In the early 1900s, Carl John Kingston, a Michigan miner, packed up his belongings and made the months-long journey to Chile in search of copper and gold. Although he never struck gold, Kingston unearthed a large dairy and cattle ranch 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean in the western hills of Chile’s Casablanca Valley. With his new wife Caroline Los Kamp, Kingston settled in the casa patronal on “The Farm.”
Four generations of Kingstons later, the family farm loomed large in Courtney Kingston’s imagination as she pursued an MBA at Stanford University. It was her great-grandfather that had settled the farm, and it remained a central character in their family story. Her father had grown up in Chile, working on the farm until he moved to the United States for college. Although Courtney was born in Princeton, New Jersey, she grew up with a certain allegiance to the family farm.
“Growing up as a fourth generation member of this family, we always had sort of an understanding,” says Kingston. “And, apologies to John F. Kennedy, but it was very much ‘ask not what the farm can do for you, ask what you can do for the farm.’”
After four years of working at a fast-paced tech company in San Francisco, Kingston felt a pull to try something new. She had worked her way up in the company and given everything to it — but the hours were demanding, and she missed being in the day-to-day flow of creating something. When she was tasked with writing a business plan as part of her graduate program, she immediately thought about how she might be able to use her business experience to help the farm.
“My brother Tim and I first had the idea of starting a vineyard,” says Kingston. “The farm was mostly dairy and beef cattle at the time, but I came up with a plan to plant pinot noir in the far western hills of Casablanca. After a lot of back and forth, I took the plunge and started working on developing the business full-time.”
After a long search, the Kingstons found a talented winemaker to work with and started planting their first grapevines in 1998. They bet on pinot noir and syrah in a valley known exclusively for white wines, and in 2003, they made 400 cases of each under their own Kingston Family label to showcase the potential of coastal Chile for world-class wines.
The business of winemaking couldn’t be more different than high tech, but Kingston was up for the challenge. As she told author Ramit Sethi, “The hardest thing about pursuing a dream is that it isn’t convenient. Sometimes it’s more convenient to have your dream sitting on a shelf, neatly wrapped in a pretty package for you to look at from a distance, and always wonder, ‘what if?’ I decided to go for it, because at least I could say I tried.”
Kingston tried, and she succeeded. Twenty-two years later, Kingston Family Vineyards is a thriving, bi-continental business with a passionate following. The vineyards now consist of 350 acres, and they sell 90 percent of their grapes to top Chilean winemakers other than themselves. As Kingston explains, it’s a strategic effort — the more talented winemakers you have working on the same site, the more all boats will rise.
Meanwhile, some blocks are reserved to make the Kingston Family Vineyards wines: handcrafted, small-production lots of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc, totaling about 3,500 cases a year. It’s recognized as one of the best wineries in Chile, and its wines have been featured on lists at top restaurants around the world. The company has grown to about 30 employees in both California and Chile, and $3 million in total sales. Although Kingston Family Vineyards has grown significantly from those early days, growth is far from Kingston’s top priority.
“Our approach has always reflected the core of who we are as a family: low-profile, humble, and leading from behind,” says Kingston. “Our growth has largely come from word of mouth. For years, we didn’t even have a sign. I thought that fit us quite well, until a few too many guests said that it would be helpful if our directions were a little more than turn left at the cow.”
Even without much advertising, people are drawn to the Kingstons’ unique approach to winemaking. The Chilean wine industry is dominated by large global producers, and Kingston Family Vineyards is one of a handful of Chilean vineyards leveraging California viticulture and winemaking expertise to uncover the potential of Chilean terroir.
“We make handcrafted, organically-grown wines, and people actually tend to visit us on their way to see some of Chile’s most magnificent sites: the glaciers in Patagonia or the flamingos in the Atacama Desert,” says Kingston. “We’re just outside of Santiago, so we’re on the way. We host private tastings and tours, and they have the opportunity to join a wine club where we send our wines to their homes. It allows them to continue to relive their vacation long after they’ve returned to the States.”
Kingston’s idea for the vineyard granted the old family farm a second lease on life, and she has a long-term vision for taking the business even further. But her motivation for growing the company isn’t for the sake of growth itself — their growth is fueled by their people. With a bi-national, bicultural team, Kingston views growth as an opportunity to impact their people.
“We are a family-owned and operated farm, so we care deeply about the land, the people, and our shared future together,” says Kingston. “We have an incredibly talented team, and we feel a real responsibility to continue to provide them with growth opportunities. It’s a major reason why we continue to grow on our farm. When people join us, it’s the start of a long-term relationship.”
Kingston is also committed to growing the entrepreneurial community in Chile through the farm. There are a growing number of boutique wine producers in Chile, and the farm is doing its part to offer education and support. When team members are ready to leave or start their own venture, they continue to be very involved in their lives long after they’ve parted ways.
For Kingston, it comes down to carrying on the history and legacy of the family in a positive way. Almost 100 years after C.J. Kingston first ventured to Chile, cows still graze in the fields, gold remains buried deep underground, and the fifth generation of Kingstons grows up surrounded by grapevines in the Casablanca hills.
“It was my great grandfather that thought there was gold on the farm — we like to joke that we’re still looking,” says Kingston. “I’m trying to build a foundation for another 100 years in this community. I’m guided by a sense of stewardship to continue to serve, and I hope others are too.”
To hear more of Courtney’s story and interviews with other purpose-driven leaders, subscribe to my Growing with Purpose podcast from the Small Giants Community.