Lindsay Woodard runs one of the Willamette Valley’s most coveted luxury brands. Since launching her Retour label in 2005, she’s received accolades from publications like Food & Wine, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Forbes. In 2010, Margrit Mondavi presented Woodard with a Rising Star Award from Women for WineSense, a women’s networking and educational organization based in California.
In 2018, Vogue turned the spotlight on Woodard in a travel feature that recommended Retour along with other businesses in charming McMinnville, Oregon, owned and operated by friends of Woodard’s—including the chic Atticus Hotel, Nick’s Italian Café, and Heater-Allen brewery.
And yet, mention Woodard’s success in many Oregon wine circles and the response you’ll get is a blank stare and “Retour? Never heard of it.”
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Woodard’s path has been atypical, and she built her success on a strategy that circumvented the usual routes. She didn’t come up through the cellar—she worked events, sold stemware, and harnessed her marketing, public relations, and design savvy to hone the images of fine wineries. Rather than viticulture and enology, her skills range from public speaking to product design. Her ability to identify opportunity has resulted in an enviable mailing list.
Given Woodard’s PR and marketing background, her website is simple and understated—no bells, whistles, or drone videos here. She doesn’t submit her wines to critics for review, and you won’t see her courting sommeliers in her home state of Oregon. Instead, her brand exists outside mainstream channels.
Leveraging her strengths, Woodard built a base of ardent enthusiasts in pockets of affluence, in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, states where Oregon wines tend to be underrepresented. She has also found a niche that enables her to support causes she believes in while building awareness for her brand.
From Marketing to Sales to Small Business Owner
A fourth-generation resident of McMinnville and sixth-generation Oregonian, Woodard could have continued living a small-town life had she not become interested in the Willamette Valley’s then-nascent wine scene while attending local Linfield College between 1995 and 1999.
Starting at 19—younger than the legal drinking age—Woodard spent three years working for the International Pinot Noir Celebration, held every July on Linfield’s picturesque campus. The event attracts wineries and attendees from all over the planet, and Woodard found herself interacting with luminaries such as the wine writers Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson. “The whole industry comes to your backyard,” says Woodard. “It was a fast-track launchpad to getting to know everyone in the world of wine. I thought, ‘Why would I want to be in any other industry?’”
Woodard, it turned out, was the IPNC’s first intern. She was hired by Maria Stuart—now co-owner of R. Stuart & Co. in McMinnville, where she directs public relations, direct marketing, and hospitality—who was the IPNC’s executive director at the time. “[Woodard] was great,” recalls Stuart, “she was hardworking, and she had a good attitude and a ton of energy, which is what you need in the weeks and months leading up to an event like that. People liked her and were drawn to her. She has a really open and warm personality.”
As soon as she turned 21, in 1998—still in college, and still working part-time for IPNC—Woodard got a gig as the first employee at Ponzi Vineyards’ wine bar in nearby Dundee, a bar with a global wine program. “I got to know everybody, and their products,” Woodard says. When Woodard graduated, in 1999, the Ponzi family hired her to be their first marketing and public relations coordinator. Both the position and the idea of an outsider working for a family winery were—at the time—practically unheard of in Oregon.
During Woodard’s two-and-a-half-year tenure at Ponzi, the winery’s annual production grew from 5,000 to 15,000 cases. She was eager to learn more, but didn’t feel right about seeking work at a competing Oregon winery given her now-close relationship with the Ponzi family. While still at Ponzi Wine Bar (now the Fratelli Ponzi Fine Food & Wine Bar), however, Woodard had attracted the attention of an executive with Riedel, who recommended her for the position of director of winery sales, based in St. Helena, California. At the age of 24, she landed the job.
Anna Maria Ponzi remembers not being surprised that Woodard could score such a key position at such a young age. “She exuded a confidence beyond her young age and lack of experience,” recalls Ponzi, the president and director of sales and marketing at Ponzi Vineyards. “She has this natural talent for remembering and giving value to everyone she encounters. She’s always been a huge relationship builder and it comes easy to her. While Lindsay has many skills, this is a rare one that has enabled her to go far very fast.”
Riedel had just rolled out the O stemless glassware line, aimed at a new generation of casual but well-informed wine drinkers. Woodard was part of the team that tested designs for Riedel’s opaque black wineglass and its Cornetto decanter. “It was a short but very impactful experience for me,” Woodard says now of the two years she spent in the job. Having minored in public speaking at Linfield, Woodard thrived on “that social engagement, that super-high energy level, that feeling of confidence that comes with being able to work a room.”
From her base in St. Helena, Woodard worked wineries up and down the West Coast, from Paso Robles to Walla Walla, presenting Riedel-sponsored programs. “I would do the Riedel tasting experience for a staff of 10 at a winery,” she says, “or at the World of Pinot Noir [an annual industry event] for 350 people. It tapped into my love for talking and presenting.” She also represented the company at charity events, putting together packages for auctions such as Auction Napa Valley. Over 18 months, Woodard says, while she reported directly to Georg and Maximilian Riedel, she sold more than $1.5 million in stemware. “She always greeted whatever came her way with a smile,” Georg Riedel recalls now. “We are very proud to watch her success over the years.”
But Woodard’s heart was in marketing and public relations, not sales. “I felt like I had achieved a lot in a short period of time,” she recalls. “I was very eager to start my own business and draw upon all the connections I had made with winery owners up and down the West Coast. I had bulging Rolodexes, full of cards and contacts.” The relationships she had built during those whirlwind years of winery visits would soon pay off.
Woodard observed that “there were two public relations companies in the Napa Valley at the time, but they both just did good old-fashioned PR.” She had additional skills to offer, including branding and design—a personal passion—plus some serious sales chops. She launched Lindsay Woodard Communications from her base in St. Helena in 2004, offering her clients a full slate of services: design in addition to marketing and PR, as well as consulting in “building a business from the ground up or helping existing brands to make a change.”
Before long, Woodard’s client list included Ann Colgin, Bill Harlan, the Mondavis, and the Chappellets, as well as “small producers no one had ever heard of.” She found herself assisting Darioush with everything from brand identity to tasting-room design. Her role, she says, was “behind the scenes, giving clients the tools they needed to market their products to sommeliers, media, and consumers.”
The Return to Her Hometown
“Not even a year into my first business,” Woodard recalls, “I thought, ‘If I’m doing this for everyone else, I know I could do it for my own brand.'” So in 2005, still working from her base in Napa Valley, she launched Retour, her boutique label. The name is French for “return” or “homecoming,” and the label showcases Willamette Valley fruit. It was, for Woodard, a reason to come home to McMinnville, the small town of her youth.
Just 28 years old, she had entered a rare circle of under-30 female owners of wine businesses. “I fell in love with winemaking working harvest at Ponzi Vineyards, watching another woman [winemaker Luisa Ponzi] be a tough girl in the cellar,” Woodard recalls. “I loved getting sticky in the cellar, dirty in the vineyard.” And she knew she had the stamina and knowledge to run a wine label by herself. “I do everything,” she says now. “Labeling, compliance, accounting, sales, and marketing.”
Still, Woodard is clear that she’s a tastemaker and businessperson, not an enologist. Her longtime friend Eric Hamacher—a Ponzi by marriage—is her consulting winemaker and does the hands-on cellar work. Hamacher is known as a master blender, producing soulful Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from a variety of sites for his own under-the-radar label, Hamacher Wines. The idea of a cuvée culled from six vineyards from across the Willamette Valley appealed to Woodard, who foresaw that her target consumers would appreciate a consistency of style from vintage to vintage.
If she hadn’t already established such strong rapport with the wine community in her home state, she might have been seen as a cheeky upstart, sashaying into the Willamette Valley, persuading the owners of coveted vineyards to contract their grapes to her, and then bottling those grapes not as vineyard designates—a mark of distinction for the fruit sources—but as a blend. On top of that, her ultra-ultra-premium price point (her Pinot Noirs sell for $60 to $150) was and still is an anomaly in a market that values single-vineyard Pinots over all others.
Hyland Vineyard in the McMinnville AVA is the black-fruit-scented base for Retour wines, but Woodard changes the formula from year to year. Her Pinot Noir style is juicy but not jammy, structured but not brutish—”Hamacher with peacock feathers,” as she puts it. It’s easy to see why these wines appeal to the points-minded collector—Woodard holds her reds back five years before release and encourages cellar aging—but an acid hound can also appreciate their poise.
Her gamble on an ultra-luxury Pinot Noir cuvée has paid off in an 85 percent DTC sales rate for her range of top-tier Pinot Noirs and her rosé ($38), which account for about half her total annual production of some 3,000 cases. “You can only find Retour in three retail stores in the country,” Woodard confides.
In addition, she produces a lively, juicy second-label Pinot Noir, Pari Passu, as a “value” offering at $40. She bottles some of it as private labels for restaurants, and her brother, the wine merchant Jeff Woodard, sells nearly half of its 1,200-case production through his Woodard Wines boutique, located just across the street from the Retour tasting room in McMinnville, and his online shop.
“There really is no agreement with Jeff—no free wine for my brother,” says Woodard. “He buys the wine like any other wholesaler would. But we support each other. I always suggest to my visitors that they meet Jeff and schedule a tasting with him, and he purchases Pari Passu from my business.”
The exposed-brick-wall tasting room and offices of Retour, situated in a tasteful storefront on NE Davis Street—just off McMinnville’s main drag, Third Street—are sumptuous and comfortable. “Retour has a very affluent audience,” Woodard says, “and they can be demanding. You have to be willing to give that level of attention and offer an experience. It’s a huge challenge in terms of time management. I know everyone on my mailing list. I have worked hard on cultivating relationships and building a strong culture. You earn your place, and you have to keep your place.”
A Singular Approach to Sales
As with her marketing business, Woodard achieved success with Retour by identifying an opportunity to offer something new—that, she says, and “the knowledge base, the relationships, and thick skin.”
During the course of her travels for Riedel, she had noticed that restaurants in certain regions all seemed to carry the same short list of well-known pioneering Oregon producers. “It was always that same core group,” she says. “It has changed since then, but at that time, there wasn’t anyone who was a small producer who was ever on these wine lists.”
While most small-scale Oregon winemakers start their businesses by hand-selling to local shops and restaurants within driving distance of their cellars, Woodard skipped her own state, where the competition was fierce among boutique producers. Instead, she focused most of her energy on the South, where moneyed collectors were eager to learn more about the Willamette Valley and were charmed by her micro-produced, fruit-forward wines. “I really wanted to promote Oregon,” she says, “to people who were not living here.”
From her time with Riedel and the IPNC, Woodard knew that high-end wine occasions can inspire passion for brands. So she built strong relationships in the collecting community by planning her work travel around philanthropic wine gatherings. At events like the High Museum Wine Auction in Atlanta, the Birmingham Wine Auction benefit for the TumTum Tree Foundation, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts Wine Auction in Idaho, the Chesapeake Bay Wine Classic and the Muscarelle Museum of Art’s Wine & Run for the Roses Auction, both in Virginia, and more, Retour is a well-known label.
At these events, Woodard networks with somms and commands the attention of collectors. “They have been a major foundation for my sales and marketing,” she says. “I’ll put together big auction lots that can raise a lot of money for an organization.” She emphasizes that she embraces the philanthropic aspect of this strategy, saying, “I think it’s important to give back.”
She assembles the lots by leveraging her own mailing list, offering, for example, a tasting in the home of one of her collectors, or a fashion show accompanied by wine. For the High Museum, she organized a gourmet quail-and-boar-hunting weekend for a group of 8 people at the Bear Creek Reserve in Georgia, owned by an Atlanta wine collector. “We saw a trend,” Woodard says, “that the High Museum attendees were into these hunting lots. We said, ‘Let’s put one together, but let’s go really big.'” The lot went for $21,000, and it sold twice, bringing in $42,000. Other Retour auction lots have earned even more, such as a farm dinner for the Chesapeake Bay Wine Classic that brought in $64,000.
Jeff Woodard often collaborates with his sister on these events, pouring European wines alongside Lindsay’s Pinot Noirs and making personal connections with enthusiasts who become online customers or private-cellar management clients. “During the slow season,” he says, “when there is not a lot of tourism going on here [in Oregon], we go to auctions and meet a lot of people. Our offering is often the most expensive lot.” At these salon parties, Lindsay Woodard shines, using her strong interpersonal skills and her gifts for public speaking and storytelling to build relationships with her current and future customers.
Event consultant Cindy McGann, who helps nonprofits plan and implement fundraisers, says it’s rare to find a winery, let alone a tiny boutique producer, with Woodard’s level of commitment. “A lot of vintners look at [giving] as a one time thing,” McGann says. “They do this, and then they move on. Lindsay does a better job of continuing the conversation.” Woodard is in the same league as far larger and more prominent producers—Colgin, Spottswoode, Francis Ford Coppola, Chateau Ste. Michelle—in her commitment and ability to contribute to a cause, according to McGann. “Lindsay’s label is so small in comparison,” she says, “it’s amazing the magnitude of funds that she can raise.”
McGann, who is also the beverage director at The Blue Point restaurant in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, continues, “At the restaurant, we get asked for donations five times a day. We have to pick and choose our causes. Lindsay has done a really good job of repeating her support—to the point where her brand is part of the [charitable] event. She has forged relationships with the people who support these organizations, which has increased her brand awareness. She supports them, and they support her.”
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Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including Rosé All Day. She is also the executive producer and host of The Four Top, a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One. She is currently working on a fifth book, Sparkling Wine Anytime (Abrams), to be published in Fall 2020.