Hook and Ladder Winery
a beautiful oasis in a region renowned for its wines
Sonoma Valley winery, Hook, and Ladder continues to produce top-tier wines while fostering a community atmosphere
Hook and Ladder Winery not only has an interesting backstory, but it is succeeding at standing out in a fast-growing and very competitive market by being different – in a good way.
Located in beautiful Sonoma Valley, Hook & Ladder estate vineyards occupy some of the most coveted and historic sites in the Russian River Valley. Many of these areas were originally farmed in the late 1800s by early Italian immigrants who recognized the area’s unique potential for producing premium cool climate wine grapes.
Today Hook and Ladder wineries include Olivet Ranch, Stegman Ranch, Severson Ranch, and Simeone Ranch. The winery also owns the 132-acre Los Amigos Ranch in Chalk Hill where an even slightly warmer climate, higher elevation, and volcano give it a more unique setting.
But to understand Hook and Ladder, you have to know its history. In 1970, San Francisco firefighter Cecil De Loach, and his wife Christine, purchased the prized Barbieri Ranch in Russian River Valley’s coveted Olivet Road district, estimated at nearly 25 acres, for just over $50,000. Cecil initially continued his “day job” as a San Francisco firefighter while he learned the business, taking classes at Santa Rosa Junior College and UC Davis, and delving into the business headfirst by learning from others in the burgeoning industry.
In 1973, the De Loach family became the first to plant Pinot Noir in the immediate area when it purchased a second vineyard property not far from their Barbieri Ranch. The rest is history. Hook and Ladder now own hundreds of acres but has always maintained a culture of honoring and celebrating firefighters and first responders.
“Just imagine how difficult it is to get into this industry today with how capital-intensive everything is,” says Hook and Ladder Vice President of Sales and Marketing Devin Ruddick. “The De Loaches were very smart and a little lucky to get in when they did.”
The vineyard’s tie to the firefighting community has taken on added significance in recent years with the prevalence of wildfires that have decimated parts of Napa and Sonoma County’s wine country. “It will always be a part of who we are, and we are so thankful for the efforts of our firefighters everywhere,” Ruddick says.
Over the years Hook and Ladder have purposely leaned into and celebrated its vast diversity of wines. Ruddick says the company has witnessed a growing trend away from specialization over the last decade, something that Hook and Ladder was a leader on. Its ranches offer everything from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay at its Olivet Ranch to Pinot Noir and Gewurtzraminer at other locations.
Because of its location and the type of soil, it has, the Chalk Hill vineyard is ideal for producing the classic red Bordeaux varieties that are hard to find. These varieties are used in Hook & Ladder’s Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, “Tillerman” Red Blend, “Third Alarm” Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and “Four Rows” Reserve Cabernet Franc.
More than anything, Hook and Ladder aim to provide wines that appeal to a diverse group of consumers. The wine industry has undergone a shift in its own demographics as consumers of all demographic and economic backgrounds have become interested in wines. Hook and Ladder want to ensure it provides something for everyone in an affordable and non-exclusionary way, Ruddick says.
“We want to be perceived globally as being a leader in the diversity of products and customers because that helps to build our brand,” he says. “We care about how humans share the experience of wines and these moments of beauty together.”
For too long, some sectors of the wine industry fell into a trap of trying to make a winery feel “exclusive” and unattainable to some, Ruddick says. But that is not how a brand is built these days. The ongoing focus on offering many varieties of wine to a diverse population is one reason why Hook and Ladder’s wine club continues to steadily grow with few monthly cancellations.
“Customers want to feel like they are getting value and that’s what we provide,” Ruddick says.
Another big part of the Hook and Ladder story is its efforts to preserve not only its vineyards in a sustainable way but to engage in environmentally friendly actions because it is best for the local community and the world at large. Part of that belief stems from De Loach’s background as a civic employee.
For example, Cecil and Christine De Loach have included 118 acres of their vineyard properties in the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. These properties include oak woodland, which unlike many parts of Sonoma County regenerates well. Additionally, Hook and Ladder do not cut down healthy, mature oak trees. Instead, they are made to be an integral part of its vineyards. Several years ago, Hook and Ladder started an oak tree nursery to provide an in-house source of native oak trees to be used in our environmental projects.
Says Ruddick, “it was important to the owners to (qualify for) certified sustainability recognition from the very beginning.” This includes an emphasis on biodiversity, the elimination of chemicals, and water preservation. Hook and Ladder’s management is constantly vigilant of local creeks, streams, rivers, and the ecosystem in general, never allowing the vineyard edge to impose on them. The vineyard takes steps to avoid the contamination of waterways with soil, sediment, or pesticides.
“Protecting our natural resources, including our forests and water is critical,” says Ruddick.
Customers are likely to notice wildlife roaming through the vineyards when they visit Hook and Ladder’s ranches. That is no accident. The vineyard has implemented a number of creative and environmentally conscious techniques to support local wildlife such as barn owl boxes and raptor perches. It promotes natural predator-prey relationships and reduces the need for environmentally harmful pest control techniques.
Hook and Ladder also practice integrated pest management and uses only the most environmentally safe chemicals – ones that kill the pest and do not affect any other life form.
While digital marketing and targeted campaigns to improve the winery’s website visibility are paramount to continuing Hook and Ladder’s growth, it also is taking a different path than some vineyards for improving customer experience and building build loyalty.
Ruddick believes that creating loyalty with customers, partners, and stakeholders today is about giving reasons to bring them back for future visits and purchases. So, Hook and Ladder strive to be kid-friendly and pet friendly, again shuttering the idea of exclusivity. As Ruddick puts it, “we want to zig while (competitors) zag.”
That has included bringing in live musicians to perform throughout the week with a variety of styles. Authors have been featured reading chapters of their books while answering questions from guests about the motivation behind their prose. Hook and Ladder have partnered with a local business to screen movies live at no additional charge to guests as well.
“We can’t lose track of the fact that everyone who comes here wants to feel comfortable and that enjoying a glass of wine or a tasting is just part of the experience that we offer,” Ruddick says.
Once Hook and Ladder attract a first-time customer, Ruddick aims to ensure that the customer will download the winery’s app, subscribe to emails, and welcome updates from Hook and Ladder on events, new wines, and more. He says in today’s market it is important to “get visibility in a customer’s phone” because that is where repeat business can happen.
That is also how Hook and Ladder can maintain a positive online profile. Something is working – Hook and Ladder has a 4.9 Google rating and is investing more time and effort in getting more customers to share their experiences online. A big part of those positive reviews is creating a “buzz” that sets it apart from competitors. That extends not just to in-person visits, tastings, and purchases but online sales, another growing part of the business.
“You can come here and spend your day enjoying the beauty of the rolling hills of West Sonoma County but our brand and consumer reviews are dependent on putting together great hospitality packages,” Ruddick says.
AT A GLANCE
Hook and Ladder Winery
What: A celebrated winery that focuses on community and top-quality wines for its customer-base
Where: Sonoma County, California