BACA Founder Talks Entrepreneurship and Being a Third-Generation Vinter

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MP sat down Jennifer Brown, vintner at BACA Wines. Brown is a 3rd generation vintner, having grown up in the wine business. Before joining her family’s wine business, she had my own business, omghow, a website for young women to connect and share knowledge. She holds a JD/MBA from Stanford University and is a licensed attorney in California

Jennifer Brown Headshot
BACA founder Jennifer Brown (photo courtesy of Jennifer Brown)

MP: What is BACA Zinfandel, and how is it unique?

JB: BACA is an award-winning luxury Zinfandel brand that focuses on heritage vineyards with unique stories. We are a family business and work with wine-growing families that preserve special vineyards around California. We are based in Healdsburg, CA, but we work with vineyards from down in Paso Robles, all the way up to Rockpile in Sonoma County. So many of them are old-vine vineyards with deep, rich history, and it’s so rewarding to make wines from these unique vineyards.

BACA Zinfandel’s wines have fun names like “Cat’s Cradle,” “Double Dutch,” and “Home Base.” What was your thought process, and why did you decide to go with such fun names? 

My mother always told me that if you can’t have fun while making wine, what is the point? I took that to heart and decided to name each of our wines after a game or something playful. After all, even though we are making seriously good wine, I don’t ever want to take ourselves too seriously. The wines also have deeper meanings. Home Base, for example, comes from the Dry Creek Valley, the area near our home winery in Healdsburg. 

You’re a second-generation winemaker. Your family owns a few successful brands, including HALL Wines and WALT Wines. What’s it like as a second-generation entrepreneur in the wine industry? 

It’s a lot of fun and a lot easier in some ways having a model to follow. I think it would be very daunting to start in the wine business from scratch. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful role model in my mother, Kathryn Hall, who has shown me what it means to be both a successful business person and a good person in general.

Entrepreneurs often struggle with marketing their products in a compelling way to capture and hold the attention of prospective customers. You’ve managed to do this through celebrity happy hours, where guests like Tina Fey, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Ed O’Neill, and John Leguizamo have fun while consuming BACA. What were your marketing brainstorming sessions like, and how did you eventually arrive at holding celebrity happy hours? 

At the beginning of the pandemic, when our tasting rooms were closed and the world was under a lot of stress, we got to thinking – how can we connect with our wine club members and bring them a delightful moment in their day? That’s how our happy hour program was born. We didn’t start of the gate with celebrities. We first just got on ourselves and had happy hours with our internal team – our hospitality team, our vineyard manager, winemakers, and even some of our wine club members. It was very organic. 

Then, once we exhausted hosting happy hours with our internal team, we thought it might be even more fun for our wine club members to watch us sipping wine with interesting people they admired. And once we reached out to these celebrities, it turned out that they were very interested in learning more about wine. We would never have guessed that our program would have gotten as big as it has – we are very humbled by the success of our Happy Hour Program!

What are three obstacles you’ve faced while growing BACA, and how have you overcome them?

  1. When we launched BACA in the wholesale market, we decided to be restaurant only and not sell in stores. That worked out well in our first year in the market but turned out to be a problem in 2020 because once the pandemic happened, restaurants across the country closed, and we weren’t able to sell wine to them. We have since pivoted and started selling to stores, but it took a little while to get that going.
  2. Being a not-as-recognized brand can be hard sometimes getting in front of people, especially when our HALL and WALT brands (in our HALL family of wine portfolio) are better known. However, I have to remember that you don’t build a brand in a day, and everything takes time.
  3. Our winery and tasting room opened in November 2019. Having the tasting room be closed for two fires and the pandemic was challenging because we are a new brand and rely on building our brand through visitors. Luckily, we worked hard to make sure that we followed all of the COVID protocols and were able to host all of our visitors outside, and we’ve steadily been growing our traffic at our tasting room. As a result, we are completely booked right now on the weekends, which is terrific!

What are three pieces of advice you can share with people looking to become influential leaders in their businesses, and why? 

  1. Share your honest opinion, and don’t try to appease everyone because you’ll never be able to. If you don’t stand for anything, you stand for nothing. (That’s a Hamilton reference…)
  2. Be the best at what you do. Then, if you produce a quality product, whatever it is, people will notice.
  3. Get out there and meet people. Networking doesn’t have to be a bad word, and it can be fun. And you’ll be amazed at how much being connected to others will help you. Besides, how can you be influential if you don’t know people to influence?

What are your three greatest fears as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage those fears? 

  1. Imposter syndrome. That I’m not as smart or as good as I think I am, and I don’t deserve this or that. I think many people suffer from this, and you must remind yourself that it’s just self-doubt talking.
  2. Failure. I’m not sure what failure looks like exactly, but I am just wired to want to succeed.
  3. Other people not liking me. But, again, this is the way I am wired that I want others to like me. So it has its benefits, but also drawbacks – because it’s impossible for everyone to like you.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake you made while initially growing BACA Zinfandel?

At our launch party in 2018, when we first told the world about BACA and launched our inaugural vintage, we had a “big reveal.” Everyone had bought tickets to come to an event, knowing that Hall Family of Wines started a new wine brand, but they had no idea what kind of wine or what the name would be. The guests were all gathered on the patio at the bottom of our HALL St. Helena winery. There was a lot of anticipation. Alison Frichtl-Hollister, our winemaker, and I gave a big speech about the new wine. We had a large net up high in our tasting room, holding many balloons. Alison and I were meant to each pull strings to release the balloons. We then had a drumroll. And the drumroll ended, and Alison and I went to pull the strings, and the balloons wouldn’t drop. It was anti-climactic and embarrassing. Finally, we got the balloons to drop, and then we told everyone the name of our new wine and the varietal.

What’s your typical day look like, and how do you manage your work-life balance?

I get up around 7 am, get my two daughters up, and make them breakfast. Our nanny comes over to watch our youngest daughter, and my husband or I take our older daughter to school. I start work around 8:30 am, either from home or from the winery. I sit in several meetings – about marketing, sales, operations of the tasting room, and future planning of our wines and vineyards. 

On a lucky day, I walk our vineyards or meet with our amazing winemaking team. That’s the most fun part of the job, being in nature and part of the creative process. After that, I usually wrap up work around 6 pm, make dinner for my family, do bedtime with my girls. Then I work email for another hour or so and unwind by watching a TV show with my husband or reading a book.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Our brand is all about adventure. We make high-end wines that are best in class and think about how to make fun and adventurous experiences. Our rose is canned – perfect for taking on your next adventure. 

We also have a one-of-a-kind tasting experience at BACA Healdsburg called the BACA Sensory Experience. We’ve turned winetasting into a game where you can compete with your family or friends and try to guess what flavors you taste in the wines during the wine tasting. You compare your tasting notes with your friends and learn a lot about wine in the process. 

I love wine tasting, but there are only so many wine and cheese pairings you can do at some point. I wanted to create something different, more interactive, and energizing. 

People love this experience at BACA Healdsburg.