Western innovator: Wide experience builds winery
'We were successful because we had a different game plan'
By JULIA HOLLISTER
For the Capital Press
LIVERMORE, Calif. -- Max Rios, founder and CEO of Rios-Lovell Winery, cultivated a diverse background before settling into to wine.
"I grew up in Oakland and went through the Catholic school system and then worked as a third-generation cabinetmaker," he said. "After high school I went to several junior colleges and studied administration of justice."
At 21, he was one of the youngest corrections officers at San Quentin prison. He went on to work in the state parole system, as a corrections officer at a halfway house in Oakland and a patrol officer with the Oakland Police Department.
"Between 1972 and 1980 I owned a cow-calf operation in Livermore and also raised sheep, horses and hogs," he said. "This was my first venture in agriculture and thought it was a lot of fun. I was also taking college courses in animal husbandry."
In 1974 he was at the crossroads. He was offered a veterinary scholarship to University of California-Davis but also got a job offer from the Oakland Police Department. He accepted the latter.
But in 1980 he was seriously injured in a high-speed chase in Oakland and had to retire from law enforcement.
Rios saw the forced retirement as an opportunity. Grape growing was becoming popular so he returned to UC-Davis to learn more about viticulture.
"I knew how to build buildings and how to a run a business, and from police work I learned (the) value of investigations," he said. "We owned the land and hired the right vineyard workers and I watched and learned. We planted the first vines in 1993 and started planning for the future."
Rios said he espouses the "hands-on" training approach. His first vineyard hire had previous experience at one of the area's iconic wineries and knew about preparing water lines, planting and other essentials. He also hired an experienced winemaker.
"From the first day we opened the winery in 1999 we were successful because we had a different game plan," he said. "We had a marketing plan. We learned wineries make money selling and that is what we did."
Rios opened an event center, which can hold 250 people, at the same time the winery opened its doors. Within three years, the winery, Rios-Lovell, hosted more than 100 weddings and other events. He had an instant market. He also made all the cabinetry in the public rooms.
His wines are sold in supermarkets and are exported to China. He continues to take classes, attend seminars and keeps up on wine trends to know what is coming.
"It's obvious that Max Rios loves what he does and he is a valued member of the agricultural community in Livermore Valley," said Chris Chandler, executive director of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association. "His winery, Rios-Lovell, offers a great view of the southeast valley and is a very popular wedding venue."
Rios-Lovell grows 12 varietals -- from Barbera, Sangiovese and Mourvedre to Merlot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Within the next two months the winery is expanding to include a wine bar, deli and wine lounge.
"We are heavy into ports and make blended ports from every varietal we grow," Rios said. The whole wine-making industry is like a pendulum that swings from one extreme to another. We are starting to see that people are enjoying more sweet wines."
According to Rios, the quiet Livermore Valley will be a hot destination.
"BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is planning a track extension that will bring wine visitors directly from San Francisco to Livermore," he said. "Visitors will be able to experience our fabulous scenery and visit 50 valley wineries."
Hometown: Oakland, Calif.
Occupation: Founder and CEO, Rios-Lovell Vineyards
Family: Married with three grown children
Education: University of California-Davis
Quote: "We try to make the best wine we can. I also learned you should never stop learning and never stop going to school. You have to move with the tides."
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