No one has ever heard of the O'Neill Beverage Company, right? I hadn't until I stumbled upon it while researching the inexpensive California line, Back Story. Back on June 6th of this year we blogged about Back Story and their star winemaker, Jeff Gaffner, attributing Back Story to Jeff's company, Saxon Brown Wines (est. 1997). Now it turns out Back Story is actually made at O'Neill, a company that dates to 1934 but was re-born in 2004 through the efforts of Jeff O'Neill and a ton of financial backing. The Back Story wine label actually started its existence in 2010 at O'Neill and, yes, Jeff Gaffner is still supposed to be the winemaker. Let's unpack this crate and get the real backstory on O'Neill.
In 1934 one of the giants of the jug wine era, Golden State Vintners, was born. They began with one hundred twenty acres in vineyards in the south-central valley in the town of Cutler in Tulare County, California. Their competition included Gallo and Delicato but early on proprietor, Arpaxat Setrakian, turned his vision in a different direction. While Golden State always marketed their own wines, they actually became one of the first bulk wine suppliers to others. In fact most of their production was sold to prominant competitors thereby generating most of their revenues.
In 1981 Jeff O'Neill, grandson of Arpaxat Setrakian, joined the company and quickly envigorated what had become a stagnating industry. In the late seventies wine was emerging as a cultural necessity for baby boomers with tastes changing to the drier styles. Bulk wine producers of the past either had to change to survive or give it up. With foresight Golden State and a few others went upscale with the quality of their product utilizing their longstanding relationships with growers and winemakers who were knowledgeable both historically and contemporarily. Anticipating the wine boom, Golden State embarked on an aggressive acquisition plan including 10,000 acres in vineyards in north and central California and the purchase of a brandy distillery that would lead to new acclaim.
Golden State's customer base has included Sebastiani, Heublein, Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Sutter Home, and very prominently, Gallo. Store brands galore have also been stock in trade for Golden State with Trader Joes being one standout and even little Vine & Cheese in Gainesville, Georgia as another albeit tiny account. All of this precedes the actual creation of the O'Neill Beverage Company in 2004, by the way, which we will talk about next time.
Join us here on Friday August 24th from 5 to 7pm as Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage shares his fine selection of Spanish wines with us.