November 2010

Man of the Year: Jim Concannon

By: Daedalus Howell
Photos by Ryan Lely

LIVERMORE VALLEY'S CONCANNON VINEYARD PREFERS TO
TELL ITS STORY WITH A HANDSHAKE

 
Jim Concannon is THE TASTING PANEL'S 2010 Man of the Year. He is pictured here with his son John, the fourth generation Concannon to run the family business.

 

Livermore Valley in autumn is something to behold. Passing clouds cast shadows on the broad valley below like bruises on a tawny peach. It's easy to imagine the driven young Irishman, James Concannon, becoming smitten with the scenic valley, which is now framed along its easterly hilltops by windmills churning out carbon-free electricity like a bouquet of eco-pinwheels.

That Concannon had the foresight and fortitude to plant the valley with wine grapes long before viticulture became a cornerstone of California's agribusiness gives credence to the original meaning of the family name, which is as relevant today as it was in the 1880s, when Concannon first broke ground. In Gaelic, Concannon means "wisdom without compromise." The proof of this credo is in the bottle, or as John Concannon, the fourth generation of Concannons to oversee the family enterprise, is as likely to aver, the proof is in "our story."

Irish Beginnings

James Concannon was one of thousands of Irishmen who came to America as part of the Emerald Isle's 19th-century diaspora. Were it not for the fact that the native Gaelic-speaker learned English sometime during his journey, he might not have comprehended the irish need not apply signs that dotted Boston, where he first immigrated.

Eventually, James Concannon would manage a hotel in Maine, marry and later traverse a still wild North American continent to settle in the once Irish-centric Mission District in San Francisco. There, he would embark on a venture that was the technological vanguard of its time: rubber stamps. Sales calls frequently took James out of the state (on horseback no less), far from his growing family, which would blossom to a small army of ten.


 

At the behest of his wife Helen, James successfully petitioned San Francisco's Archbishop Alemany to produce altar wine for the church. James was advised to launch his nascent business in Livermore Valley given its similarity to the Rhône. In 1883, James acquired his first 47 acres for the handsome sum of 5,000 gold coins (the original deed is proudly displayed at the winery). The first iteration of Concannon Vineyard was born.

Father to Son

"We'll never give up our love of thisland," says Jim Concannon, James's grandson and the third generation of Concannons to have helmed the winery since its inception.

"Our father-to-son directive for the past 127 years has been one of great ease and respect representing our family's heritage." This heritage is dotted with "firsts," including the development of Cabernet Sauvignon clones 7, 8 and 11 (known as the Concannon clones ) and being the first to produce a varietally-labeled Petite Sirah, in 1961. Concannon is still known as one of California's top Petite Sirah houses.

That heritage continues with John Concannon, Jim's son and James's great-grandson, who began leading the family business two years ago.


The transition from the backyard—or more specifically, the vineyard—to the boardroom has been one that John has embraced with total commitment.

"When you're the owner's son, you've got to work twice as hard to prove yourself," says John of his early forays into the family business, when, as a pre-adolescent he found himself working a succession of winery jobs that took him from the cellar to the tasting room.

"Dad was really supportive and smart," says John of his father, who was awarded the California wine industry's prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.

"He said, 'Go out and make your own name, follow your own dreams and gain experience with other companies, and if it's right for you, come back.'"

Family and History

After a quarter-century working in medical equipment sales and management, the time was right for John to come back. Now, his responsibilities include spending over a third of the year on the road as Concannon's chief evangelist.

 

  "It's important to get out there and tell the story and meet with people and make sure we're doing the right thing," says John. "My motto last year was, 'There's no handshake at the end of an email.' I want to shake somebody's hand, look them in the eye and say 'We have a deal."

As John reminds THE TASTING PANEL, to differentiate his family brand in a market crowded with more than 3,000 wineries in California alone.

"You'd better have a good product, you'd better have a nice package and you'd better have a good price point. Even if you do all that, how do you stand out? I think ultimately it's with your story."

The family story runs through Concannon's wines as surely as does the vineyard fruit. "If you can share a story with someone," says John, "then they can take that bottle home and hold court with their friends and family and say, 'Hey, this is America's oldest continuous family-owned winery under the same name.' We had America's first professional female winemaker. We're a brick and mortar company. There's family behind this. We're not a 'critter' brand, we're not a virtual brand, we're not something a marketing department made up-this is family and history."

"We're not something a marketing department made up-this is family and history."

This history includes Jim and his late brother Joe having received the torch themselves, 55 years ago, from their own father. "Captain Joe," as he was jocularly known, was a former cavalry officer who counted the future General George Patton as one of his lieutenants during World War I. How Concannon has managed not to implode into familial rancor over the years, as have several other high-profile wine dynasties, comes down to a simple phenomenon: They get along.

"We never had an argument in our lives. We always stuck together," says Jim, who adds with a laugh, "We don't brainwash anybody to any great extent." The elder Concannon adds, "We could have surely gone into another professions and done much better financially, but we just have a love for the property and we're moving. Our sales are way up."

Bolstering Sales: The Conservancy Tier

Indeed, bolstering those sales is Concannon's recently released Conservancy tier, using grapes sourced only from Livermore vineyards protected from urban encroachment. Concannon has spearheaded the movement toward land conservancy by being the first winery to place its estate into a trust; other wineries have since followed Concannon's lead.

The Conservancy line-up includes a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay and a Merlot as well as a Livermore Valley Petite Sirah.  All of the Conservancy releases have an SRP of $15 and are among the fastest growing 750-milliliter wines in North America.

"This Conservancy tier is my attempt to take a reserve program on a national basis," John explains. "We don't have the feet on the street or the discretionary dollars that other wineries have; we put everything we have into the bottle. We just want to give you the best product we can at a fair price."

Jim concurs: "We'll never jeopardize quality. If you goof up in winemaking, you have to wait until next year. With distilled spirits and beer, you just dump it; if you screw up, you just make some more. That's not the case with wine."

Into the Future . . . Sustainably

With a focus on renewable energy and sustainability, Concannon has installed solar panels on 80% of the winery's roofs and utilized reclaimed materials in the construction of the tasting room.
 
Concannon winery pioneered the creation of the widely adopted Cabernet Sauvignon clones 7, 8 and 11, known as the Concannon clones.

 
The winery was registered as historic landmark number 641, by the State of California.
As part of The Wine Group, Concannon has completed a $30 million revitalization program of its facility, preserving the best of its winemaking heritage and practices while incorporating state-of-the-art technology.

Moreover, Concannon Vineyard was one of the first 17 wineries certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance for its sustainable practices including, environmental stewardship, conservation of natural resources and socially equitable business practices.

Ultimately, however, Concannon Vineyard puts its stock in its own story, which, of course, comes with its own brand of foreshadowing-almost literally, as Jim recounts a time when his seven-year-old grandkids were following him around the vineyard. "They were walking behind me the other day-in my shadow. I figured it was because they wanted to keep cool because it was a hot day," Jim recalls. When he asked the kids why, "they responded, 'We want to walk in your shadow, Poppy, so we can give tours pretty soon."

The Concannon story continues.

www.concannonvineyard.com

The Conservancy Series

The Conservancy series wines from Livermore Valley are excellent values and make a wonderful and timely statement about Concannon's dedication to preserving open land in Northern California.
Anthony Dias Blue

Concannon 2009 Conservancy Chardonnay ($15)
Smooth and creamy with clean flavors of oak, spice and ripe fruit; pleasant and balanced.
 
Jim Concannon led Concannon winery to produce America's first varietally labeled Petite Sirah (a 1961 vintage released in 1964).
Concannon 2007 Conservancy Merlot ($15)
Clean and tangy with black plum and blueberry fruit; edgy and juicy with bright structure and a long, racy finish.

Concannon 2007 Conservancy Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)
Bright plum and berry fruit with lively acid structure and good balance; clean and fresh with lift and a racy finish.

Concannon 2007 Conservancy Petite Sirah ($15)
Velvety and lush with black raspberry and juicy acidity; long and balanced with mellow fruit and good length.

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