Spotlight Session: Q&A with Wilson Daniels Founding Partner Jack Daniels
Jack Daniels co-founded Wilson Daniels with partner Winston “Win” Wilson in 1978. Their passion for fine wine set the direction of the company, and through prior experience in the Napa Valley wine industry, the duo was able to create a portfolio of family-owned, limited-production wineries. These became the core of the Wilson Daniels portfolio, and established the company within the global market. Now celebrating 40 years in the business, Daniels tells us about his journey to success and what the future has in store for this exquisite collection of outstanding producers.
WD: How did you get into the business?
JD: When I left the University of Wisconsin in 1964, the temperature was 50 degrees below zero. My roommate and I escaped to Southern California, and it was a freak chance that my first job was in the wine business. Though I didn’t have any history of wine in my family, I was immediately drawn to my new position and quickly learned all that I could. I was hired by Paul Masson in the wine division of The Seagram Company, went on to represent them in Southern California and subsequently managed the Rocky Mountain division headquartered in Denver, Colorado. Our business grew substantially, and after six years I made the decision to start my own wine marketing and sales company.
I got involved in a wholesale business, which took me on frequent trips to the Napa Valley, where I established a relationship with many small producers. At the time, Napa Valley was just beginning to gain distribution outside of California. During that time, I struck up a personal relationship with Donn Chappellet and his family, the owners of Chappellet Winery. In 1976, Chappellet offered me the position of National Sales Manager, which I readily accepted and moved to Napa Valley with my family. It was during this time that I met Win Wilson, who held a similar position with Cuvaison Estate. Our friendship led us to establishing Wilson Daniels with our two respective wineries, Chappellet and Cuvaison, as our first clients.
In 1979, we were honored with an unannounced visit by Aubert de Villaine and Lalou Bize-Leroy, Co-Owners and managers of the renowned Burgundy producer Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. They offered us the chance to be the
exclusive importer for the United States, which we gladly accepted. This new partnership changed the face of our company and brought about a vast expansion of our business nationally. This new partnership also opened the door for other elite producers from many fine vineyard areas of the world to seek out our company’s representation.
WD: When you and Win established the company, what was your vision for success?
JD: First was our passion for wine and the business – our commitment to small family-owned-and-operated producers founded on quality and stylistic wines. We were very disciplined and maintained our philosophy throughout our business careers. We offered the small producers an economical path to national distribution through the Wilson Daniels network of fine wine wholesalers throughout the United States.
WD: How did you decide to approach the first brands you worked with?
JD: Living in the Napa Valley and understanding the small producers who had received great recognition in California but limited distribution in other markets, we made the decision to focus on these specific properties. There was a point in Wilson Daniels’ business life where we had contact with more than a hundred Napa Valley wineries, be it a direct sales relationship or general marketing advice. That is how we ultimately expanded
WD: How has Wilson Daniels evolved over the years? What do you foresee for the future?
JD: From 1978 to 1997, it was just Win and myself that owned and operated Wilson Daniels. In 1997, the Underwood family, owners of Young’s Market Company — a significant wine and spirits distributor in ten western states — became an investor in our company. Between 1997 and 2003, they acquired full ownership and became sole operators of the company.
Between 2003 and 2012, the company had a series of presidents that changed the direction of the company and focused more on high-volume wine properties with lower competitively priced wines. When the Underwood’s recognized that this new direction was contrary to their purpose for purchasing Wilson Daniels, they asked me to return as President and assist in realigning the company to the original core values and vision that Win and I had originally set.
In June of 2015, Rocco Lombardo was appointed President of Wilson Daniels. Rocco had vast experience in national sales and marketing, as well as wholesale distribution. You could see right away that he understood what Wilson Daniels stood for and mirrored our philosophy. Rocco has very much adhered to the core values and vision, and expanded the business to a whole new level with the addition of Wilson Daniels Wholesale on the East Coast. My hat’s off to Rocco — he’s surrounded himself with a terrific team. The vision doesn’t come from the
ground up, but from the top down. He’s used me wisely in order to maintain important relationships and help build
the trust that is needed, so I will be stepping back, remaining Vice Chairman of the Board and consulting when needed.
WD: There is a lot to celebrate, from an award-winning portfolio to a very impressive and enthusiastic sales team. What are a couple of your favorite moments over the years?
JD: First was the excitement of Win and myself in forming Wilson Daniels with our combined passion and vision. Secondly, the addition of Domaine de la RomanéeConti to our portfolio and the acceptance of what their
addition afforded us in the market was very significant. The addition of select and prestigious wine properties from the various fine wine growing regions of the world such as Royal Tokaji in Hungary, Kumeu River in New Zealand,
Domaine Leflaive from Burgundy, Schramsberg in Napa Valley and many others have afforded us the opportunity to represent many of the finest wine estates in the world. Lastly, I was excited to return to Wilson Daniels in 2012,
realigning the company to its original core value and assisting Rocco as he takes our success to new heights.
May 24, 2018