CANADIANS IN NAPA: EPISODE #5
When you’ve spent 44 years of your life in the northern reaches of Alberta, Canada on construction sites, oil rigs and pipeline corridors, no one should really be surprised when you decide to pack it in for the bucolic expanses of Napa Valley. And if you also spent those years honing your palate on First Growth Bordeaux while listening to Jimmy Hendrix’s Purple Haze, well, I’d argue they should have seen a relationship with cabernet coming.
It was 2001, when Edmonton’s Cliff Lede (pronounced la-dy) decided to trade the C-Suite of one of North America’s leading family-run construction companies, for 60 acres in Napa Valley’s coveted Stags Leap District. “I left Ledcor on the best of terms, and I still talk to my brother every other day,” he reassures me. “But once I visited Napa, well, I pretty much knew that was my destiny. It’s a pretty marvellous place.”
Ledcor Construction – a company created by Cliff’s father Bill Lede in 1947 – is one of Canada’s construction success stories. Now headquartered in Vancouver and run by Cliff’s brother Dave, the $2 billion company has created Canadian landmarks like Calgary’s Bow Towers – the highest building in western Canada, and the Art Galley of Alberta. Two years ago, two Ledcor-built Canadian projects won Global Awards for Excellence from the prestigious Urban Land Institute for their work on Toronto’s West Don Lands community and Vancouver’s Marine Gateway Project. Ledcor laid the telecommunications infrastructure in much of Canada and the undersea fiber optic network in the U.S. They have an impressive list of LEED Platinum and Gold projects (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) in their international portfolio and have made environmental solutions a core part of their business practice.
Ledcor is a big deal on the construction world stage and an even bigger deal in Canada.
When I ask Cliff about the operational sweet spot – in that that venn diagram kind of way – between his enormously successful Napa Valley wine business Lede Family Wines (read accolades here) and the enormously successful Ledcor operation, he says in a very Canadian way: “Humility. I know just enough about winemaking to be dangerous so I make sure I hire and surround myself with the very best people.”
“Humble people don’t say they’re humble so please take that with a grain of salt,” he laughs. “But in construction you work with all kinds of people and you learn to be gracious. Ledcor is an amazingly down-to-earth, caring organization. Construction also teaches you a very good business ethic and you don’t survive in western Canada unless you’re ethical.”
In an interview ten years ago, Cliff Lede told the Globe and Mail his father Bill taught the Lede brothers several key business principles: the importance of being true to your values, the importance of bringing in the very best people, and the importance of treating your employees with compassion and respect. “We started as a tiny company and we grew to be a fairly substantial company, but for me, it’s always been about attracting smart, skilled, talented people. And that’s where the two organizations intersect. The sweet spot in that venn diagram is the importance we place in our people.”
Cliff Lede Vineyards Rock the Blocks
Cliff very quickly transferred his family’s high standards for hiring and building marquee, international properties to his Stags Leap winery. His first priority was to tap the best viticulturist in Napa – David Abreu, and the best Bordeaux blender in the business, Michel Rolland.
With the old S. Anderson Winery renamed as Cliff Lede Vineyards, David Abreu precision planted the gravelly-loam “Twin Peaks” vineyards with what Stags Leap does best: Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux red grape varieties. The perfectly aligned grace and beauty of these vineyards not only respects the slopes and gentle curves of the valley floor, but it ensures consistently rich and complex cabernet blends that are quintessential Napa grand cru. Today, the meticulously sculpted forty acres of this estate property forms the backbone of the Cliff Lede Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings, with respected winemaker Christopher Tynan crafting the wine.
Watching his dream take root was magical. But at the end of each day, Cliff would stare longingly at the rare and rarified steep hillside vineyard that backed onto the Twin Peaks estate. With its southwest-facing, shallow volcanic soils and the highest elevations in Stags Leap, Cliff knew these hillside vineyards were liquid gold. This was the poetry fueling the imagination of Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote that famous line: “Wine is Bottled Poetry”.
In 2004, Cliff’s hillside winemaking dream came true. Lede bought the 30-year-old/ twenty-acre sparkling vineyard on the Silverado Trail and his investment in the Stags Leap AVA grew to 60 acres (24 hectares). Stressed vines, give rich, concentrated, complex fruit and this vineyard is the source for the winery’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, called – appropriately enough – Poetry.
Soon after arriving in Napa, Cliff “the developer” introduced Ledcor to the Napa food and wine community. Cliff estimates Ledcor built between 10 and 15 wineries in Napa including several restaurants and hotels in the region.
One of those projects was Cliff’s newly renovated tasting room and 25,000 square foot winery. Cliff Lede Vineyards opened in 2005 with idyllic, outdoor patios and poetry-inducing views of the estate vineyards. A firm believer that Napa Valley is equal parts wine, lifestyle and the dream experience, Cliff added sculpture and museum-quality art throughout the property. He also topped up the experience with his own brand of the good life: classic rock.
As a lifelong marketer, this is where I think Cliff Lede’s story truly shines.
Finding that unique selling proposition (USP) or brand story in Napa when every single winery is producing “terroir-expressive, fabulous quality wine” is the ultimate test of a brand (pandemic survival not included).
Cliff’s love of music combined with his vineyard memory challenges (lol), spawned a “rock-block” classic-rock theme that’s been rolled out across the brand. The tunes start in the vineyard with blocks like Light My Fire (after The Doors 1967 classic), Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd 1973) and Hotel California (The Eagles)….to name a few. The classic rock ‘edge’ extends to the music played in the winery (see Spotify play list here). Art lovers can see coveted vinyl cover art and rotating exhibits (i.e. The Art of Ronny Wood) in the rock & roll art and memorabilia Backstage Lounge. And #winelovers – or club members – can enjoy the annual series of unique, classic-rock-themed Bordeaux-style blends.
What’s best (for me), is this is FUN (!), authentic, pretension-free marketing; honest, brand story-telling that intersects beautifully with Cliff’s commitment to exceptional wine and his love of classic rock (read Cliff’s ‘rock-block’ back-story in our interview below).
You really need a timeline to keep up with Cliff’s expansion in the wine and hospitality industry. Diversification is clearly baked into his DNA. Again, it’s hard to separate Ledcor values and the Ledcor expansion model (building, transportation, sustainable development/retrofitting, forestry, mining, telecommunications, oil & gas, transportation, ETC) from the driving force that is Lede Family Wines. “The day we stop moving forward or start standing still – that’s when I have to retire,” says Cliff.
Out of the blocks, that diversification included a stake in the tourism and hospitality industry. In 2005, Cliff built what’s considered by many to be the most luxurious inn in Napa – the spectacular 5-star Poetry Inn.
Poetry Inn is carved into the hills of the Poetry Vineyard. It was designed by internationally acclaimed architect, Howard Backen and built by Ledcor. Cliff understands the lifestyle fantasy embedded in the Napa “promise” and Poetry Inn is pure Napa indulgence. With “to die for” views of the fertile Napa Valley and distant Mayacamas Mountains, the 5-room luxury inn is the only accommodation in the Stags Leap District.
Diversification also included moving beyond Napa cab.
In 2009, Lede Family Wines added the respected Breggo Cellars in Anderson Valley to its holdings. Cliff renamed the cool climate vineyard FEL Wines after his mom Florence Elsie Lede, a pioneering “garagist” (aka basement winemaker) who sparked Cliff’s interest in wine. The goal of the FEL addition was to add exceptional Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris to the portfolio. Two years later, in 2011, Cliff Lede Vineyards purchased the highly regarded 52-acre Savoy Vineyards on the border of Anderson Valley and Mendocino County. The goal here? To take Pinot Noir production to an even higher level. His current FEL winemaker Ryan Hodgins has been a critical part of the Anderson Valley success story and FEL’s 2015 Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir was recently anointed one of the 13 best Pinot Noirs in the world by Wine Enthusiast.
In our discussion, Cliff says a priority for Lede Family Wines and the foundation for all expansion in Napa centres around controlling their own grape supply.
To that end, in 2013, the Lede family acquired a 20-acre vineyard in Calistoga, which is planted mostly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Five years later, in 2018, helmed by his rockstar Vice President and General Manager Remi Cohen (seriously….check out her credentials!), Lede Family Wines bought 120 acres in the cooler south end of the Napa Valley. With the changing climate, Cliff plans to move the growth of Bordeaux-style varieties into redeveloped Carneros vineyards by 2020…. (pandemic permitting).
Last year, diversification took the form of an international partnership in Spain with the highly respected Mas Doix “one of Priorat’s over-achievers” says Jancis Robinson.
Risk is an inherent part of the construction industry and anyone reading the headlines these days knows it’s part of the wine industry too.
All the risk management scenario planning in the world, can’t prepare you for a pandemic. The good news is the battle-hardened, former construction titan turned wine enthusiast, Canadian Cliff Lede is better prepared than most.
Here’s our conversation…..
Meet Cliff Lede – Owner of Lede Family Wines
This interview has been condensed and gently edited.
Debbie: In all the Cliff Lede Wines ‘literature’ it says Canadian–born Cliff Lede – is that important to you?
Cliff: I’m not sure my Canadian history brings a lot to the brand. But I’m very proud to be Canadian. I’m still a Canadian citizen. We fly two flags at the winery – the American and the Canadian flag. I’m a proud Canadian but it’s not like Canadians can stock up if they visit – they can only buy two bottles of wine at any time to take home and we can’t ship over the border. So, letting people know about my Canadian roots? It’s very much a personal thing for me.
Debbie: Do you bring any Canadian attributes or traits that perhaps set you apart from your Napa neighbours?
Cliff: Haha. There’s a lot of people to be set apart from. It’s a pretty well-rounded group of folks here in Napa. I’m a happy guy. I’m very blessed. I’ve got lots of friends and I think my reputation is solid here. I have gotten to know the community. We do a ton of charitable work. We participate in the Naples auction, and the Napa Auction to name a few. I think we have a charitable event almost every weekend. So, Napa is my home and I really love the community.
Debbie: And you’re a Bordeaux fan!
Cliff: I collected Bordeaux in the late seventies and early eighties. That was my introduction to wine. There was no euro, it was the French franc. And the French franc was affordable relative to the Canadian dollar. The Canadian dollar was seriously undervalued relative to the US dollar and American wines were pretty expensive. Plus at the end of my street there was a meat market that I’d go to every Saturday and the owner got me started on Bordeaux. Those were my roots in collecting wines and now I enjoy wines from all over the world but Bordeaux was the start of my love of wines.
Debbie: What’s the Cliff Lede brand story? What makes you unique?
Cliff: Our brand story – first and foremost – is about staying true to who we are. Staying true to the Stags Leap style of wines – this is our wine and our terroir. And I know how extraordinarily fortunate we are to be on this terroir.
What makes us unique? I was born in 1955 so I grew up with classic rock. I was 9 years old when I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan so I lived through that whole era of The Who and Zepplin. Those bands and that music plays in my house all the time and it’s classic rock. That’s what I listen to, it’s what I enjoy. There’s a good chance our winery is not going to be playing symphony, or opera – and I love both of those styles – but rock and roll is who I am, so that’s what people get when they come here.
But the naming of the “rock blocks”….for many years we had David Abreu as our vineyard manager and we would drive through the vineyard blocks, and he would rhyme off the grapes and sites – 9 west and 8 east – and it just confused me. Same thing at the blending table. I was losing track of what we were growing and processing and I thought we really just need to put names on these blocks. It’ll make it so much easier to remember.
So it’s as simple as that….we didn’t have enough children to name 50 blocks (haha) so I suggested we go with rock-and-roll songs and artists. We asked all employees who were interested to give me their top 10 classic rock songs and from there we drafted a list of what everyone thought were the classics. It’s changed over the years and we’ve had to be flexible. My son had to have his selection so we added Intergalactic, by um…. (Beastie Boys) so we could have one song that’s alternative – it’s not hip hop – I’m not actually sure what the genre is (rap) – but hey – he obviously gets a selection. But it’s true to my heart – it’s genuine and an authentic part of my passion, so that’s what we did.
And we’ve been fortunate enough to have some of these people show up at the winery. Do I have to name-drop?
Debbie: Yes, you do….
Cliff: Ok – well I’ve met Dave Grohl, and of course we added Nirvanna. I’ve met the Edge from U2 – you call him Edge – that’s his name. I’ve met John Anderson from Yes. And the basist from ACDC – Cliff Williams. And there’s been others. And we do get people who aren’t classic rock artists but are of that generation and they pop by and want to know why their songs didn’t make the list ….
And I’m thinking….do you really think your music is in the same league as Zepplin? (laugh) So it’s a little difficult sometimes but we do a get an interesting mix of artists coming by and our guests really love it. One thing I will say of those I’ve met, they’re the most gracious, nice, down-to-earth folks you could ever meet. Now I’m sure there are assholes in rock and roll just like in everything else, but the ones I’ve met are truly gracious. I’m star struck and they’re just your average guy. Maybe starstruck is a little too strong, but it’s kind of cool to meet your idols.
I think John Lodge is supposed to visit this fall but that was before the pandemic. He likes Napa cabs. And John Lodge is the lead guy with the Moody Blues. His daughter sent us an email and wanted to let us know. And of course, we have a block called Nights in White Satin. The other group that we get are hockey players and we get a huge number of them. And of course, with my Canadian roots I’m a big hockey fan. We’re not going to name our vineyard blocks after them and it’s obviously an international sport, but there are lots of Canadians players who visit.
Debbie: Isn’t there a Canadian hockey player making wine in the valley?
Cliff: I think you’re thinking of Valeri Bure who played for the Canadiens. He makes wine but he’s Russian.
Debbie: Can we talk about the pandemic? How is it affecting you?
Cliff: I’m going to be 65 this year and I thought I’d seen it all. We started this whole project in the aftermath of 9/11 finalizing the purchase in 2002 and then we went through the meltdown of 2008 when everyone thought the financial industry was falling apart and consumers reduced their spending.
And then we had the earthquake in 2014 and then the fires here in 2017. They all impacted wine sales and wine tourism dramatically, but I have never in my life seen anything like this where every avenue we have to sell wine has been shut down except our direct to consumer channels.
It’s not like you can go back into the history books and find the chapter on pandemics. With the fires you knew they’d end; the rains would come and people would eventually start coming back to Napa. This is a new one and every day is a new adventure here.
Debbie: Do you feel your winery was…is… well-positioned to manage the DTC opportunity?
Cliff: We’ve done pretty well with our direct to consumer sales. On the phone and online. We’re doing our utmost to adapt. We’re doing virtual tastings on Instagram and Zoom. Hopefully by the summer, they start to open tasting rooms. The beauty of Napa is people can sit outside late into the season. We can equip our staff with gloves and masks and create a very safe environment here. So, we’re ready whenever the government says we can open again.
We have a pretty strong wine club and we’ve spent years building that list of club members. They’ve been very supportive and we didn’t lose many customers which I think is a credit to what we do because these are tough economic times for people. We’ve definitely learned as we go …..
It’s not that we’re not selling to restaurants anymore. We’ll still be selling to restaurants but for awhile, it’s not going to be what it used to be. I feel really badly for young wineries who are still trying to build that dream – they’re still building their DTC lists and aren’t high on the list of restaurants yet….
Debbie: Do you see your business model changing coming out of this?
Cliff: We’re thinking about this in phases. In phase 1 – they reopen the economy a bit….
But at what point do people go back into restaurants and sit side by side in the way we’ve always done? People will return but until there’s a vaccination, I have a hard time believing 70,000 people are going to show up to watch the Dallas Cowboys play.
So, for a while, it will continue to impact our business. And when restaurants open… most don’t and won’t have any cash flow, except for the odd spot that’s doing take-out. They’ll probably sell through their wine inventory, I assume, to get some cash flow going. And my assumption – again – is restaurants will have to do physical distancing. I don’t know what that world looks like for them when they’re serving half as many customers – optimistically – as they normally do. So customers are ordering half as much wine and half as much food and it does force us to examine what the future looks like for us. Again, I’m blessed to have an incredibly brilliant group of people working for me and we’re all trying to crystal ball those scenarios.
We’re looking at new ways to keep people in the club and encourage people to join the club and if anything, this has helped us realize how important that channel is. On the other hand, I’m hoping in two years we’re in phase 2 and restaurants will be back to what restaurants are, because wine and food go together.
Debbie: Is the restaurant trade a big part of your business?
Volume wise it’s split down the middle but dollar wise it would lean more towards direct to consumer. We have a strong direct presence at this winery, thankfully, b/c some wineries live off restaurants. But again, I’ve always said it’s critical to “diversify”.
Debbie: How many cases do you produce?
Cliff: Between FEL and Cliff Lede it’s between 30,000 – 40,000 depends on the vintage and the majority of it is Cliff Lede.
Debbie: Can you talk to me about your most loyal customers? Who are they? The Napa experience is expensive and we’re hearing a lot about millennials being less loyal to wine and dividing those wine dollars across a broad portfolio of countries…
Cliff: For both brands our audience is across the board….21- 85 years of age. We are a luxury brand and we have a good cross-section of customers, but it’s fair to say more would be between 40 and 60.
We don’t sell 100,000 cases that go out the door at $50 a case. That’s not our business model. Our wines tend to target an older audience. It’s fair to say someone who is 21 doesn’t buy our wines. It doesn’t mean they don’t visit the winery for the music and the experience and maybe they buy a bottle or two instead of a case. Our wine club manager could give us the hard numbers….
The people who comes for tastings are often young – and our Sauvignon Blancs are fairly priced. So is our Claret. We have a few wines that are what we call our gateway wine….it’s brings them into the franchise. But young people love the music nostalgia and the whole lifestyle experience so we see them all the time.
Debbie: You continue to diversify and invigorate your brand. And you just bought Mas Doix (Mas Dosh) – in Priorat. Can you talk about why you went to Spain?
Cliff: I was driven to look outside of Napa. The price of land in Napa is pretty astronomical and I thought like Ledcor – we want to keep growing. I always tell my team the day we stop moving forward or start standing still – that’s when I have to retire.
And Spain just kind of happened. I was in Europe and my Vice President was there on a holiday. She went to do a tasting with them and called me and asked if I had time to come to Spain. I’d never been to Barcelona, so I got on a plane. And I met these two amazing brothers who reminded me of me and my brother. They had just bought out the rest of the family and they wanted to build a new winery and they needed some capital to do that.
And I guess we just started courting each other. They’re a great family, making fabulous wine in Priorat and they brought all the values that I’ve always thought are good to have in a business partner. They’re honest and hard-working and it wasn’t a massively large acquisition. It was an exciting partnership to add to the portfolio. Again – diversification is important.…. but, we learned buying an international property is a highly prolonged process.
Debbie: You’re a runner. Did that have anything to do with buying this particular estate? I understand they have an annual race though the vineyard?
Cliff: Hahaha. I’d like to tell you I’m a runner but I’m more of a walker now….all those years of running and marathons take their toll. Y’know, I set a goal for my 64th birthday that I was going to run again – ten miles this time because 6+4 = 10. I did it, but for the record, walking is much easier on the body.
Debbie: Did you have to buy the vineyard to enter the race?
Cliff: Hahaha – I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Priorat but it’s like Italy. The area is gorgeous. Big hills, and it’s quaint, quiet, pristine and truly spectacular. I really love the wines and the whole area and the brothers were so solid. And I fell in love with Barcelona – what an incredible city for food and wine. It’s right up there with Paris.
Debbie: And is the plan to help with distribution into the US and Canada?
Cliff: Yes, we’ve helped move them into Alberta and they have a strong presence in Quebec and a growing presence in Ontario that we’re helping build.
Debbie: And your investment further south in Carneros (Napa Valley)?
Cliff: In Carneros we have 85 ‘plantable’ acres – 120 acres in total. I like to control my own destiny and we make 8 – 10,000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc every year and right now its 100% purchased fruit. I’d like to see that become 50% purchased fruit and supplement that with what we grow. My viticulture team said there’s no reason in the world why you can’t grow Sauvignon Blanc there, plus we can grow Chardonnay and Pinot for FEL and a few right bank varietals – Merlot, Cab Franc. Also, it’s much cooler there and who knows, with climate change happening, some day that may be the best place to grow cabernet in the valley. But it was a good business decision and the price was fair.
Debbie: Anything else coming down the pike?
Cliff: Right now we’re not looking at anything!! We’re just trying to keep our head above water. My son is working here now and it’s a family business and I tell my employees, this is not being built to be sold. I’m doing everything in my power to educate my children and I say “don’t you ever sell this fabulous piece of dirt because you can’t replace it.”
Debbie: Finally, is there a dream music promotion you’d like to do in the rock-blocks? It’s definitely rooted in your brand….
Cliff: Who do you have in mind?
Debbie: – oh I don’t know – maybe a Canadian like Geddy Lee!
Cliff: Hey – yea! Geddy Lee and Rush are on the current ‘rock block’ – Closer to the Heart! I told our Canadian distributor to make sure we send him a bottle of wine – I was excited they made the list. These people come to taste wine….I’m not sure they want to do a rock concert here….. but how about a Zeppelin reunion concert?
It’s a very cool idea but they’ll say talk to my agent and that’s when it starts to get expensive! There would be nothing cooler than to have Eric Clapton come here and do an acoustic show…. we can dream….
Debbie: Any final thoughts?
Cliff: Yes. I know retail shops and sommeliers always like to have massively diverse wine lists with wines from around the world. But maybe for the next little while people can support local – in Napa, in British Columbia, in Toronto – all over the world. We need to support our local producers more than ever – and I sell my wine in Ontario but honestly, right now I really hope Canadian consumers are supporting Canadian wine.
Debbie: Thanks Cliff. Great advice. I hope to visit you in Napa some day soon!
Cliff Lede Family Wines, 1473 Yountville Cross Road, Yountville, California
Want to meet all the winemaking Canadians in Napa? Here’s the links: