A Winemaking Career Re-ignited

Former Constellation winemaking director scales down for Naked Wines

by Andrew Adams
wine constellation naked rock boyer
Rick Boyer says he enjoys making wine without the pressure having to sell it himself.

San Rafael, Calif.—Over the course of Rick Boyer’s long career in winemaking, he’s produced wines at both ends of the winery spectrum.

From a small, organic vineyard in Monterey County he crafted small-lot wines under his own label, while as the director of winemaking for Constellation Brands for nearly a decade, he managed a team processing tens of thousands of tons of grapes and fermenting millions of gallons of wine.

Now he’s making wine to sell through one of the newer and bigger players in the U.S. direct-to-consumer market: Naked Wines. 

Since the start of the 2015 harvest, Boyer has made a few wines from Monterey County and other parts of California’s Central Coast that are then sold on the Naked Wines website. He told Wines & Vines that he handles the grape sourcing and manages all production at the Paraiso Vineyards winery in Soledad, Calif.

When the wines are done and ready for market, it’s up to Naked Wines to sell them to the more than 90,000 U.S. customers who have signed up to buy wine through their website. Boyer said he couldn’t be happier making wine again and not having to worry about selling it. “This is a very convenient system for people who want to make wine but don’t have to do the sales side,” he said. “They’ve got a great system.”

It’s the same type of comment other winemakers told Wines & Vines back in July 2012, when the U.K.-based company arrived in Sonoma County and took over the former Blackstone Winery to serve as a production hub for its team of U.S. winemakers. The company was founded by Rowan Gormley, who worked in finance before joining up with Richard Branson and his Virgin empire. Gormley’s first wine business, Orgasmic Wines, later became Virgin Wines in 2000.

Gormley founded Naked Wines in 2008, and after matching consumers with winemakers in Europe and other New World winemaking nations, he set up in the United States in 2012. About three years later, in April 2015, the U.K. wine warehouse retailer Majestic Wine purchased Naked Wines in a deal worth 70 million pounds (at the time about $108 million).

Post-merger stumble
Through the partnership Majestic, which runs more than 200 stores in the U.K., would get a vibrant online sales apparatus, while Naked Wines would benefit from the expertise of Majestic’s buying team and a large brick-and-mortar presence for its many customers in England. Gormley became CEO of the new company, which then set its sights on expanding sales in the world’s largest wine market, the United States.  

Naked Wines and Majestic, however, were back in the headlines of the British financial press this September, after shares in Majestic fell by more than 30% after the company announced an unsuccessful direct marketing campaign in the United States meant profits would not meet expectations. Gormley has described the failed campaign as a result of trying to expand in the U.S. market, where the risks and rewards are greater, but not something that indicates Naked Wines’ long-term growth is in peril.

According to the Majestic’s annual report to shareholders, Naked Wines has more than 301,000 active subscribers and generated more than a 104 million pounds ($126 million) in total sales through March. The company is focused on driving future sales through increasing the number of customers and its roster of 152 winemakers. In the United States, Naked Wines works with more than 50 winemakers and is making more than 200,000 cases of wine per year. 

From Boyer’s perspective, the experience has been positive since joining the Naked team. He came on board at the invitation of a former winemaking colleague Matt Parish, who was vice president and chief winemaker for Treasury Wine Estates’ Americas division before becoming Naked Wines’ chief winemaker in June 2013.

When Parish reached out to Boyer, he was no longer making wine as he had sold his vineyard and closed the tasting room of his private brand. He had left Constellation in 2014 because he had grown tired of the corporate world and had been working as a consultant helping businesses get their finances in order and find right the right people to either buy them or provide new financing.

Boyer has an MBA from Stanford University, and his years serving as executive winemaker for large public companies provided an invaluable education. “When you’re working with 10s of millions of dollars in your budget, finance is a big part of what you do,” he said.

Smaller margins, fewer headaches
That makes Boyer a bit different from other winemakers in Naked Wines’ team who may not have as keen a sense of business as they do winemaking, but Boyer said he’s just happy not to have to handle sales. When he was making and selling his own wine, Boyer said often he was frustrated with capricious accounts that would drop his wine with little warning or not be prompt paying him for cases they’d already sold. “Obviously you make a lot more money if you do it yourself,” he said. “But you also spend a lot more time doing it.”

Boyer said he discussed what he’d like to make with the Naked Wines team, but they pretty much leave it up to him to do it and produce it in his own style. The website currently lists a 2015 Central Coast White Blend and a 2015 Santa Lucia Highlands Riesling by Boyer for sale. This past vintage Boyer bought Pinot Noir and Syrah from Santa Barbara County, and he’ll be making 8,500 cases to sell through Naked Wines.

He said Naked Wines gives him some comments on the wines, but more feedback comes from the customers that share their thoughts through the website. The company fosters the idea that all of its subscribers are crowdfunding young winemakers who need start-up capital or experienced veterans like Boyer who want to just focus on making wine. These “angel” investors also are encouraged to discuss wines directly with the winemakers they’re funding. “It’s very interesting to see far it goes and how much pleasure you give to people,” he said.

The arrangement also lets Boyer pursue his other interests. When Boyer was speaking with Wines & Vines, the winemaker was driving south to Los Angeles, where he was participating in one of the largest bonsai shows on the West Coast, where trees could fetch as much as $400. “I would love to make it a business, but right now it’s a hobby gone wild,” he said.


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