Larry & MaryAnn Tsai
Successful Napa Valley Pioneers with a Vision
By W Peter Hoyne
Recently, I had the pleasure of being introduced to a couple, Larry and MaryAnn Tsai, who are currently Napa Valley natives pursuing their dream of producing one of Napa Valley’s sought after cult wines, although they are too humble to admit it. What makes this couple unique is that together, their scholarly understanding of business coupled with their fondness for crafting memorable Cabernet Sauvignon placed them at the very top of this highly competitive industry.
Their wines are Moone-Tsai, which focuses primarily on mountain grown Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The story begins when I first met up with Larry during a casual dinner conversation. After tasting his wines, I found these reds to be complex, caressing and inviting on first sip. This peaked my curiosity, as I have tasted many wines from Napa Valley, yet few immediately excite me in this way.
Larry’s background began, as he was a first generation Chinese kid growing up on Long Island. His parents came from main land China and growing up with wine was a foreign concept, except of course for some Cold Duck on New Year’s Eve. Larry claims, “it should have been enough to repel me” but it didn’t.
When he was younger, he worked as a bus boy at a local restaurant on Long Island, one of a few white tablecloth places at the time. “I was under the wing of a fine waiter who appreciated wine. He gave me a taste of a 1978 Figeac (a well-known red blend from Bordeaux’s Right Bank) paired with a bit of juicy roast beef and I never forgot it.”
Larry went on with his professional career pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics at Princeton and afterwards continued working at the university.
Larry describes himself as “a Californian trapped in a New Yorkers body” as he eventually found his way to the West Coast. Larry left the East Coast to enroll in business school at Stanford and received an MBA. Afterwards he worked for a company in Los Angeles within consumer products. In 1984, at the Olympics in LA, he would meet his future wife, counterpart and equally savvy future business partner, MaryAnn.
MaryAnn had been raised in Boston, in a big Italian family. She had always been exposed to wine, although cheap, at the dinner table and it was part of her family’s lifestyle. Her grandfather would make wine in the cellar. While in college she was an economics major and studied French. She had an opportunity to study abroad in Angiers, France in the Loire Valley, living in the countryside and drinking rose´. MaryAnn admits “I kind of loved the lifestyle. This is what was behind what drove me into the wine business.” She moved to the West Coast, secured employment in Los Angeles and it was there that she met Larry after he had finished business school.
The two of them would return to the East Coast and work in New York. As MaryAnn describes her journey “while in New York, I decided to go to grad school and applied to Harvard. Because I was from Boston, it was always a dream to go there, especially growing up a middle class Italian family. I went there, as we were already married so Larry stayed in New York.’
“Harvard was big on entrepreneurism. Most of my friends wanted to live on the West coast and worked for start up tech companies.” According to Larry, “we targeted Northern California in part because of my affection for the area when I was a student at Stanford. MaryAnn harbored the dream of getting involved in the wine business.”
“Back then there were no emails, so I got a copy of Wines & Vines and hand wrote and typed letters to every winery. Really, there were only a couple of wineries that were big enough that could really handle an MBA.” She interviewed at Beringer, owned by Nestlé of Switzerland, and “ironically, the senior VP for sales and marketing had an MBA from Harvard. There was already a connection. They were set up to have people that were a little more professional. That is how I got into the business.”
She joined Beringer in 1989 when Michael Moone was president. “I was kind of the brand manager at Beringer and then became the VP of Beringer, and then became the VP of Luxury marketing.” In addition, she ran new product development and strategic planning. She was instrumental in expanding Beringer’s acquisition with the purchase of Chateau St. Jean and Etude wineries.
During her tenure, the winery’s portfolio garnered three, #1 Wine of the Year scores from the Wine Spectator. Along the way MaryAnn established a lot of relationships with great growers throughout the valley during her twenty plus year career at Beringer. She also struck up a close friendship with Moone and after leaving Beringer became president of Moon’s Luna winery in southern Napa Valley in 2001.
Moone would become co-founder of Larry and MaryAnn’s Moone-Tsai wines, which were founded in 2003. MaryAnn realized, “When you do things for other people, you have more confidence that you can do it yourself. You start to grow businesses and make brands successful and it was like ok, like we can do this. I really took it on and developed the vineyard sourcing” finding the best blocks in the valley to use as the base for their wines. The early vintages were made at Luna until they moved in 2016 to a custom crush state of the art winemaking facility at Brasswood in St. Helena.
They also needed someone to craft their wines so “early 2000’s, Larry and I met with different winemakers. We went to a cult wine tasting. I remember that we loved Philippe’s wines. Philippe Melka was a legendary French-American winemaker and consultant in Napa Valley. “The thing that we loved is Philippe, as you know, he is really good at making balanced wines. They are not overly tannic, the tannins aren’t aggressive, he doesn’t overly oak the wines. I was really looking for wines that were beautifully balanced. Philippe’s wines showed the best and that is how we ended up with him.”
Larry shared his thoughts on the style of wines they wanted to construct with Moone-Tsai “creating notable wines of distinction that we believe would conform ultimately to what we had in mind. We wanted wines that were ultimately balanced and beautiful. Wines that would be tasty on release and would age very well. Wines that on their own would be reflective of the vineyard sources. Philippe understands the importance of making all the components work together, so that you create a beautiful wine and it’s repeatable…. the complete range.”
I asked Larry what he admires most about Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, “Certainly, what we think marks this destination, what mother nature gives us in the way of incredibly intense, tiny little berries, that have their thick skins and create wines that are striking and dramatic. Both that crazy dichotomy, while being sexy and powerful at the same time. These are the wines that we think mark Howell Mountain more than any other AVA.”
Larry acknowledged, “our plan has always been built on long term contracts with about 10 different growers whose blocks are best to support our program. Such as Pritchard Hill, Coombsville, St Helena, Stag’s Leap, a little bit of Oakville fruit, and a tiny bit toward Calistoga, those are the backbone.”
Moone-Tsai currently has a line-up of five to six wines in their portfolio, including a hillside blend, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and their signature Cor Leonis Cabernet Sauvignon. Additionally, they have two signature Chardonnays, a Petite Sirah and a new venture into Pinot Noir. They also have Black List wines for their club members. Larry revealed “each wine is one of a kind. We make it once and it is gone forever. What we ultimately do with this Black list is that we allow Phillipe to be a mad scientist and to create whatever he thinks is remarkable and it is going to be one time only. People love this idea of getting one of a kind wine. Each black list is five to six barrels. So roughly 125-150 cases.” Moone-Tsai’s total production is around three to four thousand cases.
As far as their future vision, “we always endeavor to get better and better with what we do.” Not just wine quality, but customer service and all aspects. They want to create wine “ in a way that makes it delightful, and delicious, remarkable and special. We are lucky to do what we enjoy.” Their achievements and future success have already been firmly etched into the Napa Valley and the history books. During her tenure, the winery’s portfolio garnered three, #1 Wine of the Year scores from the Wine Spectator. Along the way MaryAnn established a lot of relationships with great growers throughout the valley during her twenty plus year career at Beringer.