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April 23, 2014

From Bubbles to Boardrooms, Act 2: Becoming a CEO

“From Bubbles to Boardrooms” is the two-act story of how Michaela Kane Rodeno, a young woman with a master’s degree in French Literature looking for a job in the Napa Valley, rose to prominence in two French-owned wineries: first as vice president of marketing with Domaine Chandon  and later CEO of St. Supery Vineyards & Winery, a new startup winery in the Napa Valley.

In “Act 1:  Startups are Such Fun,” Rodeno recounts, often with wit and a little frustration at having to negotiate a steep learning curve at a young age, her experiences learning on the job at Domaine Chandon, with mentor John Wright.  (For a review of Act 1, go to WRO Wine Blog, November 10, 2013.)  Act 2 is the story of how crossing Highway 29, from Yountville to Rutherford to become the CEO of St. Supery, becomes more involved than she imagined.

“Act 2” is the bigger of the two books, crammed with 50 “chapters,” each two-to-three pages, beginning with “How I Got the Job.”  Readers can jump in almost anywhere in the book, selecting a chapter title that looks intriguing, such as “Macs Rule,” or “Winemaking Consultant.”   The former is a serendipitous account of how Brian Bell, jazz musician Herbie Hancock’s technical consultant, helped merge the Mac computers used by St. Supery, with their PCs.  “Winemaking Consultant” takes an inside look at how the controversial 2004 film, “Mondovino” played a part in severing the relationship of Michel Rolland, the high-profile French consultant from St. Supery.

Coming “Full Circle,” the author wraps up her wine experiences in the Napa Valley with a brief transitional history of Villa Ragazzi, the small Rodeno family winery started in the Napa Valley to produce wines from Italian varieties.

Bracketed between chapters 1 and 50, Rodeno skims along with brief accounts of her experience working for an absentee French owner and the trials and celebrations of being a winery CEO.  In “A Tragic Accident,” Rodeno relates the tragic story of the accidental shooting death of the foreman at St. Supery’s Dollarhide Ranch, east of the Napa Valley.  While celebrating with his crew, the foreman, who was taking target practice with a pistol, fell over backward, causing his gun-hand to jerk up, shooting himself in the head.  Making matters worse, St. Supery’s insurance company would not pay, claiming that the foreman’s death was a suicide.  In full CEO mode, Rodeno fired off a strongly-worded letter to the insurance company, which eventually relented and paid up.

In another set piece, Rodeno relates a cautionary story, titled, “Another Vinous Adventure,” when in an effort to put some of their grapes to profitable use, St. Supery got into the kosher wine business in the 1990s with Mr. Maroma.  “There was only one problem with this plan:  No one at St. Supery knew anything about kosher wine production,” recalls Rodeno.  It was a costly adventure that tanked after a few years.  A more wide spread and costly venture is related in “Phylloxera,” the story of how planting at St. Supery’s Dollarhide Ranch was nearly completed, using AXR #1 rootstock, when UC-Davis announced that the rootstock they were recommending for years was susceptible to Phylloxera, the tiny vine root louse that nearly destroyed the Napa Valley wine industry in just a few years.

These are but a few of the easy-reading glimpses into winery leadership Rodeno packs in to her “adventure” at St. Supery in “Act 2: Becoming a CEO.”  Readers will find cherry-picking easy from the long series of short chapters.  The author closes out the act with an expanded Glossary, and three appendices, one of which talks about St. Supery’s much-talked about version of the aroma kit called “Smellavision.” 

“Act 2: Becoming a CEO” is an inside look at how success was attained by one of California’s noted wine executives.  It’s a good read and is available, as is “Act 1: Startups are Such Fun,” in print ($11.99) and electronic ($7.99) from Amazon.com.

*     *     *

WRO Columnist Emeritus Gerald Boyd contributes book reviews in this space on a regular basis from his so-called "retirement."
Posted by Gerald D. Boyd at 3:30 PM

April 11, 2014

Winery of the Year Paul Mas

One of the objectives on my recent nearly month-long trip to France was to pay a visit to the 2013 Sommelier Challenge Winery of the Year, Domaines Paul Mas.

Paul Mas is a relatively new winemaking operation launched in 1982 by Jean-Claude Mas, a bit of a Great Gatsby character in that he's charming, erudite, loves fast cars (he once dreamed of being a Formula One driver) and American jazz and blues.

Jean-Claude is the man behind the Arrogant Frog brand, too. But it's the top-notch reds and whites from the various domains he has acquired in recent years that caught my attention at the Sommelier Challenge. Four of them were awarded platinum medals and Domaines Paul Mas was an easy pick as Winery of the Year.

One of my personal favorites from the portfolio is the Cremant de Limoux rose under the Cote Mas label. The property in Limoux was purchased in 2011, so it's just now beginning to make its mark under the Domaines Paul Mas umbrella.

Like most of the top properties in the Languedoc, Domaines Paul Mas has exceptional vineyards. The quality of the vineyards in this region was a well-kept secret for several decades after World War II, for the best grapes invariably ended up going to co-operatives, where the quality was diluted.

Jean-Claude Mas is at the forefront of a renaissance in the area, taking advantage of the beautiful terroir the Languedoc affords Syrah, Carignan, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Grenache and so on.

Paul Mas produced a short video after winning Winery of the Year at the Sommelier Challenge. It showcases the region and the vineyards, and some of the history, such as the Canal du Midi and the walled city of Carcassonne.

Click here to view the video.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:58 PM

April 9, 2014

Bordeaux: Two for the Money

I have just returned from more than three weeks in France, the last week tasting the primeurs presentation of the 2013 vintage of Bordeaux. My report is here.

On a happier note, I renewed my acquaintance with Chateau Siran, an AOC Margaux that was left out of the Medoc classification of 1855. I tasted both the 2009 and 2010 over the course of a week in Bordeaux and marveled that both of these superb vintages, where available in the United States, retail for less than $40 a bottle.

Given where Bordeaux prices have gone, that's a stunning price. I note in my primeurs report that Siran also made one of the better wines in this cursed vintage.

As did Prieure-Lichine, always near the top of my list when I look at value for the money in Bordeaux.

There is an undercurrent of discontent in Bordeaux these days, for the rich seem to be getting richer and chateaux without so much cache continue to struggle. Chateau Pavie and Angelus, for example, unveiled new cellars this year and it's easy to see where all that Chinese money went.

But everyone wonders if that bubble is about to burst. The Chinese presence at primeurs 2013 seemed diminished, and there is word on the street that the government is doing its best to discourage lavish gifts, such as expensive Bordeaux, in the course of doing business.

And if the Chinese market for Bordeaux continues to soften, would this necessarily bring Bordeaux back to earth? That's the question. In the meantime, when I need a superb Bordeaux at a reasonable price, give me Siran or Lichine.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:25 AM

April 2, 2014

Appreciation: Christine Valette

The wine world lost one of its brightest lights on March 29, when Christine Valette, proprietor of Château Troplong Mondot in Bordeaux’s sub-region of Saint-Émilion, departed after a long battle against cancer.  Cheerful, inquisitive, warm and witty, she may be the single most charming vintner whom I have ever met, and I have met more than 1,200 of them during site visits over the past two decades.  In addition to being an absolutely sparkling human being, she was also an exemplary wine producer who greatly elevated Troplong Mondot’s stature during her time at the helm.

After assuming control in the early 1980s, Ms. Valette oversaw dramatic improvements at Troplong Mondot, elevating it from a middling position in the Bordeaux firmament to uncontested star status, and ascending to the rank of Premier Grand Cru Classé B in the 2012 St.-Émilion classification.  She thoroughly modernized all of the winemaking facilities and drastically lowered crop loads in the vineyard to assure full ripeness and concentration in the finished wine, which became much more open and expressive--just as the property itself was vastly enlivened by her vivacious presence.

I was fortunate to dine with Christine twice in the venerable chateau (dating from 1745), and both evenings were ones to remember.  In the first instance, in 1996, I was traveling with my friend and WRO colleague Paul Lukacs.  Christine somehow managed to get wind of the fact that our visit was falling on Paul’s 40th birthday, and consequently spent all day thoughtfully preparing two gracious offerings--for two people whom she had never met. 

She scoured local sources to secure a wine from the year of Paul’s birth, which was no small feat, as 1956 was an exceedingly bad vintage marked by a catastrophic frost.  When we arrived at the table, there sat a bottle of Carraudes de Lafite ‘56, next to a home-made version of Lamproie a la Bordelaise, which is a classic local dish of Lamprey Eel in a Bordeaux wine sauce.  It was Christine’s first attempt at the dish, which her wickedly funny husband, Xavier Pariente, criticized ruthlessly.  Christine took this with amazingly good cheer, laughingly layering her own self-deprecating critique of the dish atop that of her husband’s.

Who would do such things, for total strangers, while running an important business and raising four daughters?  I was astonished at the time, and I’m astonished still.

The eel was indeed pretty awful, and the wine was just okay, but the night was truly wonderful thanks to Christine’s endearing overture.  I won’t belabor the details of my second dinner with her, in 2010 along with WRO’s Marguerite Thomas, except to say that it was an en famille evening at the kitchen table, discussing politics and religion and life--but not Troplong Mondot.  How cool is that?  And how admirable and smart, too?

Not incidentally, the wines speak for themselves.  (2010, 2011 and 2012 were all among the very top achievements of their respective vintages.)  At the same time, though, they speak for--and of--Christine.  May her graceful and beautiful soul rest in peace.
Posted by Michael Franz at 8:32 PM