also like St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc at $14 a bottle. What we found, however, is that the people who purchase our wines are looking for an experience… they want access to something that other people don’t have access to. Creating that “experience” for our customers is one of the pillars of our brand. We have very limited production and are, therefore, ultra-premium. When one of our customers uncorks a bottle of our wine, they are experiencing something that other people can’t get in a grocery store, wine specialty store, or restaurant… The people who buy our wines are so excited to share their experiences with us… when they pull a cork they send us pictures and comments. We’ve seen pictures of people drinking our wine on anniversaries, birthdays, vacations, special dinners, sharing it with friends… or just “because” it’s a weeknight and they want some really great wine! It’s incredibly rewarding for us to see this and we are happy that we can share in these experiences and, somehow, become part of their stories. And, because we are a small producer, just a husband and wife team, people get to know us and we exchange emails and see them at events. We think people like that personal contact and involvement because people really value relationships.
WON – Here’s the reason I ask. I think I’m an average wine consumer. I was fortunate enough to be out in Sonoma/Napa for a week in June. I found some amazing wines that are my new favorites. I don’t have an unlimited wine budget, like most consumers. Why should I buy your Howell Mountain Cab instead of the Ferrari-Carano Reserve Cabernet, or the Sapphire Hill Apostle that I’ve already fallen in love with?
Bruce – It’s true, there are a lot of really good wines out there and they’re all made for people looking for different wine experiences with different palates. What we’re doing is creating a quasi-cult following by producing a wine that not everybody has access to. In a way, it’s created a pent-up demand. In addition to our limited production, we make good wine… and our quality was recently validated when our 2014 Howell Mountain Cabernet won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, which is one of the longest running and most prestigious competitions in the world. In fact, some people in the industry have told us it’s one of the few wine competitions that really matters. More importantly, you know you’re going to get with a bottle of Prothro Family Wines… a wine that is hand crafted to be balanced and structured but to also reward a full palate experience.
One last thing… because we sell our wine direct to consumers without distributors, we have a very personal, hands-on approach. We conduct tastings in peoples’ homes with small groups and we talk through the wine with them as we taste. We tell the story behind our brand, and what we’re trying to achieve with each vintage. We talk about the vineyard and why we chose it and why we blended the wine a certain way. This creates a personal experience for the consumer that they don’t typically get when going to a large wine tasting room… and they have told us that. Plus, we are new to this business so we are very honest and upfront about what we are doing and why… and we think people appreciate that authenticity. When they pull the cork at a dinner party, they can then tell their friends and family about talking to the winemakers, and explain what the wine will do across their palate! It becomes a more intimate experience… not just another bottle of wine they bought at a store… and people really appreciate that.
WON – I believe every wine has a story to tell. What story are you telling with your Howell Mountain Cabernet?
Bruce – When we first embarked on our winemaking journey again, it was a time in our lives filled with a lot of change. We were on the cusp of being empty nesters, undergoing some career changes, and really trying to rediscover those part of our “younger” selves that we wanted to reignite. We talked about this time in our lives as being a line of demarcation… so we determined that we would have a story on the back label of each of our wines that represented where we were at that time in our lives.
The word for our Cabernet is DEMARCATION that represents the line between old and new… past and present… good and great. Our Sauvignon Blanc is built around PURPOSE, which talks about living life by design and not by default… being full of intention and clarity. Our Cuvee uses the word BECAUSE because sometimes you have to go beyond the pale and step outside the boundaries. Our new pink wine will use ATTITDUE as its key word. We also have plans to use HERITAGE and AUTHENICITY for future releases.
At first, we thought these words only had meaning for us, but we’ve found they also are meaningful to our customers, since many of them have found themselves in some of the same places in life. They can relate to the words with their own stories. It’s been incredibly fulfilling to see the response.
WON – How do you define success in the wine business? At what point can you say, ‘I’ve made it’?
Bruce – Great question… To some extent, we’re kind of already experiencing a degree of success based on the feedback and how quickly we sold out of our first releases; however, I guess success will be judged by how we continue to grow our label. We will always be small and our expansion will be very measured. But, for us, success goes beyond how we grow and what revenue we realize. We like the people component of wine and how people share it with others and on special occasions or just because they want to drink it. Wine evolves as it ages. It creates a legacy. And because of that, people will continue to share and drink our wines for many years to come. And we get to share in their experience by knowing we made something that they think is special and worthy enough to share with others. That’s our success right there… when people create new stories and experiences with our wines.
WON – Great story Bruce, thank you for your time.
I hope you agree with me that Prothro Family Wines has a great story. All that’s left for me is to try to get my hands on some! Stay tuned for tasting notes one day.