25 Apr 2016

Trail Blazer

Community effort creates a public greenway through Northern California’s scenic wine country
by Jill Radsken


Photography by Alexander Rubin

Chuck McMinn (MBA 1978) has worked at enough in startups to know that the only guarantee in technology is that today’s hot product will eventually be replaced by more innovative technology.

That’s why McMinn, founder and chair of the Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition, finds such gratification in the 47-mile bike and pedestrian route soon to connect the six-city region. It will be a legacy enjoyed by generations.

“It’s very psychically rewarding,” he says. “It’s so much fun to be involved in something the entire community wants to happen.”

Spearheading the coalition came out of McMinn’s community outreach efforts as owner of Vineyard 29, in St. Helena, where he moved in 2004 after buying the winery.

“When we started the Vine Trail, I didn’t own a bicycle,” he recalls. “But our family enjoys renting bikes in places where we visit—Washington, DC; Vancouver, BC; Lucerne, Switzerland. It’s a way to see where we are. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t have a bike trail in Napa.”

The push for a cycles-only pathway had been attempted before, in part because Napa has the ninth-highest bicycle accident rate per capita of all California counties, according to the state’s Office of Traffic Safety. But things never really got rolling until McMinn became involved in 2008 and rallied 34 local organizations that now occupy the coalition’s board of directors.

“People don’t realize the power they have when they work together. The startup process opens their eyes to that,” he says.

The ability to build something new, especially the critical thinking required of such a task, was foremost among the skills McMinn honed at HBS, he says.

“It taught me to think for myself, not to regurgitate facts and figures back to a professor. For an engineer who had never spoken publicly before business school, I learned how to articulate a point of view in front of peers—and convince them of the case I was making,” he recalls.

After graduating from HBS, McMinn landed in Silicon Valley at Intel, serving as product manager for the industry-transforming 8086 microprocessor. “The thought was, If I’m going to get involved, get involved in the company that’s at the heart of that business. Being in that flow was critical,” he recalls.

After Intel, McMinn worked at Megatest, Interwest Partners, and Visioneer Communications, Inc., before starting Covad, the nation’s first high-speed Internet service, in 1996.

“We beat the telephone companies to market in six of seven regions,” says McMinn.

He left to start another company, then returned to Covad in 2000 when the tech bubble burst. That was also when he began to enjoy the fruits of his labor, buying and growing Vineyard 29.

“The brand existed, but there was no winery. We extended the product line from two to nine wines, and built a 30,000-square-foot facility. We now make 10,000 cases for ourselves and 3,000 cases for six other wineries,” he says.

McMinn began working on the Vine Trail (a 10-feet-wide asphalt-paved path, with unpaved shoulders for runners) with neighboring winemakers, who donated initial funds to memorialize Tom Shelton, a fellow vintner and vine trail leader who had lost his life to cancer.

“We recruited the Land Trust of Napa County, Napa Valley Grapegrowers, and Napa Valley Vintners to get us started. We also reached out to other organizations of all types in the community. We didn’t want only bike enthusiasts. We wanted to give walkers, skateboarders, and people with baby carriages a voice as well,” he says.

With so many groups in the mix, the Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition has made quick progress, securing one federal and two state grants of $13 million, in total. In February 2015, the coalition broke ground on a six-mile segment to connect the city of Napa to Yountville, and it is scheduled to have more than 30 percent of the trail completed by June 2016. The entirety of the project is due to finish in 2020.

“We’ve raised $8 million in local donations of our $12 million goal,” McMinn adds. “We represent thousands in our community, and that has really helped us get the attention of local politicians and grant-making agencies.”

McMinn also supports St. Helena Hospital Foundation and Napa Learns, an education nonprofit that gets technology into the hands of students; but the Vine Trail Coalition has the kind of startup energy that inspires him and his team.

“You learn so much more going out and doing, rather than just analyzing,” he says. “It’s more fun to create something from nothing than to shepherd something that already exists.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1978, Section G

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