When cousins John H. Niven and Michael Blaney look out over the vineyards spreading south from Islay Hill, they see the past. And they see the future.
Their grandfather Jack Niven planted the vineyards 40 years ago, pioneering modern grape growing in Edna Valley. The family has been shaping the wine industry there ever since.
In the beginning
Rather than starting small, Niven, who had already built and sold off a successful chain of grocery stores, went big into the grape-growing business. He planted the 550-acre Paragon Vineyards in 1973 and built a good business selling grapes to wine producers.
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In 1981, he began Edna Valley Vineyard in partnership with a historic Monterey County vineyard, growing it into a national brand that helped put the area on the map as a wine region before Gallo bought it two years ago.
Then Niven helped Edna Valley become a designated wine region, spearheading the effort to earn American Viticultural Area status in 1982.
While Niven focused on the large-scale business, his wife, Catherine, took on her own project, planting 31⁄2 acres of grapes in front of their Tiffany Ranch Road home. Catherine — who grew up on her family’s thoroughbred horse farm in Kentucky and owned a winning racehorse — was the first to venture into making wine, starting what would become Baileyana.
The Nivens’ sons, John and James, eventually joined the family business, and with their parents, they expanded the family’s vineyards to more than 1,100 acres, placing them among the largest landholders in Edna Valley. They also grew Baileyana into another national brand.
A new generation
John H. Niven and Blaney, two of nine Niven grandchildren, grew up playing in the vineyards during family gatherings and holidays and working in the winery during summers. But it was never a given they would join the family business.
“Go out, spread your wings, learn life and business — on your own time,” John H. Niven, 41, recalls being told by his parents and grandparents.
He worked in commercial real estate in Northern California. Blaney, 49, was a pit boss at Circus Circus in Las Vegas. They were brought on board in 1997 — Niven as vice president of sales and marketing and Blaney as vice president of operations — allowing John and James to remain involved but step back from day-to-day operations.
It was a time of great change for the family and the business. Jack Niven had died two years earlier. Catherine was approaching 80 and would die a couple of years later.
In the year after the third generation came on board, they took some major steps. They hired veteran winemaker Christian Roguenant, began building a state-of-the-art winery and renovated the 100-year-old Independence Schoolhouse at 5828 Orcutt Road into a new tasting room.
They have also carried on the pioneering spirit, expanding the family’s portfolio with new labels — Tangent, Trenza, Cadre and Zocker — exploring cool-climate whites not traditionally grown here, such as Spanish albariño and Austrian grüner veltliner, as well as distinct regional blends.
“They are really pushing the envelope as far as showcasing the diversity and dynamics of what can be grown in the region,” said Heather Muran, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Wine Country Association.
Now Niven and Blaney are returning to Edna Valley’s roots for their newest, biggest launch — a chardonnay called True Myth that the family hopes will become a household name. Like their grandfather before them, they are going big, producing more than 13,000 cases — more than double their primary Baileyana chardonnay, Grand Firepeak Cuvee — and bringing their total production to 50,000 cases.
“Chardonnay is the mothership here,” John H. Niven said. “Edna Valley is truly a real special place on this entire planet to grow chardonnay.”
Sharing the wealth
The family’s fortune has rippled across the region. Its success has spurred the success of Edna Valley overall, including many smaller wineries along the area’s wine trail.
“Through the years, they have really worked to bring awareness to the region as a whole, not just for their brand, but for the entire growing region, really putting it on the map,” Muran said.
Jean-Pierre Wolff, who with his wife owns the 125-acre Wolff Vineyards a half-mile from the Nivens’ tasting room, noted that they benefit from having “some larger key players in the area, because they have the financial resources to have more money spent on marketing and promotion both locally and nationally.”
The Nivens have grown, Wolff said, but they are still a family company — and still pioneers.
“They try new things, and they are always looking at what’s happening in other parts of the world and trying to learn from it and bring some of those lessons learned here,” Wolff said. “So you have a combination of good, strong business leadership, but also a family touch.”
Plus they are simply good neighbors, Wolff added, only instead of asking to borrow a cup of sugar, it’s to borrow some filter pads or a truck for the day when something breaks down.
“We do this for each other. It’s a collaboration throughout the valley,” Wolff said. Plus, the area would not succeed as a wine region with only one or two wineries. “We need each other.”
John H. Niven echoed that sentiment. “We’re all in this together.”
A new direction forward
That may be the case when it comes to Edna Valley, but the Nivens have developed a more go-it-alone attitude when it comes to producing their wine. Partnerships were not working out.
Six years into a joint venture with the Australian producer of Penfolds and Lindeman’s to produce a wine called Seven Peaks, the partner pulled out after merging with another large Australian corporation.
Two years later, in 2005, their initial partner in Edna Valley Vineyard, Chalone Vineyards near Pinnacles, was bought. Its new owner, Diageo, had other priorities and wanted out. And when Gallo came along in 2011, it sought full ownership.
The Nivens have long-term contracts to sell Paragon grapes to Edna Valley Vineyard, and Jack Niven’s name remains on the winery’s iconic tasting room.
Still, John H. Niven said, “It was the hardest decision the family has had to make.”
But the sale also bolstered the family’s long-term evolution from growers with an established vineyard to estate producers making more of their own wine.
“It's about putting more of our fruit in the bottle,” Blaney said. “That’s really where the growth lies, in making more wine from our own vineyard.”
Right now, 35 to 40 percent of the grapes are going into their own bottles. They aim to grow that percentage.
But for the Nivens, even the future lies in the past.
“Our grandparents say they built the vineyards for our generation. Our parents expanded on that, building the winery and so on and so forth, saying they are doing it for our kids’ generation. And we expand the brand, kick off True Myth — we’re doing things for our kids’ kids,” Niven said.
“Our family is very long-term minded. We’re always thinking generations ahead.”
Blaney plays it cooler. “We’re just really good at putting teams together and using the resources of the family.”
He often asks himself: “How would I leave this better than I found it?”
“It’s all about sustainability and passing it on to the next generation.”
Facts about the Niven family's wines
Taste a range of wines from the Nivens’ full portfolio in a historic old schoolhouse-turned-tasting room at the heart of the Edna Valley wine trail. Make use of the many outdoor chairs and tables and take in a game of bocce ball or just enjoy the views over the Paragon and Firepeak vineyards.
5828 Orcutt Road, San Luis Obispo Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
$8 for standard tasting; $12 reserve tasting; $5-10 wines by the glass; $12-50 bottles
Gallery: The Niven family's wine portfolio »
Christian Rougenant first made chardonnay and pinot noir in the Burgundy area of France where he was born and raised among the vines. He has gone on to make wine on five continents, including the official sparkling wine for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. His experience includes time at one of the premier Champagne houses in France and as winemaker at Maison Deutz/Laetitia Winery. He has been with the Nivens for 14 years.
George Donati, who has managed the Nivens’ vineyards for 20 years, was honored in July as Wine Grape Grower of the Year by the San Luis Obispo County Wine Industry Awards.
Last year, his company, Pacific Vineyard Company, received the Green Award from the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce for its environmental stewardship.
The Nivens and their vineyard management company, Pacific Vineyard Co., were part of the pilot project for the Sustainability In Practice program, and their vineyards were among the first to receive SIP certification by the Central Coast Vineyard Team. The designation requires an extensive audit of farming practices and environmental stewardship but also takes into account equitable treatment of employees and community involvement. The program began in San Luis Obispo County but has been spreading to Monterey, Napa and Sonoma wineries.
The family has long used sustainable practices, Vice President of Sales and Marketing John H. Niven says, and had to change very little to get the designation.
“But we’ve definitely learned by cooperating with all the vineyards that were involved in the program,” Vice President of Operations Michael Blaney adds. “You all learn from each other a little bit, a trick here or there where you can use something that’s more sustainable.”
The certification standards address biodiversity, social equity, community involvement, energy efficiency, pest management, air quality, water quality and conservation and risk reduction. A few highlights of the Nivens’ practices:
- Water conservation: Avoiding over-watering by controlling irrigation based on evapotranspiration, the rate that water returns to the atmosphere through evaporation from the soil and transpiration from the plants.
- Energy conservation and efficiency: Tractors perform up to four tasks in one pass to reduce use of fuel and soil compaction.
- Pest management: They control problem pests with natural predators whenever possible, for example using beetles known as mealybug destroyers to combat mealybugs. They have virtually eliminated the use of highly toxic Category 1 pesticides and have installed raptor boxes to encourage owls and hawks to hunt for rodent pests.