Beyond the Auction – Rick Jones, Napa Valley Winemaker

Rick Jones sits atop a mound of accomplishments. Well—technically it’s rolling hills— with beautiful greenery and wine-yielding grapes planted throughout. Jones boasts a long and shining career in management consulting and as an executive at Safeway, but the Stanford graduate always had an inclination to return to Northern California. So upon retiring he bought property in the picturesque Napa Valley, built a house and found himself in the infancy of a whole new career—this time as a winemaker.

At first Jones sold the grapes growing on his property to a separate vineyard. In 1996, he tasted the wine that was being made from said grapes. “I decided— that’s the first time that I actually tasted the wine that came from our property— it was much too good to continue to sell to somebody else. I contacted David Abreu, who was the most successful vineyard manager in Napa, and convinced him that our property had even better potential than what we were currently realizing,” said Jones.

In addition to Abreu, Jones brought on Heidi Barrett, who had made Screaming Eagle and a number of other first-rate wines, to be their initial winemaker. By September of 1996, the Jones Family Vineyard was in business, “and I never looked back,” Jones said. “It was a wonderful first vintage, it’s still my favorite vintage of all of our wines that we’ve produced so far but every year produces some new opportunities.”

The name of the vineyard, Jones Family Vineyard, is apt. The Joneses entered the wine business as a family and it has remained that way. Though both of Jones’ daughters have taken time off to raise their young families, the two women have been an integral part of the customer relations section of the business since its beginnings.

“My daughters were interested in wine. At that stage they were all in college and of the legal drinking age. They had developed, individually, an interest in wine, so the idea was that we would work together closely as a family and that has definitely continued to happen,” Jones said.

His vision for the winery and the business of winemaking was to keep production small. So the Jones Family Vineyard focuses on making the highest quality wine and then selling directly to, while building personal relationships with, the vineyard’s customers. And with that, family intertwined with business in an unexpected way.

“One of our initial customers turned out to be my son-in-law. He had tasted our wine, he was a wine connoisseur in his own right, and had tasted our wines and at that time we were just starting out, had even smaller productions than now and he was not on our distribution list. He had a friend introduce him to my daughter so he could get some of our wine and they fell in love and got married. That was a pretty special relationship,” said Jones. And yes, the two were married on the vineyard.

 Traditionally, the auction is the largest single philanthropic fundraiser throughout Napa County by a significant margin. Donations to the community have ranged from $6 million to as much as $8 million per year.”

With his passion for the business and affection for the area, it should come as no surprise that the Jones Family Vineyard has been a member of the Napa Valley Vintners since it opened for business in 1996. And with his impressive business background and his heavy philanthropic activity, it makes equal sense that Rick Jones became a member of the Napa Valley Vintners Board and eventually, at the end of his tenure, the president of the board.

“I was very impressed, from talking with a number of friends who were in the [wine] business back in 1996, with the work that the Napa Valley Vintners was doing both in the community and to help solidify the wine community so that we were all speaking with a single voice,” Jones said. “They convinced me that it was worth joining, I did, and I continue to be impressed with it. The staff of the Napa Valley Vintners is one of the most professional groups I’ve seen in a non-profit organization; they are constantly focused on what’s right for the membership and what they can do to make sure that the membership is successful in our wine endeavors.”

During Jones’ time with the association, it has grown from 200 members to 430—a feat that Jones credits to the staff and vintners’ tremendous work. This has allowed the vintners to perpetuate their goal, which is two-fold. One, spread the word about the quality of Napa Valley wines to a national and international audience. The vintners, amongst many other initiatives, organize trips domestically and overseas to introduce members’ products, thus continuing to build and grow the already sparkling reputation of Napa Valley-made wines. Two, protect the area that allows them to make such a wonderful product. They work to ensure Napa County remains a rural, agricultural-focused county. This is done through intense philanthropic work and ongoing concern and support for the livelihood of the greater community.

“I originally joined the board for two purposes,” Jones said. The first, he explained was to be a voice for smaller wineries like his own. He felt that small wineries were growing in number and needed to be involved in the activities of the vintners. The second: “I was impressed with the role that Napa Valley Vintners, through the auction, plays with benefitting the less advantaged part of our community; it’s providing a safety net for those who need one in Napa. And I wanted to be a part of that effort and to continue to make sure that we were doing it in a way that really did have an impact and benefitted the entire community in Napa,” Jones said. “I continued to do both of those during the five years that I’ve been on the board and felt that this year – this is my last year—we have a six-year term—I could help the most if I agreed to be president, which my fellow board members were happy to hear,” continued Jones.

Under the command of Mr. Jones, the Napa Valley Vintners are continuing their good work and have been busy putting plans in place to have as lucrative and successful an Auction Napa Valley weekend as possible. “Traditionally, the auction is the largest single philanthropic fundraiser throughout Napa County by a significant margin. Donations to the community have ranged from $6 million to as much as $8 million per year,” Jones said.

In an effort to have the most profound and long-term impact on the community as possible, the proceeds are appropriated to projects benefitting two different, specific causes: education and healthcare.

 Auction Napa Valley is a must-attend event by virtue of reputation, wonderful programming and, of course, opportunities to take home wine that is otherwise practically unattainable.

“By giving in a more targeted way, we produce a greater benefit than by spreading it broadly. That culminated this year in a decision to focus all of our giving [exclusively] on two areas going forward. One is in community health, which has been a long-time cause for the auction. The auction actually started by focusing on our two hospitals in Napa and over the 30 years that we’ve been in the business of having the auction, health has always been a major part of our giving and will continue to be,” Jones said. “Our second focus, we decided, is going to be in education, particularly children’s education. We announced that this year will be the first year that we will be targeting those areas; we’re going to be undertaking strategic initiatives.”

The first goal of the aforementioned education initiative is to close the education gap in Napa. The Napa Valley Vintners intend to give as much as a million dollars a year, for the next three to five years, to ensure this dream for the county is realized.

“The Napa school system—in terms of achievement test scores—is on par with the rest of California. It’s not any better and it’s not any worst. That is, with one exception: in early grades—first, second, third—our students are more often not performing at grade level.

As we looked at that problem more closely, we found it’s largely due to a growing proportion of students that are English language learners, Hispanic students and economically disadvantaged students. That’s been a major transformation in the schools over the last fifteen years. Over 50% of the students in the schools now are Hispanic, and while our school district has done a good job trying to deal with that change, it’s clearly a real challenge when you have a student come in who speaks no English at all in the first day of kindergarten. And as we recognize that challenge we thought that that was a great place where the vintners and the auction will augment what the schools are doing. We’ll see if we can close that English-learner education gap,” Jones said. He added that many of the parents of the English language learners and the Hispanic students are integral workers in the wineries or on the vineyards—so the cause is particularly fitting.

As for healthcare initiatives, one of the largest beneficiaries of the vintners’ efforts is a local organization called Clinic Olé. Jones’ Napa Valley Vintners board predecessors facilitated the founding of the clinic that serves the county’s uninsured and underinsured. This continues to be the vintners’ largest beneficiary, along with projects such as the Children’s Health Initiative, which works to provide coverage for uninsured children.

Both the healthcare and education causes have long been important to Jones on a personal level. Independent of his work with Napa Valley Vintner, he is active in a number of charities that benefit healthcare and education causes.

And so, Auction Napa Valley is a must-attend event by virtue of reputation, wonderful programming and, of course, opportunities to take home wine that is otherwise practically unattainable. The weekend is jam-packed with events: the barrel auction, which allows bidders to taste 100 wines from the barrel and buy futures of their favorites. The main event is chock-full of phenomenal auction opportunities, to obtain both rare wines that aren’t available other ways and unique hospitality and travel opportunities. There is a contagious energy and excitement, as participants gather at Meadowood Napa Valley to be wined by arguably the greatest winemakers in the world and dined by the likes of Thomas Keller and Emeril Lagasse.


But for the vintners, and certainly for the president of the Napa Valley Vintners Board, it is all about taking care of the very community that allows them to be in the business they love, and to yield a truly special product.