The old adage that, to make a million dollars with a winery you must invest 10 million dollars, has been around in many forms for decades.John Thornton went by his own rules.
He invested in a winery with a friend. Little did he know, he would one day own the whole operation that would be a family affair with Thornton Winery.
John’s expertise was not in winemaking, but successful business practices and smart investing.
When I asked John about the beginning, his answer was simple.
“My wife and I traveled in the U.S., Europe and the Orient a lot on business, and always tried to enjoy the best food, wine, and music of the area. In the 80s, the opportunity came along to invest in both, and we added music shortly after opening.”
John’s passion for good business carries through in hiring a passionate chef and passionate winemaker. Of course, his wife, Sally Bullard Thornton, provides a stamp of approval, and her knowledge of musicians is a tremendous benefit.
Their son, Steve Thornton, is President of Thornton and has been highly successful in managing all aspects of the winery, as well as directing the five-star Café Champagne.
An experienced race car driver, surfer, motorcyclist, mountain biker and skydiver, I questioned Steve on his decision to make the choice to be involved with the business. “I grew up in it, and when I hit the time in my life to seek business instead of the adrenaline rush, it was natural and I was fortunate to have the best mentors. Both of my parents have guided me well.”
Asking his feelings on the awards won, John’s reply was direct. “All awards are gratifying, as they indicate approval by your peers. While the results are good for promoting, they don’t help cash flow.”
When I asked if he always had realised the importance of marketing, his words were music to my ears. “For over 50 years, I have been active in about 20 companies and have been active in marketing in all of them.”
Talking about Thornton’s current marketing goal he was equally straightforward: “Exercising our basic marketing plan of providing the highest quality food, wine, and music to our customers and still make it work economically.”
Thornton Winery is in its 23rd year of its Champagne Jazz concert series, with 21 concerts between May and October. When the winery was built, the Thorntons did not realise the fountain patio would offer acoustics that rival an amphitheater.
Whereas many wineries offer concerts, the Thornton trademark is jazz. Hence, many of the 600 guests are season ticket holders. In addition to the general audience, 200 are able to experience a gourmet supper. There is a dance floor to encourage guests to move with the music, and always a “wine special” discount offered on selected wines. General admission tickets range from $55 to $75—depending on the talent. A grill offers numerous options: under the direction of Executive Sous Chef Anthony Bartolotta. Executive Chef Steve Pickell oversees the gourmet supper package, which runs between $120 and $160.
Most concerts are a sell-out, and customers can go online to order tickets to the general session or check out the menu for the Gourmet Supper Package.
Award winning Executive Chef Steve Pickell’s menu is complimented by award winning Winemaker, David Vergari’s, concept of winemaking. Steve’s ability to work with the winemaker has made Thornton Winery’s Café Champagne a consistent award winner for many years. The passion of both shines through.
With regards to the concerts, the Thornton family says, “Our concept for the winery is great food, stellar wines, and wonderful smooth jazz… We feel this can be accomplished by offering excellence in food, wine, and service in a place where you can feel the ambiance of family and friends and the warmth of a summer night under the stars, or at a table by the fireplace on a mid-winter evening…”
On finishing my interview, I asked John if there was any special story he would like to share. “Years ago, we were invited to a wedding dinner party for the daughter of a shipmate of mine in the Korean War. He had been careful to inform me two weeks before that he had purchased a substantial interest in Schramsberg (a champagne winery that I truly admire). When I arrived, I looked him in the eyes and said, ‘If I had a daughter and she had a wedding dinner, we would have served our champagne, so I’m not at all upset. But so you don’t lose your palate, here is a case of the really good stuff,’ and handed him a case of our Champagne. We are still friends!”
John Thornton and his family have successfully produced award-winning wine, while finding the combination for a successful business. I’ve seen many wineries and restaurants fail, not from lack of passion, but from lack of business reality. The Thornton’s have the ability to put it all together for a winning combination.
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