Alex Ryan knew he wanted to be in wine before he was even of legal drinking age. He started working for his best friend’s father, Dan Duckhorn, when he was just 15 years old, planting vines and, he remembers, “doing whatever I was told to do” for the then-fledgling Napa Valley winery. After graduating from California State University, Fresno, with a degree in viticulture in 1988, he returned to Duckhorn Vineyards as a full-time employee—and never left. He rose through the ranks, managing vineyard and then winery operations on the way to becoming president in 2005 and CEO and chairman of the board in 2011.
As Ryan grew, so did the company, expanding into Washington state, with Canvasback, and the Central Coast, with Calera. Today, The Duckhorn Portfolio includes 10 estates. In 2007, Duckhorn was acquired by private equity firm GI Partners, and in 2016 it was bought by TSG Consumer Partners.
In the wake of all that expansion, Ryan sensed another “transaction” coming, so he decided to take Duckhorn public. The IPO (the first by a major wine company since the late 1990s) came in March, with Duckhorn using the ticker symbol—what else?—NAPA. While wine doesn’t have a great record on Wall Street, Ryan sees the move as an investment in future quality. “That capital allows us to buy new vineyards and equipment and explore new winemaking techniques,” he says. “Our opportunities to make better wine have gotten better as we’ve grown.”
On Napa’s rise
“When we started in 1976, we were either the 39th or 40th winery since Prohibition; today, there are 400 to 450 wineries in Napa Valley. There’s more competition, a little more formality, but, on the flip side, it’s friendly competition. [Everyone] believes in all boats rising; if we build a great luxury wine industry, we’ll all take a nice piece of that. But the cost to enter is much higher now. The younger, passionate winemakers, they’re going to other appellations.”
On being a “production president”
“Presidents, CEOs of luxury wine companies—not many of them come from the production side. A lot of them come from sales and marketing. My staff calls me a “production president,” and I think it’s served me [and the brand] well. I understand winemaking. I understand vineyards. That’s not where we pinch pennies; that’s where I invest. I believe in it wholeheartedly, over the long haul.”
On the IPO
“We’ve been growing for many years, and we were owned by private equity, so there was going to be a transaction. There are really only two choices: a sale or go public. The challenges were interesting. There haven’t been a lot of successful wine companies that have gone public, and there’s nobody else like us in the public market. We are a pure play, meaning all we do is wine. There’s no one else like this on Wall Street. I took that as a unique challenge and said, ‘Well, can I do something that’s never been done? And, more importantly, can I preserve the brand, the soul, and the people?’ I think that this was our best avenue.”