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Meet a cheerful vintner: Redwood’s Chuck Daniels – House of Daniels

Meet a cheerful vintner: Redwood’s Chuck Daniels – House of Daniels – The Fifth Annual Merchandising Issue

Jane Firstenfeld

“This business is the best in the world,” states Chuck Daniels, CEO of one of California’s last independent wine distribution companies. Though his family corporation, House of Daniels, also handles distilled spirits and beer, it’s clear Daniels is referring to the wine business when he elaborates, “We’re selling a product that brings happiness, that’s been used for celebration for thousands of years. When used sensibly, it’s a very social product. I have a deep love for the industry.”

It’s a love born of intimate knowledge, and decades of experience. Indeed, Charles I. Daniels, Jr. literally grew up with the industry; he’s been a participant and loyal partisan since the conception of the modern California wine business. When his late father Charles Daniels, Sr. began what was to become the Daniels dynasty, there was no wine industry.

It was 1933; prohibition was over — for beer (wine and spirits were phased in a year later). The senior Daniels, whose San Francisco real estate ventures had foundered with the crash of ’29, took up an offer from friends at Rainier Brewing to become their Marin County “franchise.”

“He saw it as an interim thing — a job — never thinking he’d stay in the business,” according to his son. Nevertheless, the Daniels family moved to Marin. Temporary headquarters in San Anselmo, then the county’s railroad hub, served as the base for Golden Gate Distributing Company, which remains to this day the House of Daniels’ beer distribution division. When liquor “came back” in 1934, Golden Gate added Seagrams and Hiram Walker to their client list. What started as a temporary thing — something to tide the family over the tough times of the Depression — became a multi-generational career.

“We’ve been with Rainier 59 years,” Chuck Daniels says proudly. “And, we’re the oldest Coors distributor in California.” The younger Daniels became active in the business in 1947, following military service in WWII. “Paul Masson was getting back into business in the late ’40s,” he recalls. “They were one of the first to start to do something with dry wines, and got into brandy and champagne. That piqued my curiosity and interest as far as fine wines were concerned.”

In the ’50s, Golden Gate became the Christian Brothers’ first distributor. Daniels became acquainted with Robert Mondavi, and began distributing C. Mondavi and Charles Krug Wines. As the California wine industry began its slow upward course and his own knowledge grew, Daniels came to understand that wine was a different species from beer and spirits.

“I thought we should have specialists for the three different disciplines,” he says, and the House of Daniels divided its operations among Golden Gate Distributing Co. (beer); Golden Gate Liquors (spirits) and Redwood Vintners (wine). Managers of all three divisions reported to Daniels, by this time chief operating officer.

“Redwood Vintners allowed us to grow. We built a nice sales force especially to sell fine wines.” About this time, the spirits business started to change. Seagrams, for example, decided to consolidate its distribution system; Julliard Alpha took over what had been Golden Gate’s northern California territory. “This made our move with Redwood Vintners even more fortuitous,” Daniels says modestly.

Today, as he reflects on his 45 years in the business, Chuck Daniels makes a fine advertisement for the healthful wine-oriented lifestyle. His ruddy, unlined face and sandy hair barely traced with gray belie his 65 years; his genial demeanor and warm bass voice bespeak contentment with his life and career. Seated in his spacious, airy office at House of Daniels’ Black Point headquarters (the company moved to Novato in 1969, again following rail routes, and virtually at the apex of Sonoma and Napa counties), he is surrounded by memorabilia; sample bottles from his farflung clientele; soothing views of oak-studded, golden hillsides. Great tides of beer flood in via refrigerated car on two private rail sidings, to be delivered by gleaming truckload throughout Marin, Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties. Under the Redwood Vintners imprimateur, wine distribution is handled on a more individualized basis.

To service an ever-changing portfolio of California wineries (nearly 30 at this writing), and a similar roster of imports, Daniels developed a system to guarantee maximum coverage. Redwood Vintners maintains four Northern California geographic areas: Sacramento (as far as Tahoe); North Coast (Marin to Oregon); Bay Area (San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa); South Bay (San Mateo to San Luis Obispo). The sales force calls on principal customers at least once a week; the computerized orders are shipped from Novato on a daily basis. Because Redwood’s distribution areas conveniently overlap California’s premium wine growing areas, the system is particularly cost-effective; delivery trucks are able to back-haul stock from the wineries once they’ve offloaded at their distribution points.

Though Redwood Vintners distributes to some 8-10,000 retailers throughout the northern state, “we’re not built to be a commodity business,” Daniels emphasizes.

“You must know where you belong, and sell within your own niche. We feel our niche in Northern California is great. We specialize, and we are not beholden to any large spirits company. Our niche is to call on every fine restaurant, package and chain stores that handle premium California wines. In this way, we can do justice to smaller wineries that need some TLC.”

The current Redwood “wine list” includes such newcomers as Villa Zapu and Armida, in addition to reliable standbys like Gundlach-Bundschu and Mirassou. Daniels seems particularly proud of his longstanding relationship with Lake County’s Guenoc. “Ten years ago I met Orville McGoon and he was struggling to start a winery. Today, Guenoc has become one of the more important premium wineries in California.”

Another venerable link is not faring as well. Sadness is evident when Daniels discusses his relationship with Robert Mondavi winery, which he was instrumental in founding in 1966, following the infamous rift between brothers Robert and Peter.

“Bob wanted to have a small winery, to show Napa Valley tourists how to make fine wines: a model winery. Allan Ferguson, then president of Rainier Brewing, was one of my best friends. His company had just sold the Seattle Rainiers baseball team and their stadium, and had some cash. Allan had an excellent palate — he was after all, a brewmeister — he loved Napa wines and had millions to invest.”

Daniels put his two friends together. “It was a marriage made in heaven. Ferg and his board told Bob ‘just make a better wine’.” Daniels became an integral part of the new winery, as vice-president and treasurer.

“It was the most thrilling time of my life,” he recalls. “My car was on automatic pilot to the Napa Valley as we tried to build a winery.” From 1966 to 1978, Daniels formed part of a three-man executive committee with Robert and Michael Mondavi. “We built the winery, and had a grand time doing it.”

Redwood Vintners remained the distributor for Robert Mondavi Winery until this year, when the winery’s new management abruptly ended the arrangement.

“I was totally shocked when they decided to go exclusive with Southern Wine & Spirits,” Daniels says. “It was really a stab in the heart.” Daniels contends that both oral and written agreements were breeched in the move; the matter is now in the courts. His distress is apparent as he adds, “We’ve never sued anyone in our 59-year corporate history.”

Still, no one survives for long in any business without an ability to roll with the punches and change with the times. As the liquor industry changed, with distilled spirits dropping some 5-8% compounded annually over the last decade, and many more distillers consolidating distribution, House of Daniels consolidated their own operation by including spirits in their Redwood Vintners division (beer is still handled by Golden Gate Distributing Company, as it has been since 1933).

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, we had a trade association of Northern California wholesale distributors. At its peak, we had some 60 active members. Now, we are the only one still active.

“It took hard-headed persistence, and hard work. It didn’t happen just by accident,” says Daniels. Like so many wine businesses, it has also been a family affair. Two of his sons are now active in the business. Peter is executive vice president and chief operating officer and Jonathan is merchandising manager. Chuck’s eldest son and namesake, Charles Daniels, III, has not strayed far. He’s chief financial officer at Rutherford Hill Winery.

Despite the international economic situation, and the twin plagues of phylloxera and neo-prohibitionism, Daniels remains optimistic about the future of wines in America.

“People have to realize that after prohibition, America became a hard-drinking nation. Now we’re becoming more sophisticated, and wine is taking the place it’s had historically in Europe. We’ll always have fine restaurants that will need fine wines to present to their customers. You have to have knowledgeable people selling fine wines — selling the sizzle. You cannot sell fine wine as a commodity.”

Asked about retirement, Daniels shakes his head. “I want to stay active,” he states emphatically. “Thank God for the third generation coming into the business, I couldn’t do it without them, but I have no plans to retire.” He adds with a smile, “We hope to be here another 59 years.”

(Jane Firstenfeld is a freelance writer based in La Paz, Mexico.)

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