Being out in the market with consumers, I am often asked how I came to be in this business. A certain insanity, clearly, to throw one’s all into a pursuit dominated by the very wealthy, competing not just for shelf space on collectors’ cellars and restaurant lists, but for talent and other resources–the whole endeavor subject to unmerciful agricultural risks. Not to mention the sheer complexity of logistics that pull it all together into a bottle once a year, generally just in time to face the next harvest. A big job, like any small business. “The dream” for sure, watching the growing vines, learning the tastes and textures of the wines as they evolve, meeting terrific wine lovers, chefs and sommeliers who appreciate your work, but also navigating among advisors and contractors with their own priorities and career agendas, forever reminding me “the buck stops here.” Like a surfer sitting at the break, the waves keep coming; work it and love it, or get out of the water.
Reflecting back, I started in wine with a blank slate, a serious foodie in culinary school, which kicked off with the week-long “Mastering Wine” classroom of Karen MacNeil, acclaimed author and Chair of Wine Education at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. When I tell people how I found myself in that gorgeous stone-walled room, it’s simple, “I received a package in a corporate buyout, and like all good yuppies, I took off for culinary school.” I also caution that I came to Napa Valley, the “Hotel California,” for a 21-week program, fourteen years ago. Perhaps growing up a 4H kid with a backyard produce garden, chickens and goats made an agricultural business feel like home.
While I lack her eloquence, I am an obvious disciple of Karen’s teaching. I’m imprinted. I love her book The Wine Bible; if I had a tasting room, I would sell it. This is the best $19.95 you can invest in learning about wine. Karen the woman is truly passionate about the pleasures of wine, and Karen MacNeil the teacher possesses the intellectual rigor of an academic, demanding that students understand WHY and clearly articulate their sensory experience. We hold smell and taste memory, she taught me, but we can best recall–and express to others–those memories if we attach words to the experience and put some organization to the data. Build a mental structure, and all wines tasted will be there in “RAM” when you need them. My preferences tend to follow hers; I love the elegant, shimmering clarity of good dry riesling, the freshness of rosé and I appreciate wines with a sense of place. She spoke with such love about Spanish wines; I hope one day to indulge in learning more, and to travel to winegrowing regions of Spain.
In her writing business, Karen employs a tireless tasting schedule. In those days, wines arrived in her driveway daily (after my culinary program and a stint as a cook, I worked as her assistant for a year, from her home office, where my energetic dog was thankfully exhausted daily from chasing multiple delivery trucks down the long driveway). Every evening, along with whomever was gathered, she blind-tasted a related selection of 10-15 wines, bringing her laserlike concentration to each one, grateful for the opportunity to do it. I was just lucky to get down the mountain every night without crashing into something–like that huge tree growing through the middle of Spring Mountain Road.
Blessed with a gift for gab, but a constitution not suited to frequent alcohol intake, I recognized my future was not one of a professional wine writer. I loved helping with private education seminars, contributed to the first Page-a-Day wine calendar, and enjoyed a few writing projects that Karen delegated my way. Perhaps I’m a better “spitter” today, but I’m truly a one-glass-a-day girl, so I moved on to other aspects of the business. I had learned each step in the process of bringing a wine to life, and that foundation served me well.
Being in Napa Valley with a background in business development and strategic planning, I jumped in to help winery owners craft their business plans and attach economic analysis to the basic processes Karen had taught me. I went to UCDavis to study wine marketing and production. Twelve years flew by. I worked for the owners of Quintessa and Faust, the business and marketing geniuses of the Huneeus family. I helped the marketing & finance teams of Mondavi, Franciscan, Simi, and the other fine wine estates of Constellation Brands to prepare strategic plans. My first client was Beaucanon Estate, whose winery I helped sell to Provenance, then owned by Chalone, allowing the brother-sister team managing Beaucanon to build their small dream winery on a historic site in Napa. I built a beautiful business plan for the Langtry Estate, an incredible, huge property in Lake County; that plan was the only one I thought was perfect, so I had a feeling something new was in store. I met professionals in every walk of winery life–growers, winemakers, controllers, marketers, designers, bankers, cave builders and the famed hosts of Napa Valley’s hospitality. If there’s one thing that makes a business plan work, I told clients, it’s having all the disciplines in alignment, whatever the style or price or volume – if the experience matches the promise, the market should respond favorably. If the illusion of scarcity keeps customers buying their “allocation,” don’t hang a “sale today” sign on the highway. If prices are justified by quality, above all be sure the quality is in the bottle. If the wine costs $140 per case to produce, don’t sell to Costco for $78, pay a broker commission, and hope to make it up on volume. I didn’t make a business card for 10 years; folks just kept referring me. Bankers would sweetly suggest to a client nearing the end of a credit line to call me to help map out a sustainable plan. I called it “Accounting for Taste.”
Eventually, a strategic planner sees the opening she wants to fill herself. One’s training, experience, preferences and resources are a unique combination. Certainly I did not follow the motto of trying to make a small fortune in the wine business by starting with a large one. My business is a simple one, on a mission toward economic sustainability, borne of the simple fit of a piece of ground to a longstanding tradition, an educator’s heart, and a cook’s palate. The idea came together when working with investors interested to buy a winery; in exploring vineyard available for lease, I expressed that if it was me, I’d create a brand around this concept, show the “Right Bank” of Napa Valley, believing it was the right time to do it, and to my surprise they agreed, allowing me to do this work every day, for which I couldn’t be more grateful.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I stick it out because of my partners’ trust, and because I love wines in the same way I love people –the most interesting ones never stop challenging you, and you want more time with them.