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Pioneering: Chuck McMinn

Author: Bonnie Durrance
June, 2014 Issue

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“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” —Warren G. Bennis

 

Former Silicon Valley entrepreneur Chuck McMinn and his wife, Anne, settled in Napa Valley in 2000 as the new owners of Vineyard 29. Since then, he’s spearheaded a countywide transformation of public education; launched a 47-mile bike trail which, when finished, will be a cyclist’s dream come true; turned his Vineyard 29 into an elegant, high-tech winery with an entirely self-sufficient energy supply; and, as a sideline, created companies offering conveniences and technologies in the wine and grape-growing business. When it comes to problem solving and innovation, Chuck McMinn seems to be everywhere, and nothing seems to hold him back. “He has a high tolerance for uncertainty,” confirms Anne. “Nothing really scares him. He’s not afraid of starting something new.”
 
“I’m a big believer in the ‘Ready, fire, aim, refire’ mindset,” says Chuck, leaning back in a big leather chair in his winery office looking out over the hills east of St. Helena. “You can contemplate your navel and write all kinds of elaborate plans, with all kinds of contingencies, but nothing substitutes for doing something in the real world and getting real feedback, especially from real customers, real users.”
 

Evolution by adaptation

In the early, fast-moving days of the Internet, Chuck McMinn, having led pioneering teams at IBM and Intel, had an idea for a company. “We’d originally thought to offer high-speed connections from employers to their employees at home, because nobody would trust this public Internet,” he says. Based at the time in Silicon Valley, he formed Covad Communications Company. But then the user-friendly Netscape browser came out, and not just employers but everyone wanted Internet access, and so he changed his business model.
 
“We focused all our efforts on providing connections to let Internet service providers serve consumers and small businesses. We used the telephone companies’ copper lines and we beat six of the seven telephone companies to market in their own regions.” He was successful, but not just because he was smart. “Successful entrepreneurs think they’re smart,” he says, “but they’re really lucky, too. Certainly chance favors the well prepared, but being in the right place at the right time is a big part of the success.”
 
In the mid ’90s, “being there” meant being fast. “When we started Covad,” he says, “we raised $8 million to do the Silicon Valley/San Francisco region with the idea that we had to get San Francisco working well and making money before anybody would give us any more money. That was in June 1997. Three months later, the investment banks came to us and said, ‘How many cities can you handle in parallel? How fast can you grow?’ We said, ‘We think we can do six cities in parallel if we can raise the money.’ They said, ‘Done.’ By January 1998, we’d raised $125 million to roll out the top six markets in the United States.”
 
He leans back, elbows behind his head as if surveying the newfound grandeur of his domain, and smiles. “We were starting from nothing and offering something up. We pioneered the idea that broadband should be for the common man.” The key word, for him, is “pioneered.”
 

Breaking new ground in Napa Valley

As the millennium approached, having ridden the big, high-tech waves in Silicon Valley, Chuck and Anne were ready for a new kind of lifestyle, and they began to explore possibilities in Napa Valley. This had nothing to do with the word “retire”: First, they were way too young, and second, it’s simply not what they do. “I’m driven by ideas,” says Chuck. “I love puzzles and problems. Sitting with your hands off the steering wheel, trying to get other people to do what you think they need to do is much more difficult. I much prefer to have hold of the steering wheel.” In 2000, he and Anne purchased Vineyard 29. This, they quickly found, meant embracing not just a new lifestyle but a whole new set of startup opportunities.
 
One of the first things he noticed, when he found himself in the wine business, was there was no way to order wine online. “You physically had to mail a blank order form to every one of your customers, which they had to fill out by hand and fax or mail back to you,” he says, with amazement. “So I funded a company called Cultivate Systems, so people could use computers to order wine. We now offer the service to 150 wineries in California.”
 
Then he turned his attention to the vines themselves and noticed they seemed to absorb water differently in different vineyard blocks. “Four or five years ago, we worked with a Ph.D. candidate in oenology, actually putting sensors on individual vines in the vineyard to track directly how much water they were taking up into the vines,” he says. “That has since developed into a business called Fruition Science that’s now used in many places in the valley.”
 
The Vineyard 29 facility itself is a modern, gleaming space where high technology meets ancient art. The result, both in aesthetics and in the product, wine lovers proclaim to be “elegant.” Ascending the curving marble staircase in the winery entrance and looking down at the immense stainless tanks and high-tech equipment, one gets the impression that nothing here happens by accident, and no half measures are permitted in pursuit of quality.
 
McMinn, touring a visitor around, points to the various precision measurement technologies and then to an ingenious innovation, his “lift tank.” This is a giant, stainless tank, which rests on an elevator in the corner of the winery and can be lowered into a hole in the floor so its top becomes level with the floor. Then, a hose can be attached to any of the other tanks in the winery and, by gravity, wine flows into the lift tank. Then the lift tank goes up to the third floor level and, again, by gravity, the wine flows out of that tank down into the barrels in the caves. “So you don’t have to pump,” Chuck says proudly, explaining to the quizzical visitor that pumping agitates and can bruise the wine.
 
Not only does the vineyard run on sustainable principles, which is common enough in Napa Valley, but the winery generates all its own energy, which is unique. “We have gas-fired micro-turbines, and we burn natural gas with what amounts to a small jet engine,” says Chuck. “As the jet engine spins, it generates electricity—about as effectively as we can buy power from PG&E. We capture all the waste heat off of those turbines and use it to heat the building and the fermentation process, and to run a chiller from which we can generate a cold water stream to run the air conditioning system and chill our cave.”
 
If this sounds amazing, McMinn is matter-of-fact: “We’re not mad scientists here. We’re just using technology around the edges for precision of measurement and for quality.” The Tesla in the driveway completes the picture of a low-energy footprint on a high-end enterprise.
 

Philanthropy: a new startup opportunity

For McMinn, philanthropy in Napa Valley represents a whole new area of innovation. Back in the days of Silicon Valley, with two young sons to raise, his and Anne’s time had been fully committed. But once settled in Napa Valley, with children grown, they soon began to see opportunities where they might make a difference. Anne took her interest in the healing power of gardening to work with Napa Valley Hospice and Adult Day Care Services, and Chuck joined the board of St. Helena Hospital and several committees of the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV).
 
Napa Valley is world famous for its beauty as well as its wine, but, for McMinn, something was lacking. “I have four grandkids under the age of seven,” he says, “and I wanted to be able to ride bikes with them when they come visit.” They’d visited places with some great trails in Vancouver, the Canadian Rockies, Eastern Virginia, Kiawah Island (South Carolina) and the Outer Banks (North Carolina), so he decided to make the bike trail his first philanthropic startup. People said it couldn’t be done. Linda Reiff, NVV president/CEO, recalls how Chuck proved everyone wrong. “This is an idea that’s been kicked around for at least 25 years,” she says. “People have been saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have something like this someday.’ Chuck looked at it seriously and was willing to take it on.”

Chuck recalls the challenge. “When I asked people why we didn’t have such a bike trail, they said, ‘Well the land people—meaning NVV, Napa Valley Grapegrowers [NVGG] and the private landowners—won’t let you do that.’” As an inveterate game changer, McMinn likely thought, “Then how can I change the game so it can be done?”
 
So in 2008, when NVV asked Chuck if he’d run its Community Outreach Committee, he saw his chance to take a challenge to the very people he’d been told would object. “I told them, ‘Sure, I’ll run the Community Outreach Committee. But if I do that, I want to push forward this idea of the Vine Trail.’”
 
Reiff chuckles, recalling how smoothly—but decisively—McMinn managed to get vintners’ support to launch the project. “People had talked about a trail through the valley for a long time,” she says, “but it was Chuck who stepped up and gave the leadership, time, devotion and spirit to make it happen.”

NVV pledged the first $5,000 to get the project started. Then McMinn went to the Land Trust, which added another $5,000. Then he went to the NVGG, and it also put in $5,000. “And so,” he says, “in the space of a couple of months, we completely disproved the notion that ‘the land people’ wouldn’t let us do it. The land people were stepping forward. I now have more than 30 different organizations on the board.” It couldn’t be done, but it’s happening. “And now,” adds Reiff, “NVV will be giving $2.5 million to help make the project a reality.”
 

Bringing 21st century learning to classrooms

In 2007, NVV wanted to invest $1 million in education in Napa County, where the poverty level in some districts is as high as 80 percent and where many children enter school without English proficiency, fall behind by the third grade and never catch up. But, recalls Jones, who was on the NVV board at the time, it found there was no existing organization that could actually raise the funds to match the grant or administer the funds in a way that would be effective. “Chuck heard about this,” says Jones, “and basically volunteered to create an organization that would accept the grant, raise the matching money and then administer the funds.”
 
Passionate about the need to prepare today’s students for the 21st century world—both for themselves and for the businesses currently going offshore to hire technology-savvy workers—McMinn gathered a group of like-minded people and forged a mission to partner with the public school districts to bring 21st century education to all Napa county children in all Napa county public schools.
 
By 2010, with a major grant from the RES Foundation and donations from private investors, McMinn and his team matched NVV’s grant, named themselves NapaLearns, and formed a board that includes virtually all the district supervisors and education leaders in the county as well as philanthropists and business leaders. Then they hired Peg Maddocks, Ph.D., whose background was both Silicon Valley and education, as executive director.
 
Now, four years later, NapaLearns has partnered with all five public school districts to launch, at 13 schools countywide, the transformational, technology-enhanced project-based learning model that’s been so successful in Napa New Tech High School. Teachers in the new classrooms talk about the new model as having transformed their careers. Students, who may have been turned off to school, say they now love it. McMinn will modestly remind you that he hasn’t quite reached his goal of having a one-to-one student-to-computer ratio in Napa classrooms. But they’re getting there. “It’s a model for the country,” says Reiff.
 
McMinn characteristically redirects such words of praise. “I’m not doing anything that a lot of other people can’t do,” he says. “You don’t have to necessarily be the guy with the idea, but be there to support it, whether it’s philanthropic endeavors or a new business you have a passion about—just go do it!” And he adds that it helps if you happen to live in a community like Napa. “We’ve lived in probably 10 different cities in our life,” he says, “and there’s no community like this—where it’s not your problem, it’s our problem. If you bring up an issue, a lot of people raise their hands and say, ‘I’ll help with that.’ It’s an unbelievable community.”
 

A Record of Success

“When I think of a game changer, I think of somebody who sees a need that somebody else doesn’t, and who puts a solution together in a way that nobody else has managed to pull off,” says Rick Jones, owner of Jones Family Vineyards. “To me, that’s changing the game. Chuck is doing that.”
 
Jones, one of the people who initially encouraged Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) to invest in education, says that when he saw the plan to transform education on a countywide basis, involving all the schools in Napa, he instantly jumped on board. “It sounded like a way to improve public education in a way that nobody else had been able to, so I agreed to join them.”
 
Jones, formerly a senior executive with Safeway, is now vice-chair of NapaLearns and brings to the organization the cool practicality that grounds McMinn’s visionary expansiveness. “Rick’s a wonderful partner for Chuck,” says Anne McMinn. “He’s supportive, but not afraid to challenge him.”
 
For Jones, supporting Chuck is just smart sense. “He has a track record of success, so if he says it can be done, people are inclined to say, ‘OK, maybe it can be!’”
 
The same principle applies to the Vine Trail. “It’s wonderful working with [Chuck],” says Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon. “He’s a person who looks for solutions, sees challenges as challenges, not insurmountable problems, and then finds what to do to solve them.”
 

Building Vine Trail Consensus

In the first week of selling the Vine Trail concept, McMinn says he drew up five guiding principles, which the coalition stuck to. These served to eliminate, right at the start, some major causes for potential resistance. The five principles were:
 
It’s going to be open and inclusive. Anybody who represents any constituency of Napa Valley can be elected to the board as long as they believe in the goal.
 
It will take no vineyard land out of production. If it has to take individual vines out, the Vine Trail will pay for vines to be planted elsewhere.
 
All easements and use agreements will be voluntary.
 
• It will provide a mechanism of an endowment for maintenance.
 
It’s going to be a world class, beautiful, top-end trail system to the match image of Napa Valley.
 
“With those five principles,” McMinn says, “I recruited 32 different organizations to agree to come on the board.”
 
With construction starting in 2010, the Vine Trail Coalition, with its partners NVV and Visit Napa Valley, is working to create 47 continuous miles of Class 1 trail, stretching from the Vallejo Ferry to Calistoga. The result will make a difference not just for cyclists but for the preservation of the whole valley, says lifelong Napa resident, lover of its beauty, and Napa Valley Supervisor Diane Dillon. “Napa Valley is one of the most scenic places in California, if not the United States,” she says. “How do you protect scenic places if not by creating opportunities to share them with other people?”

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