INTERVIEW WITH RYAN MAC DONNELL, Round Pond Winery and Olive Mill
October 25, 2011

By Colby Smith

Ryan: You have to embrace challenges – you have to have a personality that likes a challenge. I’m that way, I’m very competitive, I like a challenge and a way to get to the other side of things.

My dad always said, you would be great starting a business, something you would love to do, that’s what you should be focused on – managing, and building a small business up. I thought ‘Whatever’ I’m going to go to New York and go to law school and do all these things, but when my path lead me back  here I think he was absolutely right. Ultimately parents do know best. It’s fun. It’s the ultimate combo of art and science. It fills both sides for me of my soul. So I don’t know that I would have known that I end up here, but I’m glad that I did.

Out of college I went to work for Goldman Sachs in New York. I met my husband there. Its an analyst program so they take kids out of college from all walks of life and bring them together and teach them business. It was a wonderful “growing up”, a learning experience. They teach you how to be a solid worker, a good businessperson, and obviously there have been issues there since, but I loved it, I valued my time there very much. The attention to detail I have I got form that experience. I was there from ‘95-’98.

I went to work for 17 magazine, [when I was younger] strange lark, but I love to write, I thought I wanted to go see what its like to work in a business instead of with a business. It was fun but ultimately not as fulfilling spiritually. The issues we were dealing with weren’t life changing and I felt more of a calling elsewhere that I felt was more important for me anyway. But I did that for a year, then went to law school.

Colby: Did you get a law degree?

Ryan: I did. A lot of people who I really trust and respect have law degrees and have done things that aren’t in the legal profession so I knew I wouldn’t do that, but dovetail it with some nonprofit work that I’m still interested in. Great background and training.

Colby: Tell me about the structure of the business and your role. Who does what?

Ryan: Our business consists of family, my parents, Bob and Jan; four kids, brother Miles, myself, two sisters Anita and Claire. Miles and I are active as managers in the business, we run it day to day. Miles does production and sales related vineyard work. I do front of house, direct consumer business, branding, PR, that kind of thing. Everyone is on the board so we have a very committed board structure that we adhere to. And that’s important so that it’s very much a family business, even though Miles and I run the day to day.
The business started out as something my Mom and Dad started. Primarily we sold grapes and we still do. When my brother got involved in 2001 he really spearheaded the start of the retail part of the business, the wine and the olive oil. That piece my parents were never really involved in. I got involved 2 years later, sort of an evolution. My focus was on the olive business, just getting it up and running, opening mill, and really deciding on that package. Because the wine business takes a long time to take product to market we were seeing oil before wine even though we started the wine earlier. The part of business I sill love is the combination of art and science. It’s intellectual and yet it feels so good. Its about our passion. Its about creating something with your hands. Its about being connected to the earth. All those things came together for me and I don’t think I would have known that, but when I got involved I realized how wonderful it was.

Colby: How do you balance? Do you have a personal life? Do you have kids?

Ryan: I have 3 small girls, 6, 4, and 2. They’re great, obviously the love of my life and its hard. I think any working mom you talk to will answer that way. It’s just very hard. I don’t know that there’s a perfect answer. On the other hand I wouldn’t change a thing, I love my family and having my work. That’s something unique to being in a family business that I so appreciate. There is that flexibility. I can call Miles and say, “Ava’s throwing up.” or whatever and I know he will understand, and that’s very helpful. At Goldman that wasn’t possible. I realize I have a lot of flexibility and I appreciate that. But it’s tough. Anytime you’re building something its something that never turns off. Pros and cons to it, you know.

Colby: What guides your choices about where you’re going to go with the business next?

Ryan: I think it’s the brand and what we want to do, what we want to stay true to as a brand. I was talking to someone yesterday about how if you keep those very basic but key issues in your sights you’ll be fine. And so for us that’s about delivering a quality product and being authentic, and controlling the process, having the vineyards and olives here and making the products on site and being close to it. The customer service element, meeting people that come here and understanding why they come here, why they like the product and connecting with people. The third thing is philosophy, which is to over-deliver, produce something for people that they feel is valuable, above and beyond what they expected. As long as we keep those things in sight it guides everything we do.

I think a huge piece is having Brian Brown our winemaker and Thomas Brown our consulting winemaker. Making sure the quality is there is absolutely critical. Another piece is the experience here and having Colleen and making sure when customers come here they have a phenomenal, drop dead experience, staying true to those three mission statements and goals will help us grow.

Colby: What would you say turns you on the most about the business?

Ryan: I think it’s a combination of things. It’s that you get your hands dirty, making a product, physically creating something to consume. I love that. It feels like kids playing in the dirt - it feels good, I love it. I also love building a business. It’s exciting to see something grow, and to get to the next step, reach a challenging spot in your groove, and figure out how to navigate it and go to next spot. It’s great, I don’t know if I would be happy if I didn’t have both. I think it’s a unique thing I get from the wine industry. We are spoiled here to be able to have that.

Colby: What do you think is in store just in general for the next generation of winemakers and do you think we’re going back towards more family handing down business or toward corporate?

Ryan: I don’t know that I have a crystal ball there but you know I think the last couple of years have been hard and I think if you weren’t really committed to this business that’s where you’ve seen a lot of wineries being sold or things not working out. So I think all I know is the people that will succeed are people truly here for long term and focused for long term and as a family business you can’t help but take that focus so that’s an advantage. With a family business you deal with the emotional, political and all difficult pieces of family business but all challenges are solvable if you approach them and deal with them. I think it will continue to be a family business in the future. I think the small, wonderful, boutique wineries are what make Napa special, and I think its what people look for when they come up here.

Colby: How does the food element come into play with your experience?

Ryan: Food is a huge passion for us here. We have the family gardens, which we had used originally for all food pairing here at winery and for the Olive Mill. Ultimately we outgrew those and we thought, well we need to be able to show people the gardens and take them there and give them that experience. And so we built the winery garden. We have a sensory experience for visitors down there so they can understand and take in the aromas they should look for in Cabernet, as well as the pairings that go well with Cabernet, we also did that for the Sauvignon Blanc. We use all produce from there for our experiences here. So at the winery we will do paired food that comes from the garden as much as possible with just the oil and vinegar. Then at the Mill its much more the raw food approach just the strawberries and just the lettuces so the olive oil can come through and vinegars and syrups. We obviously enjoy wine with food and they go together and it’s a natural thing and goes back to peoples’ interest from farm to table approach to things. Everything we do has big food element.

Colby: So were you the first company that started doing anything with olive oil on an experiential level?

Ryan: I don’t know if we were the first, but I know when we started up the mill there really wasn’t a great model for olive oil tasting which is why we got Daryl Corti, Paul Vossen, Marco Magelli, who recently passed away. The three of them have really helped us figure out how we should approach the olive oil. And then we brought Jill Jackson on board who is fantastic and she really helped us build that experience. We tweaked it around the edges, and the goal was how to be very intimate and educational for people, because many don’t know where it comes from or how it’s made. We wanted to provide something interesting and different for people to do while they’re here.

We are living in a very different time now than in the 90s. Olive oil consumptions have grown by 10 times since 2000, probably more by now. People are very focused on health and connecting with where their products come from, the whole farm to table approach to things. It was timely in that artisan approach to making something and delivering a pure product.

Colby: With all of this do you have time for anything else?

Ryan: I’m on the Board of the Napa Valley Grape Growers and that’s something I really enjoy and a cause I really believe in. So I spend a fair amount of time with that. A lot of time with family. Horseback riding. It’s something I love, so I’m picking up again. Just the outdoors. My family is very into outdoors, so we spend time when we can skiing, hiking, camping, that kind of thing. I try to do that whenever I can, but not as much as I’d like. Sailing, I love boating and the water. We took the family to Maine this summer. And again, the horseback riding. My goal would be that the kids would have a horse here and we could spend our time riding through the vineyard. I used to go on father-daughter rides with my father. We had Tennessee Walkers.

Colby: What’s something that most people don’t know about you.

Ryan: I love doing extreme travel by myself. After college I traveled for a long time by myself all over the world, and loved that. sort of physical outdoor challenge I’ve gone sailing on my own in the Caribbean. I went cross country skiing by myself in Finland. It’s mind expanding, a sense of accomplishment, a fresh perspective. I’d love to get back to that. I’ve always aspired to bike across the country. We’re starting to incorporate travel with the kids. I love living in a small town and then I love that we can take them somewhere else and keep that broad, big picture.

Colby: Having done what you’ve have before and doing what you’re doing now, if you couldn’t be in the wine business, what’s out there that might appeal to you?

Ryan: That’s a tough one. I love the whole food piece of what we do and so maybe I would get more involved in the food world and creating more artisan food products and bringing them to market somehow. That would really appeal to me. I would love, and still hope to get involved in the nonprofit world. I have a passion for education and helping people who don’t have the access to it get it. I can’t focus on it now, but I’ve done it in the past at different parts of my life and would love to dedicate more time to that.

Colby: Any specific lessons learned with this economy?

Ryan: I guess for me its just embrace it, don’t ignore it, don’t try and hide from it. And you know, our approach was to get all of our advisors together, people we really trusted, sit down and talk about it where are we headed, do we need to be tweaking our strategy, what do we need to do? In the end we need to embrace it, don’t be afraid of change.

Enjoy every day, do everything you can. You just don’t know how long you’re going to be here. We try and do extraordinary, interesting things with the kids, and we try to do extraordinary, interesting things with the business, and spend a lot of time with family and close friends.
…And do it well, I guess. Right?

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