By Paul Goguen
Proving that the dream of starting a wine label as a young family is alive and well in Sonoma Valley — at least for some — Vaughn Duffy Wines is opening a new tasting room in the Kenwood Village. Located in the space formerly occupied by the now-retired Peter Spann, and across from the Palooza pizza oven, the finishing touches are in progress for a mid-February opening. Matt Duffy and his wife, Sara Vaughn, are the team behind the label, with their 4-year-old daughter, Fay, in tow.
I sat down with Duffy in the new tasting room to discuss the Kenwood operation and how he got into the wine business.
“I initially started as a tasting room/crush-pad/ cellar rat,” Duffy said. “I was up in the Sierra foothills at 24 years old, looking for work and living with my aunt and uncle. I was thinking that I would be up there, write the great American novel, and then look for a little work on the side. I wandered into a tasting room and they hired me and brought me in to pour wine. I was really taking an interest in wine at the time, so I was into that.”
Later, the winemaker reached out to Duffy and said, “‘Hey, you know you want to come out and work crush with us.’ I jumped on that and I just loved the process,” Duffy continued. “I just loved going through the harvest from start to finish, all of the hard work, the sights, the smells — all. Listening to music on the crush pad, working 15- hour days, and just kind of getting totally absorbed and immersed in it … I had the bug planted then.”
Duffy said some bigcity experience helped along the way. “I landed in San Francisco and got work at a wine-tasting lounge and retail shop in Sausalito. After I got there, that’s where I really started geeking out on California wine, and especially pinot noir. The whole “Sideways” moment was happening (referring the the pinot-centric movie starring Paul Giamatti), then all these pinots were coming out. I got to work there for a couple of years and then met Sara while I was living in San Francisco.”
Partnership forged and plan hatched, Vaughn and Duffy took the next logical step. “We got engaged and decided to move to Sonoma County so I could get back into wine production and wine-making. I got an internship at Siduri in Santa Rosa and worked there for a harvest. I was really into pinot and what better place to learn from than those guys, who were making more pinot SKUs than anybody in the world, I think, when they were really going at it,” Duffy said.
From there, Duffy ended up at Vinify, “the custom crush that had just opened up that harvest, and I was the first full-time cellar guy they hired. They had about 12 different clients, and I got to work with all of those different winemakers, all with different grape varietals, making their wine for them, basically with their direction. It was just a good crash course to see everything and learn all different styles and types of wine-making.”
Deals were made, fruit was sourced, and the operation was about to make a ton of fun. “We connected with a grower, and I really dug the wines that were being made from his grapes, and so he sold us a ton of pinot and we were kind of off and running from there,” Duffy said. “I just bought the best grapes that I could find, and sort of just obsessed over those first two barrels, and got it out there,” producing 100 cases of rosé.
The business has grown slowly since then. “The wine business is a slow, long, costly game. I don’t have a lot of money, so it’s been taking us some time to grow it,” he said.
Duffy thinks Kenwood is a far superior environment than their previous location. “For the last three years we were leasing a tasting room space from the custom crush where we were making our wine, but it’s in an industrial park in Santa Rosa, so it doesn’t exactly have that romantic feel,” he explained. “You don’t have people just walking by looking to taste wine, so it was great to have a spot to host people when they call us and say, ‘Hey, we want to come tasting.’ I didn’t want to do Healdsburg or Sonoma because it’s just too big, too expensive, and kind of too much. It’s just really chill and calm out here, and feels like a nice place to be.”
There can be downsides to “living the wine dream,” Duffy said. “There’s always something to do, something you need to work on, just in terms of operating the business. It never ends. It’s so capital intensive you know you never have enough money to do what you want to do. All of your money is sitting in barrels and on pallets. Also, you’re in a Mother Nature business, so not everything’s under your control in terms of your product, and your supply chain and things like that.” In 2020, for example, wildfires impacted most of the wine grape crop and Vaughn Duffy “had to sit that year out from production. We didn’t want to risk picking something and then have it be smoke-tainted.”
In the end, Duffy seems to have realistic expectations and a great work ethic. “We’re not going to make a ton of money, we’re not going to go anywhere fast, but we’re going to enjoy the ride along the way,” he said. “Hopefully we can get this place established to help get the word out, get the wines out, sell some more wine direct, and grow our wine club.”
Vaughn Duffy Wines is located at 8910 Sonoma Highway in Kenwood. Hours are Friday through Monday, 11a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call (707) 282-9156 or visit www.vaughnduffywines.com.