Snack Feature: Anthony Vineyards' Cookie and Bobby Bianco
Anthony Vineyards’ Cookie and Bobby Bianco have been featured in the latest edition of AndNowUKnow’s print publication, The Snack Magazine. These brothers talk the past, present, and future of the company as well as share how they have turned Anthony Vineyards into the more than 8,000 acre California grape powerhouse it is today.
Check out The Snack article by clicking here, or read the full text below:
BET ON YOURSELF
The Bianco boys did it the hard way. “We started with 160 acres, and not one of us took a salary or a bonus for 20 years. Not a dime,” Cookie Bianco tells me.
“We all found separate jobs and came together to buy the land. After that, we invested the profits back into the business,” Bobby Bianco says.
Four Bianco brothers bought land in Bakersfield, California more than 40 years ago and have now grown Anthony Vineyards into the more than 8,000 acres it is today. Today, the vertically-integrated company has a grape deal from May through December with a hand in dates, peppers, and citrus to round out the program.
That’s how they did it. Sheer will and determination–something their father taught them.
“Bet on yourself.” Cookie has said it before, and it always resonates with me. Since I was in high school during the late 80’s, this sentiment has been in my ear a long time. “It’s the only way anything gets done,” he says.
That’s what he tells his sales staff every day. “If you don’t believe in yourself, how will you convince anyone else?” he asks me. “That’s my philosophy.”
“Cookie and I have a great rapport because he’s an eternal optimist and I’m an eternal pessimist,” Bobby laughs. “We both have our separate knowledge that we bring to the table.”
Originally founded by four brothers, today Domenick "Cookie" and Robert "Bobby" Bianco stand at the helm of the ship and are deeply involved in the operation of Anthony Vineyards. Their father, Anthony A. Bianco, immigrated to the United States in the 1920s from his native Italy as an 18 year old and began working as a fruit peddler in New York City. Bianco made his way onto the New York Produce Market and became a commission merchant for wine grapes, selling them through the New York produce auction. With frequent visits to California where he sourced the fruit, their father decided to make the move to the West Coast in 1942 with his family in tow.
I ask Cookie how he got his name. “My older brother said ‘here comes cookie’ and it stuck,” Cookie laughs. The family left New York in 1942 when Cookie was 8 years old and Bobby was 9 months.
In 1967, their father Anthony Bianco passed away, and two years later the company went bankrupt because of the California grape boycott.
I find it hard to believe that you can keep a Bianco down. And as far as I know, you can’t. Enter the four Bianco sons a few years later, digging their heels into the earth in Bakersfield, California… and Anthony Vineyards was born.
“With your family you can reach a little higher, lift each other to the next rung on the ladder,” Cookie notes. “It’s taken a fire in my belly to get to where we are, but family was even more essential.”
When I ask Cookie and Bobby who their biggest mentors have been; who has influenced them the most, Bobby replies, “Our father had a 3rd grade education but was the smartest man I ever knew.” This is a response that speaks volumes towards the Bianco work ethic, the value of a man.
The company has continued to stay ahead of the curve. Eleven years ago, the two brothers took another leap of faith and turned their focus to expanding the business into organics.
"We put a toe in the water. A ranch came up for sale that was originally owned by a pioneer in the organic grape deal,” Cookie notes. "I said to our sales manager 'let’s give it a try for one year – if it doesn’t work – we can convert it back to conventional.'"
Once the company gained its organic foothold, Anthony Vineyards ramped up its grape expansion and now has a third of its grapes in the organic grape category. “We may increase our organic grape offerings to 50% in a couple years,” Bobby tells me. “This is another way that we have looked to diversify our business. It has been successful and as always, we’re here to please.”
“All these things were about developing and investing back into the business, both in our people and the ranches,” Cookie notes. “The company has become too big for the two of us to do everything the way we did 40 years ago and business is certainly now more complicated than the old days. We have a solid team of agricultural, sales, and administrative people, each with skill sets we don’t have. They operate the day to day activity of the business. They are all considered part of our extended family.”
“Investing in the ranches to improve efficiency and quality has kept us a player in the game,” Bobby tells me. “The new improved trellis systems installed this past decade cost about as much as the land when we bought it. Most of all the land has been converted to drip irrigation. Also, we invest significantly to replace old varieties and vineyards that are beyond their useful life and to meet the ever changing requirements of the consumer.”
The grape program is now more labor friendly, and the health of the fruit has improved substantially; quality is more consistent. Vines are trained branch-by-branch to follow the arch of a trellis, which allows workers easy access to their fruit.
Anthony Vineyards has two principal grape growing regions in California, beginning with the Coachella Valley in the first part of the season and the San Joaquin Valley in the latter. The family has been in both areas for more years than they can count, and Bobby will attest to the difficulties of farming in the desert.
“Everything is accelerated with less wiggle room and planning for incremental weather and drastic changes in temperature,” Bobby says, recalling challenges with dormancy during some seasons when there was not enough chill hours for the grapes. Dormancy is the important stage of the grape’s annual cycle when growth and development stop temporarily and the vine rests, allowing growers to prune the vine and set it up for the upcoming season.
“In the desert you have a matter of hours compared to the days you may have in the San Joaquin Valley to address an issue,” Bobby tells me.
Although the future is bright for the Bianco generations to come, they also know that there will be challenges ahead.
“We’ve built up a good, solid business. But labor could be an issue for our children. Something has to change. The agricultural workforce is diminishing. Moving forward, we have to find varieties that produce more with lower growing costs. Even if we create an environment where there is less demand for labor, you will always need people to care for and harvest the fruit. We need immigration reform and a workable guest worker program,” Bobby tells me. Thompson seedless was the big variety back when the Bianco’s got started, but many growers have replaced it with less labor-intensive grapes.
It’s been a long road since 1967. The two youngest Bianco boys now count some of their own sons and daughters as employees, with yet another generation entering the ranks. “I will be 80 this year,” Cookie says. “And I tell it the way it is. I get away with it at my age. But, I think my team will tell you that what I have to say is worth sharing.”
The brothers have been in business for more than 50 years together. At the end of the day they agree it always works, but not without getting your hands dirty. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Bet on yourself,” Cookie tells me again. And from the way things have come together for the Bianco brothers, I’d say it was a good bet to make.