O’Neill, founder of the rapidly growing O’Neill Winery and Distillers (the seventh largest winery in the United States), had no real plans to go into the wine business. After graduating from the University of the Pacific’s School of Business and Public Administration with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree, the native sailor, who attended Redwood High School and still lives in the area, landed an impossible and frustrating job as a wine salesman on the peninsula. Back then you couldn’t buy wine in the supermarket! There was no Costco or Sam’s Club, just a bunch of little liquor stores, mom and pop. It was a leather shoe store.
Looking for a better job, he ended up working in the family business, which was essentially a fairly extensive winery that his grandfather had established in the early 1900s in Cutler, a small town in the Central Valley. Back then, they sold all the unpleasant grapes in the cellar and made dessert wines, O’Neill says. Grapes such as French Columbar, Tokay and Thompson seedless for white table wine, and Barbera for red. The goal was to find out how cheap it was. My grandfather started this company to help other farmers find a market for their excess produce. In fact, it was the first grape cooperative in the state to offer contract pressing services.
His uncle took over in the 1970s and tried to compete with the big wineries of the time, resulting in the bank taking over. They have appointed a manager who will sell or refurbish the aging vessel. At the time, the company was in trouble and could only deliver at a very low level, O’Neill says. Of course, the bank would not have invested in the necessary upgrades. He decided to walk. At that point, the manager contacted him and asked if he was interested in repaying the capital. I wasn’t quite sure what private equity was, but I said absolutely! O’Neill recalls. He was then introduced to a group in New York who helped him organize a small group to buy a dilapidated wine cellar in a bank in 1985.
Once I got out of the bank, I was able to focus on growing the business. The private investment group was very supportive and within 24 months we acquired a state-of-the-art facility in Fresno, California and 10,500 acres of vineyards from Getty Oil Company. So a company called Golden State Vintners was born, and overnight we literally became one of the largest grape producers and suppliers in California.
But, O’Neill said, it wasn’t easy: At the time, grapes were selling for $125 a ton in the Central Valley. Interest rates at the time were between 10 and 12%, which made any type of leverage very problematic. And damn, we have leverage. Finally, we have purchased several other vineyards in Monterey County, Ridley and the Napa Valley. In 1998, his private equity partners sought liquidity and agreed to take the company public. A few years later, in 2004, he wanted to take it private, but a hostile offer from one of his clients created a controversial scene.
After making my own bid to buy the company, I waved the white flag and let them win the battle. But I didn’t give up, so I created O’Neill Vintners and Distillers. I didn’t realize then how lucky I was!
Right after building a brandy business, O’Neal decided to finally return to the wine business. He built a state-of-the-art wine cellar with the best grape processing equipment next to their distillery in Ridley. We made better products than almost anyone in the central valley. The company has continued to grow and each year we have added new employees. In six years, we expanded our facility to include approximately 35 million gallons of cooperage, creating one of the largest wineries in North America.
In the process, he acquired many brands, including the first, Moscato Allegro, founded by Martin and Weyrich, and then three brands from Kendall Jackson: Iron Roof, Pepi and Camelot. We thought we’d turn those old dotted lines around. We learned our lesson well. On a positive note, we got the KJ distribution network we have so far. We now take a much more methodical approach to adding brands to our portfolio, thinking only of one thing: what the consumer needs and wants.
O’Neill now focuses only on brands and wines that resonate with consumers: They need to add value and provide an authentic story. That means the price is well above $10, which is their future goal. National brands you may recognize include Line 39, Robert Hall (whose Paso Robles facility they own), Harken, Exitus, Day Owl Rosé, Allegro Cellars and Charles Woodson’s Intercept.
O’Neill plans to expand the portfolio to include wines from Washington, Oregon or another region that excels. They currently work with 14 ABAs in California and have a strong network of 175 producer partners they rely on to ensure the quality of their products. Strengthening this relationship is essential to the success of the operation.
The backbone of this thriving company is an amazing team of 325 employees, some of whom have been with O’Neill since the beginning when it started with just 20 people. Three of his top executives have worked with him for more than 30 years. We’ve managed to create an extraordinary culture and as our success has grown, we’ve been able to invest in people, sustainability, corporate social responsibility, education and so many other areas that I couldn’t even think about at first, when we were just trying to survive.
O’Neill says he has been fortunate to be able to create a culture from scratch. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I never thought possible. As a leader, I have always found it difficult to change the culture that has developed over the years, which in many cases includes behaviors that are not conducive to teamwork and resourcefulness.
The main mantra of society is no drama. Everyone in the world has problems, but work is not the place to solve them. If a person does not find the right job, the company will kindly find a way to get them a new job elsewhere.
Developing a culture that creates opportunity led O’Neill to partner with Charles Woodson to create a scholarship specifically for people of color, the Charles Woodson and O’Neill Family Scholarship. We want to be part of an industry change to improve diversity, and we’ve identified education as the path to success, O’Neill says. Our goal is threefold: 1) to provide a scholarship that prevents a family from having to pay 100% of tuition, room and board, 2) to create opportunities for these young scholars to complete their internships at O’Neill, and 3) to create an environment where our team can mentor these students at all times. Two full scholarships are awarded annually, one at Sonoma State University and the other at California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.
We asked two key members of the O’Neill team to tell us what it’s like to work with Jeff. Christine Moll, Vice President of Marketing, joined the company in a new role in 2018. She has built a team of 11 passionate marketers who are obsessed with business intelligence and consumption. Humility, she says, is O’Neill’s most important virtue. He leads the way, gives people strength and inspiration, and drives progress every day. Jeff focuses on people, their ideas, their development and the opportunity for everyone to have an impact on the company and the business. He is one of the most sincere, inspiring and charismatic leaders I have met in my career, if not the most sincere.
The overall focus on the customer is what motivates O’Neill’s teams, says Moll. The company’s goal is to strive for an unparalleled relationship, both internally and externally, says Jeff : If we can’t add value, we shouldn’t. We always strive to ensure that our customers, partners, suppliers, manufacturers, consumers and our own team benefit.
Marty Speight, O’Neill’s wine and wine culture manager, who has been working there for a year and a half and has known Jeff for a decade (he was a customer buying O’Neill wine in bulk), says he knew right away that Jeff had a special approach. I soon realized he was running and growing another vineyard. An industry that, like the rest of the wine industry, focuses not only on quality and safety, but also on its employees, creating a high-quality team culture that has what it takes to succeed and has the boot to make it fun!
Spate believes that a focus on people has created a dynamic business ethic. I think Jeff is an excellent example of a servant leader. He is confident that he will share the power with our teams and staff: It prioritizes their need to develop and work at all levels of the company. It gives us all the strength and inspiration to make the decisions that allow us to grow the business, knowing we can do it.
O’Neill’s desire for inventiveness is also a great spark, Spate says. I am continually inspired by Jeff’s desire to keep looking for new things in the field of winemaking – it is his call to us all to never give up our ingenuity. It could be something as simple (and cool) as offering boxed wine from a nationally distributed brand, or something as complex as building a worm farm to help us recycle our vineyard’s wastewater in one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly ways possible.
In 2020, O’Neill built the world’s largest worm screw sewage treatment plant in Parlier, capable of filtering more than one million gallons of wastewater per day using the BioFiltro worm system.
When asked what impact the challenges of 2020 have had on his business, O’Neill replies bluntly. I am humbled and happy to say that our team has stood up and turned around every time to solve problems. I keep reminding others that there were two types of responses during the pandemic. It was either I can’t do anything about my situation or I turn around and do something here. While it was indeed a difficult year, they were all manageable, especially with a team built on a culture of teamwork, problem solving and mutual support, it’s pretty amazing what can be achieved.
At the beginning of the pandemic, O’Neill made it a point to support his team by giving each employee a care package every Friday at the exit. They could not get many things from the store or had to stand in line, such as toilet paper, bananas, strawberries and other goods. We wanted to show them that we really appreciate them coming and working hard in these crazy times. Instead of the annual feast that is the highlight of the year for many, we provided turkeys and all the preparations for a Thanksgiving family dinner. Instead of a Christmas party, we put them in the holiday spirit with gift baskets, rewards and gifts. These little things are incredibly important to me, and they have proven to be important to everyone on our team.
And little things, good or bad, lead to big things. So these little things are best if you want your personal reputation to grow with the success of your business.
It’s not even a problem, Spate says. Everyone in the wine industry ecosystem trusts O’Neill. They understand that when he says he’s going to do something, he does it. It’s Jeff: It’s a handshake you can trust.
More information can be found here: The most inspiring wine people of 2021.