A co-owner of Delicato Family Vineyards watched as an employee drew samples from a 6,250-gallon load of white zinfandel bound for Finland.
The samples would help the company guarantee that the wine it sold is as good as advertised.
“With technology the way it is today, there’s no excuse for a bad bottle of wine,” said Jay Indelicato, chief operating officer and a third-generation owner at the winery.
That attention to quality helped Delicato increase its sales volume by 12 percent last year over 2013. And it earned the company the California Winery of the Year award for 2014 from Jon Fredrikson, a leading industry consultant. Delicato also won in 2011.
“They’ve had an amazing success story in the last decade, especially in the last five years,” Fredrikson said in a phone interview. “They’ve taken this old family winery and transformed it into an incredible marketing machine.”
He cited the growth of labels such as Bota Box, Gnarly Head, Noble Vines, Belle Ambiance, HandCraft and Sequin.
Fredrikson said Delicato’s gain was impressive because California wineries overall were flat last year. A decline in low-priced wines, up to $7 per 750-milliliter bottle, held back the industry, according to the Nielsen Co. research firm.
Most Delicato products sell for $8 to $12, a strong segment for the industry these days as the economy improves and Americans explore wine choices.
“We feel really blessed to have the kind of growth we did last year, but we’ve been on a roll for a few years,” Indelicato said.
Fredrikson, who is based in Woodside, San Mateo County, presented the award at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. It has been won by all of the other large wineries in and near Stanislaus County: E.&J. Gallo Winery, Bronco Wine Co. and The Wine Group.
Delicato employs about 650 people, including at its Manteca headquarters and a pair of much smaller wineries in Napa and Monterey counties. It produced about 7.2 million cases of wine last year, although much of it was shipped in much larger containers, such as the HandCraft white zin heading for Finland by way of the Port of Oakland.
Jay Indelicato, whose brother Chris is the chief executive officer, talked about the business during a recent tour of the 200-acre Manteca operation.
It was there in 1924 that their grandfather, Sicilian immigrant Gaspare Indelicato, bought a dairy farm that he planted in grapevines. This was during Prohibition, so he could sell the grapes only to home winemakers. That law ended in 1933. Two years later, he started making commercial wine.
The company mainly sold bulk wine to other producers early in its history. It started producing under the Delicato label in the 1950s and got into single varietals, such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, in the 1990s.
Delicato grows some of its own grapes in the Lodi and coastal regions, but mostly it relies on contract growers. Much of the fruit comes from the San Joaquin Valley, which long has been known mostly for lower-end wines, but Indelicato said it can produce fine grapes. It helps to let them hang long enough to ripen fully, he said, and to not emphasize tonnage over quality.
“No matter where you’re growing grapes, you can make a difference in how you farm and how you run your operations,” he said.
Indelicato cited another step – letting the sediments from newly crushed grapes settle by gravity rather than forcing them out with machinery.
The Manteca site has steel tanks, rather than the oak barrels used for the higher-end Napa and Monterey wines, but Indelicato said the aging process is carefully monitored.
The 600-plus tanks hold up to 60 million gallons of wine, an impressive sight for drivers on Highway 99. Some of them pull off to visit the tasting room, the only one at a large winery in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Richard Flores of Merced stopped in Monday to buy a case each of HandCraft chardonnay and Irony merlot.
“They’ve got a lot of different types,” he said. “There’s so much to select from that you can usually find something for your palate.”
Fredrikson said consumers can expect a high “quality-to-price ratio” from Delicato wines. “Their products are not expensive,” he said. “They are at the upper end of the everyday wine segment.”
Bota Box is among the lower-priced offerings. It is a “bag in a box” that holds 3 liters and stays drinkable after opening much longer than bottled wines. At the high end is Black Stallion from Napa, priced at $22 to $175 for a standard-size bottle.
Fredrikson owns Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, founded by the late Louis Gomberg in 1948. The Winery of the Year award is among the most prestigious in the California industry.
Other experts have taken note of Delicato. Wine Enthusiast magazine named it the American Winery of the Year in 2007. It gave its American Man of the Year honor to Chris Indelicato in 2011.
Delicato is part of the movement to grow grapes and make wine with attention to the environment. It turns the stems and other grape-crush residue into compost for the vineyard soil. It provides nesting boxes for owls, which prey on rodents that can damage young vines.
Indelicato said a fourth generation is starting to move into the company, which will remain family-owned. The goal is “long-term growth, not short-term gains for Wall Street,” as the winery website puts it.
“You have to have a lot of patience in this industry,” Indelicato said. “I call it patience. Some folks call it sustainability, taking the long view.”
DELICATO AT A GLANCE
OWNERS: Descendants of founder Gaspare Indelicato
2014 VOLUME: About 7.2 million cases
2014 SALES: Not disclosed
EMPLOYEES: About 650
WINERIES: Manteca, Napa Valley and King City, Monterey County
BRANDS: Belle Ambiance, Black Stallion, Bota Box, Brazin, Domino, Gnarly Head, HandCraft, Irony, Juxtapoz, La Merika, Loft, Massimo, Noble VInes, Sequin, Twisted
Companies in and near Stanislaus County have won seven of the last 13 Winery of the Year awards from California industry consultant Jon Fredrikson:
2014: Delicato Family Vineyards, north of Manteca
2012: E.&J. Gallo Winery of Modesto, in a tie with Constellation Brands, which is based in New York state and owns wineries in California
2004: The Wine Group, whose holdings include the former Franzia Winery near Ripon
2003: Bronco Wine Co., south of Ceres