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Inaugural Women of the Vine Global Symposium
By Rebecca Murphy
Mar 17, 2015
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The first Women of the Vine Global Symposium attracted a sold out audience of 500 attendees March 12-14, at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley.  The event was the brainchild of Deborah Brenner, who wrote Women of the Vine, published in 2006.  She assembled an advisory panel from around the U.S. as well as Australia and the U.K. to help shape the program.  Speakers came from within and outside the wine business.  The audience of 500 was made up of women--alongwith a few brave men--and included winemakers, winegrowers, importers, exporters, distributors, retailers, lawyers, university professors, bankers, CEOs, CFOs, founders, owners, proprietors, presidents, vice presidents, general managers, tasting room managers, directors of marketing, human resources, supplier relations, public relations, global, national, on premise, off premise accounts, publishers, editors, writers and more.

I’ve been to many wine gatherings in my many years as a wine professional, but I don’t think I have seen an audience with such a diversity of roles in the wine business and such a wide range of age and experience.  An informal raised-hand poll showed that about half the group had been working in wine for more than 20 years.  The age range spanned individuals in their early 20s to those who are likely somewhere in their 70s.

When I started on my wine career path in the early 1970s, I’m not sure if the sum total of women working anywhere in the U.S. wine business numbered 500.  Some of those pathbreaking women were at this conference.  Michaela Rodeno, former CEO of St. Supery Winery, was interviewed on stage by Virginie Boone, editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.  Rodeno described getting her first wine job.  It was 1972 when she read that French-owned Moet-Hennessy would be starting a winery, Domaine Chandon, in the Napa Valley.  She figured out that John Wright was in charge of the project.  Reminding us that there was no internet at the time--nor any faxes, emails or text messages--she knocked the door of his garage office and offered to work on the project.  He said yes…and a career was born.

My wine career started the same year, at which time I was working as a cocktail waitress in a Dallas restaurant, Il Sorrento.  The wine steward (“sommelier” was too foreign a word back then) had left the place to return to college.  I was a single mother of twin boys, and I wanted the wine steward job for the good reason that it paid better than the cocktail waitress position.  I proposed to owner Mario Messina that I come in on my nights off to work as the wine steward to demonstrate that I could do the job.  After some hesitation, he agreed.  I proved I could move wine boxes, carry 12 glasses in one hand to a table, and increase wine sales without embarrassing him or myself.  Thus was my wine career born.

I suspect many wine careers began in a similar fashion in those days.  Those interested in winemaking or viticulture could get a formal education at UC Davis.  Maryann Graf was the first woman to graduate from this program in 1965.  Many of us learned on the job.  We didn’t have access to the certification programs that are available today, such as the Society of Wine Educators, French Wine Society, Court of Master Sommeliers, and Institute of Masters of Wine. 

Yes, I was asked often if my father, brother, husband, or lover owned the restaurant where I worked.  However, it never took long to convince a diner that I knew something about wine…and certainly knew my wine list.  The same was true for my colleagues.  Skepticism regarding them usually disappeared after skeptics actually tasted wine along with them.  The upside of our conspicuous rarity in a male-dominated field was that we stood out--and I definitely found that to be a notable advantage that compensated for some other serious disadvantages.

Standing out, asking for what you want, setting goals, identifying your passion, having a vision, being willing to fail--these were themes for many of the speakers at the conference.  In addition to Rodeno, Leslie Sbrocco, author, consultant, television host (and a most entertaining speaker) discussed how she managed to turn her love of wine into something she could get paid to do.

On day one, six breakout sessions were offered that included discussions of marketing and promotions for off- and on-premise enterprises, as well as branding and direct-to-consumer sales.

In a session I attended, Dr. Kathryn LaTour from Cornell University and Gillian Handelman of Jackson Family Wines suggested that drawing--literally, drawing--one’s impression of a wine will help one remember it better than writing tasting notes about it.  LaTour pointed to research showing that our recollections are more accurate when we use images.  Handelman, an innovative educator who has given seminars using Jelly Belly candies as flavor recognition tools, had us draw images of two whites and two red wines.

Another breakout session featuring writers, editors and TV hosts was meant to help the audience understand how wine trade members can best attract attention from wine writers.  They offered helpful information, though after a while the session’s tone began to sound whiny and entitled, which I am sure was not intentional.  Perhaps the organizers could have added a couple of public relations specialists to the panel, and conceivably the discussion could have included their approach to meeting writers’ needs.

One of the most interesting presentations was a panel of women who work in businesses owned by their familys.  The moderator, Virginie Boone, pointed out that only three percent of family-owned businesses survive to the fourth generation.  Representatives of that small group were panelists Christine Wente (fifth generation Winegrower and President of Wente Foundation Board, California) and fourth generation Jo Terlato of the Terlato Wine Group in Chicago.  Cheryl Indelicato, of Delicato Winery and proprietor of her own label, Handcraft Artisan Collection in California, is of the third generation.  Kim Stare Wallace, President of Dry Creek Vineyard, and Cynthia Lohr, Vice President of Marketing for J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, are second generation members.  Susan Sokol-Blosser, founder of Sokol-Blosser Wines in Oregon, recently has passed the responsibilities of the winery to her son Alex and daughter Alison, who are co-presidents.

This panel was very generous in their willingness to share candidly their family and work experiences.  They agreed that a key to being able to work successfully and happily in a family business is the ability to compartmentalize:  Relating to family members at work as professional colleagues, but as family member at home.  Another is to be sure that everyone has a very specific role.  Several noted that it has helped their organization to have some board members or advisors who are not family members. 

Susan Sokol Blosser shared the story of her family’s succession planning.  Boone asked when how she decided it was time to step away from the helm.  Susan said the realization came as a series of events.  The first arose from visiting a market and working with a salesperson from the distribution company representing her winery, a practice that is required by most state laws.  She envisioned him telling his wife at the end of the day, “I drove this old lady around for four hours.”  Perhaps, she thought, a younger member of the family might have had a better rapport with the sales person.  When she turned 60, she recognized that she had achieved her vision for the winery.  In telling her oldest son, who does not work at the winery, that she was thinking of stepping down, he expressed his concern that she not move too quickly, but observed that, “You do look tired.”  At this point she thought “Everybody knows this but me!”

In all, the inaugural Women of the Vine Global Symposium was an event worth attending.  Certainly the audience was every bit as interesting and exciting as the presenters.  Dates for 2016 Symposium are March 10-12, and the location will again be the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa.