On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter invites Hilary and Megan Cline, second-generation owners of Cline Family Cellars and co-owners of Gust Wines, to discuss why they have chosen the Petaluma Gap as the focus for their new business. This AVA is a sub-region of the Sonoma Coast AVA in California and is known for its cool, windy climate, which allows for more textured wines.
The Cline sisters also delve into life before joining the wine industry and explain how they ultimately found their way back to the family business. Since launching Gust back in 2017, the sisters have successfully produced Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. However, like many wine producers, Covid-19 forced them to reevaluate their plans. Tune in to hear Hilary and Megan Cline explain where they think the wine industry is heading, as well as their future plans for Gust.
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Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” conversation. For those of you who know, we’ve been bringing you these conversations between our regularly scheduled podcast episodes to give everyone a better picture of what’s going on in the alcohol beverage industry. Today, I’m super excited to be joined by Hilary and Megan Cline, the owners of Gust Wines. Hilary, Megan, what’s up?
Hilary Cline: What’s up? Thank you so much for having us.
Megan Cline: Appreciate it, Adam.
A: Of course. Everyone knows that I have two of you on the show. Which one is Hilary talking, and which one is Megan?
H: OK, so I’m Hilary. I’ve heard we have a similar voice, though. I hope they’ll be distinct enough.
M: Yes! Hi everyone, I am Megan Cline.
A: So sisters, yes? Talk to me about Gust.
M: We started Gust back in 2017. Our whole goal with Gust was to make really great and beautiful wines from the new AVA (American Viticultural Area), the Petaluma Gap.
A: But you didn’t start Gust just out of not having any background in wine, right?
M: Correct. We are part of the second generation of Cline Family Cellars. We’ve both been working with our family for the past five years. It’s six years now, is that right Hil?
H: About six years, and different roles at Cline. Through Cline, our family had planted vineyards in the Petaluma Gap about 30 years ago, in the early ‘90s. We grew up part of our childhood on those vineyards in the Petaluma Gap and always been in and out of the wine business. Then, in recent years, as my dad gets a little older, we’ve gotten more involved. Then, we really wanted to put our own spin on things. Cline has been around for so long, and it’s so much about Zinfandel and these Rhône varietals, where we were super excited about Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the cooler-climate region of the Petaluma Gap. That’s what inspired us to go out on our own with Gust.
A: For both of you, was there a time when you had thought about not going into the wine industry? Was this something you always knew you wanted to pursue because you had the family connection to it? The reason I ask is because, when I talk to winemakers from Europe, they always say how they’re their kids now — our generation — is not going into wine. I don’t want to do that anymore, even though four generations before me all did it. We are, but we do it the American way. I believe that’s a misunderstanding because a lot of Americans do go into wine. Your family owns a vineyard, it’s a cool business to be in. I’m wondering if you had ever thought about not doing it? What caused you to decide to go into the family business?
M: Yeah, absolutely. I for sure never thought I was going to be in the wine industry. I think growing up around it, it’s “Oh, God, wine so boring. There’s nothing to do here.” Then, you move away and then you realize that we live in or we grew up in the most beautiful place in the world. I for sure wanted to live on the beach. I want to live in a city. I moved to Santa Barbara and got into wine down there. I got into wine separately from working with my family and got into the sales part of wine, got into the somm world, and then eventually decided to move back home. Then, I figured if I’m going to work in wine, Sonoma is the place to be is with my family.
A: That’s super cool. They have a wine crawl downtown, right?
M: Yeah, I worked at the Funk Zone. I got super into the somm world and took my certified sommelier course. Then, I realized I wanted to work in the production side of wine instead of the sales part.
A: Oh cool.
M: Where you’re actually creating something tangible versus just selling something.
A: Were you on the floor, or were you doing a lot of things?
M: Well, I was working at tasting rooms, actually, in the Funk Zone, but my coworkers were going through their somm tests and convinced me to join. That’s where I was falling back in love with wine. Back to my roots.
A: Hilary, what about you?
H: Yeah, definitely the same. I think my parents were really good about not pushing it on us at all. I moved to Portland and studied psychology and Russian, and I spent a year after college in Siberia. I did a Fulbright there and was on this whole other path with Russian language and translation. Then, my parents talked to me. They came to this point where for family-owned businesses, either someone’s going to step up and get involved, or they have to think about selling. I know they really didn’t want to. I was around 25 and they asked do you want to come work here? There are just so many feelings that are connected to the winery growing up. I definitely wanted to try it out at least. I started with Cline doing wholesale sales, which was a very interesting world to jump into. I was calling on accounts in San Francisco. That was quite an education. Then I also wanted to learn more about production. I did a couple of harvests with other producers. I worked a harvest with Sojourn at their Santa Rosa facility. Then a harvest in New Zealand. Then worked a viticulture harvest for Pernod here in the U.S., too. I’ve been trying to get into different angles of the industry because I didn’t have a solid background when I started back with the family.
A: Makes sense. Is it just the two of you as far as the kids, or are there others?
H: Our brother Henry, he just started. He’s 23, right, Megs?
A: I love that you have to ask. That’s awesome.
M: To be fair, there are seven kids in the Cline family, so keeping track of everyone’s age is definitely a task.
H: He just started working for the family a month ago. He’s really interested in the viticulture piece. That’s what my dad’s super passionate about, and he’s given Henry a lot of passion surrounding that. He’s just starting to learn about vineyards.
A: Awesome. So, you both decide to come back to the family business, but not just doing wines under the Cline name, you decide to start Gust. What was the reason for that, and why did you decide to do it together?
M: I think Hilary talked about it a little bit. I think we always gravitated towards these cooler-climate wines. We knew that there was so much potential in the vineyards that we had access to, that for the most part all of the grapes that we had planted were going into one big blend. We saw this opportunity where we have these amazing site orientations, clones, and really beautiful vineyards where we knew we could create something super special.
H: I think when I was out selling wine, I did it for four-something years. I think going to restaurants and talking to different people, people were very excited about the Petaluma Gap. People get very excited about small projects. I thought that if we put in the effort to make handcrafted, artisanal, or our own spin to highlight Petaluma Gap, people would respond to it.
M: As far as working together, I think that’s always been my favorite part about working with my family, is being able to work with Hil and my dad. We work really well together. We knew that we could create something super cool.
A: What is it about the Petaluma Gap that’s so special?
M: It’s a really interesting growing region. It’s the only AVA that is based on wind. The wind is super cool. It creates smaller berries, and then you also have thicker skins. You’re getting a bigger skin-to-juice ratio, so the wines are super, super textured. It’s also part of the Sonoma Coast, so you have this longer growing season with the fog in the morning, and then those cooler afternoon winds. You’re getting that full flavor development as well.
A: Very cool. What wines are you making?
M: We make a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. And then we are soon to be releasing our single-vineyard Pinot and Chardonnay.
A: OK, right now they’re from a few vineyards. Then you’re going single-vineyard in the next year, or sooner than that?
M: Next month, we are releasing the first vintages of our single-vineyard.
A: What made you want to do a single-vineyard?
M: We just zeroed in on our favorite blocks on our Catapult Ranch, which is one of the vineyards we work with. We tasted those individual barrel lots from those individual sites and loved them.
H: The one vineyard we focus on, Catapult Ranch, is really unique and it’s something only in the middle of the wind gap. It’s our highest- elevation vineyard, which in the gap translates to it actually being warmer climate there. The wines can be more fruit-forward. A little bit richer. A little bit rounder as compared to our other ranch that’s on the valley floor. I think most AVAs would be the opposite, but because of the way the fog sits and the wind comes in, we get to experience something very unique. We really wanted to highlight that with the single-vineyards from Catapult.
A: Very cool. Talk to me about building the brand. Obviously, you decide to start this 2017. Was that when you decided to start, or that was the first vintage you released?
M: That was our first vintage. We had decided to start earlier in 2017 around January, and that was our first harvest as well.
A: OK, cool. When did bottles first hit the market?
M: Last year. Our first release was last March. Exactly a year ago, which was a bad time to release wines.
A: I’m curious about that. What were your plans for the brand prior to Covid, and how did things change? How many cases did you make?
M: We made about 200 cases of the Chardonnay, 400 of the Pinot Noir, and 200 of the Syrah.
A: OK, so very boutique.
A: Who was the market? Who were you going after? Was this going to be a restaurant brand, a collector’s brand? Who did you want, ultimately, when you had made that amount of wine to buy the wine?
H: We definitely wanted to focus on DTC and restaurants. I think that’s a classic formula for this type of brand. Obviously, things changed a little bit. When we did finally send it out wholesale, we had no UPCs anywhere. We had to strip the label a little bit. We’re trying to get it into higher-end retailers, where I think that they can tell the stories of these wines just as well. That’s definitely been a pivot, and we have continued to try and focus on DTC. I think the hardest part is not being able to try the wines with people and trying to translate that experience virtually — a challenge which the entire industry has been struggling with.
A: We’ve had this conversation a lot recently about what it’s been like for brands who launched at the beginning of Covid and how they’ve been able to adapt and figure things out. You’re obviously a perfect example of this. People were able to pivot to DTC who already had a customer base. Since no one really tried the wines, I’m curious what things you tried in order to still get Gust out there? Did you try to push to current Cline drinkers?
H: Yes, people who drink Cline love Cline, and they’ve been following my dad for so many years and are so committed to the brand. I think it’s because they get great value out of the wines and love that it’s been a family business for so many years, as well as the flavor profiles. We did something we weren’t originally planning on doing. We were trying to keep it as separate as possible. It is something we ended up doing. We send it out through Cline to those long-term loyal club members and followers. They embraced it pretty hard. I think we had met a lot of them from growing up at the winery over the years. I think they responded enthusiastically, which was so amazing.
A: That’s awesome. Obviously, that was one of the pivots, and you talked a little bit about high-end retailers. In California, I would assume that Petaluma Gap is known. This is always the knock that New York gets, right? That we actually get more European wine in our stores than the California wine. When you were talking about higher-end retailers, did you have a market you decided you need to go to? I would assume that you were facing two barriers, which are the education on the new brand and also education on the new AVA. Where were your targets, and who did you go after?
H: Yeah, definitely. We have super-strong relationships in California, and I think that’s just a natural place for us to start. Even as small as starting in Petaluma itself, and then moving out from there, then the city to Southern California, which is such an important, huge market. I think there’s a lot going on down there. Right now, we’re focusing on California. Then, we also have a really great distributor in Illinois, Heritage Wines, and they have just taken Gust on. We’re slowly working with our distributors where it makes sense and slowly introducing the wines. I think we wanted a stronger, faster approach, but we’ve been able to spend more time on each launch and do it in a more surgical way, which has been helpful.
A: Have you traveled at all to some of these retailers, or no?
H/M: All virtual.
A: What’s that been like?
H: Meghan’s been doing most of those, so I’ll let her speak.
M: It’s been good. I definitely miss being able to do this in person where you’re with them tasting. It’s nice. We have small, cute tasting bottles that we send out, so we are still able to taste the wines with people. It’s totally different. Not bad, but I’m excited for the time when I can go out to these markets and meet these people and present the wines in person.
A: You brought up the point I’m curious about. How have you divided the labor in terms of the brand. Does one of you handle one section of the brand and the other handles the other? Or do you both do everything?
M: We both do a little bit of everything, for sure.
H: Yeah, I think we both do everything. Megan has been shouldering a lot more of the launching and those things. I’ve been out of commission a little bit due to health reasons just this year. She’s been taking over that part, which I’ve been super thankful for. In normal times, we are both involved in everything. Really involved.
A: Post-Covid, where do you see Gust going? Do you think you’ll go back to your original strategy of going back to restaurants as the ambassadors for the wine? Has this caused you to reevaluate completely how you want to get the wine to the market? Have you even started to have those thoughts yet, or are we still too far away? I’m curious to know where your heads are out there.
H: I do think people undersell the value of retailers. I think it’s been this classic strategy to always go on-premise. I think retailers have a great ability to tell a story as well. I think that’s something we do not want to abandon at all. But as restaurants reopen, we want to be part of their programs as much as possible. I think it still remains to be seen how wine programs and how the entire situation is going to change moving forward.
A: No, I think it’s interesting. We’ve talked about this a lot at VinePair for the last few years where we felt that retailers were getting ignored, just because it’s a lot cooler to go to an awesome restaurant, sit down, and your wine’s on the list. Retailers have, in a lot of ways, a deeper connection with their customers. They might see their customers once a week, whereas the restaurant might only see that customer once a year. It’s interesting to hear you say this as well. Covid has made a lot of people reevaluate, especially fine wine, reevaluate the importance of retailers as a path to discovery and loyalty. That’s interesting that you’re going through the same process that a lot of other high-end wines are going through. Where would you like to see Gust in five years? Where would you like this brand to be? Do you want it to be at the level of Cline? Do you want it to always maintain its status as a boutique brand? What would your goals be?
M: Yeah, I think we want to keep it small, boutique, really focused. I think there’s the possibility of bringing in new wines. But for now, for the next five years, I think we really want to dial in the Pinot, Chardonnay, Syrah, and make those to the highest level possible. I don’t think our goal is ever to be at the level of Cline. I think we want to stay really, really focused.
A: Do you think that we will see some influences on Cline from Gust?
H: I definitely think so. I think that everybody at Cline works closely together. We all do tastings together and we taste competitive set and all of that. And a lot of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that we grow on these properties is used in the Cline programs also. I think introducing this whole idea of higher-end wines from the Petaluma Gap is already influencing the style of the Chard and Pinots that we’re putting out through Cline.
A: Well, Hilary and Megan, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me a little bit about Gust. Where can people find the wines right now?
M: Right now, they are available through our website, gustwines.com. You can find our current 2018 releases there.
A: Very cool. Well, thank you so much. I wish you both the best of luck in continuing to launch this brand. I hope at some point we can meet in person in the future.
M: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
H: Thank you, Adam.
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Now, for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.