01 Mar 2019
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Action Plan: Fruit of the Vine

Cultivating a passion with deep roots
by Ryan Jones

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Knudsen Cowles: building for the future at the family vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley (photo by Hilary Bobel Cronon)

When they inherited the family vineyard a decade ago, Page Knudsen Cowles (MBA 1983) and her three brothers knew they’d been entrusted with a legacy. “It was a passion of our father’s that evolved into a hobby that turned into a business,” she says. “We not only wanted to be excellent stewards, we wanted to enhance its value.” As managing partner of Knudsen Vineyards, Knudsen Cowles now provides strategic direction for one of the oldest vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Knudsen blends its wines from the highest quality blocks of grapes. What makes a good grape? Elevation influences the fruit’s sugar content (measured in “brix”), notes Knudsen Cowles: Those with optimal sugar levels for the vineyard’s high-end pinot noir and chardonnay seem to grow right in the middle of its 600-foot altitude range. (The higher the elevation, the lower the sugar content—perfect for sparkling wines, not so much for still.) And the vineyard’s Jory soil—rich, well-drained, and derived from volcanic basalt—is just one additional factor influencing the grapes’ phenolic compounds, which in turn affect a wine’s astringency, color, and mouthfeel. “After so many years farming on the same property, we have learned which areas are most likely to yield the best fruit,” she says.

As the vineyard enters its 48th year, Knudsen Cowles is grateful for the foundation her father built, even as she and her brothers look ahead. With ambitious plans for the future—including a combined public tasting room and retail outlet set to open in 2020—the next generation is finding ways to put their own stamp on the vineyard’s history while rising above the fray of an increasingly crowded marketplace.

How to stand out in a saturated market

Know the competition. “There are more than 725 wineries in Oregon now, compared to just a handful when we started. So we did a survey of our competition to see where we fit, where they fit, our flavor profiles versus theirs—whatever we could do to learn about our competitive set.”

Identify your story. “We consulted many industry professionals, including a marketing specialist, and they challenged us: ‘How do you see yourself? How are you different?’ Even if you have a long history, you need to be able to talk about it with passion, authenticity, and consistency.”

Don’t take sales for granted. “It sounds obvious, but if you make the wine, you’ve got to sell the wine. As a small business owner, you can really get into a trap of providing hospitality; people can love your wine, but how does that translate into sales? You’d be surprised at how easy it is to be a great tour host without necessarily translating that connection into sales.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1983, Section H
follow @page_cowles

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