Alex Ryan knows full well that the company he runs is trying to do something that has almost never been done successfully—which makes the challenge all that much more exciting.
“No, there hasn’t been a great deal of success with wineries going public,” says Ryan, CEO of The Duckhorn Portfolio, which became a public company in 2021. “But that sort of thing is in our founders’ DNA, and we have 40 years of laying the groundwork for going public.”
Ryan, perhaps, is being kind about wine producers going public. Very few succeed, and those that do—like Oregon’s Willamette Valley Vineyards—are the exceptions that prove the rule. But Ryan is convinced that Duckhorn, as a company, has the talent and vision to do what the others have not.
In this, say those who know him, Ryan’s experience and insight are a key advantage to helping Duckhorn succeed.
“Over the many years that I’ve known Alex, it has always been clear to me that his intelligence and remarkable ability to understand and read the luxury wine marketplace have contributed to his ability to continue to add value to The Duckhorn Portfolio,” says Cyril Chappellet, the president and CEO of Chappellet Vineyard. “I also think the fact that Alex came up through the ranks has played an important role in his leadership style. He’s a winemaker’s CEO, and that means quality always comes first.”
That’s been the case since 1981, when Ryan began working at Duckhorn as a $5 an hour part-timer who removed rocks at the winery’s estate vineyards in Napa. Fast forward to 2021, when Ryan, Dan Duckhorn, and other key executives rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange after launching The Duckhorn Portfolio’s initial public offering.
It’s not so much that the new company’s market value was more than $2 billion, but that it had become the first publicly traded North American wine company in more than 20 years.
“As the company grew, Alex realized his education and expanding experience would qualify him to guide the company’s rapid growth,” says Duckhorn, long considered Ryan’s mentor. “I and the management team, relied on Alex to steer the course, and he responded beyond the call. We all knew he was the one to step in my shoes.”
Ryan, armed with a viticulture degree from California State University Fresno in 1988, moved on from collecting rocks to becoming Duckhorn’s vineyard manager and later its vice president of vineyard and winery operations. He helped expand the winery’s estate program, which includes more than 700 acres in Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Anderson Valley, Gavilan Mountains, and Washington State’s Red Mountain.
In 2000, Ryan became general manager and chief operations officer of the company, which had become The Duckhorn Portfolio. In 2005, he was promoted to president, becoming the only person other than Duckhorn to hold the job.
The company’s growth has been steady and consistent since the days when it was best known as a Napa producer that made world-class Merlot. It has added new brands like Decoy, Migration, while also acquiring California stalwarts like Calera and Kosta Browne. All told, the company has 300 employees and 10 labels, and volume has increased by almost one-third since 2010. That has earned Ryan a variety of industry accolades and spots on top 100 power lists.
“The way that Alex has guided Duckhorn’s growth and the evolution of its portfolio make it one of the exceptions to publicly-held wine companies,” says Chappelet. “I don’t view it so much as something Alex saw that others didn’t—it was more about the foundation he laid to make going public possible. So far, it looks like Alex and his team are off to a fantastic start as a publicly traded company, and I think it is a great ownership vehicle for them.”
In fact, Ryan sees taking the company public as a chance to continue that growth and to ensure Duckhorn’s future. While Ryan evaluated different avenues on the road to The Duckhorn Portfolio’s IPO, including M&A and SPAC options, as a relatively traditional wine company with decades of growth and brand cache under its belt, launching on Wall Street seemed to be the logical next step, he says.
Because Dan and Margaret Duckhorn founded Duckhorn Vineyards with the help of a number of investor friends, the company has experience working with investor shareholders. “Running a best-in-class business and providing value for our investors are qualities that have defined us for decades,” says Ryan, who saw a traditional IPO as the best way to control Duckhorn’s future, while leveraging its success to establish a new model for a modern luxury wine company.
“The business fundamentals overlay with fine wine,” says Ryan. “This way, we can make something that will last.”
Previous attempts to go public, he says, foundered on trying to do too much, to be too many things to too many consumers. That’s not the case with Duckhorn. “We know who we are,” he says, “and that’s not five dollar wine. We’re a luxury wine company, and that’s what the market expects of us.”
And which, so far, Ryan has delivered for Duckhorn.
About Wine’s Most Inspiring People: Each year, Wine Industry Advisor chooses 10 individuals within the wine industry who showcase leadership, innovation, and inspiration. For the first time in 2021, WIA opened up the submission process to the industry at large. With over 100 nominees, the editorial team selected the top 10 individuals who they felt has truly positively impacted the US wine culture over the past year. Read more here.