From Bubbles to Boardrooms

by Michaela Kane Rodeno

Michaela Rodeno shares reflections from her pioneering career at the forefront of the wine industry in Napa Valley.

Tracing the arc of her career development from its unlikely beginnings in early 1970s Napa, when the wine industry was in its infancy, to being part of the two-person team that launched Domaine Chandon in the U.S., to her role as St. Supéry Winery’s first CEO, Rodeno has extensive wit and wisdom to share.

MichaelaIn addition to co-owning and running Oakville-based Villa Ragazzi, Rodeno is the author of From Bubbles to Boardrooms: Serendipitous Stories from Inside the Wine Business, an inside look at her experiences in the wine industry, including a compilation of lessons learned from an extensive career working with many of Napa Valley’s best. 

Sips and Reflections with Michaela Rodeno,” a book signing and wine tasting will happen at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Wednesday, February 10 at 6 p.m. For more information and to buy tickets.

EatDrinkFilms is pleased to offer four chapters from her book which is available at her book signing, autographed from www.vlllaragazziwine.com, or from Amazon.

From Bubbles to Boardrooms

Bubbles coverThe Land of Opportunity – Chapter 1

Late in 1972 I followed my young lawyer husband Gregory to his new position with a firm named Rutherford & Rutherford in Napa Valley, a siren song to him that left me unmoved. He already loved wine, but in Alameda where I had graduated from high school, Napa was better known as home to a state mental hospital. These were still the early days of Napa’s renaissance as a world-class winegrowing powerhouse.

Most agree the modern era for wine in Napa Valley dates from 1966, when Robert Mondavi founded his winery. There were a few dozen wineries then, not hundreds as now. Even so, it was clear that wine was the most interesting thing happening in Napa Valley. Basalt Rock, Kaiser Steel, Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Napa State Hospital…not for me.

Like many young people, I had no idea what to do to earn a living. Although I love learning, teaching French to undergraduates at Davis had shown me that I was not destined to be an academic. As I soon found, having a master’s degree in French Literature was more of a handicap than an asset, ironically making me “overqualified” or, more accurately, unemployable.

While waiting and looking for the right job, whatever that might be, I patched together a series of part-time jobs. My advanced degree qualified as a community college teaching credential, enabling me to land a job teaching French for Napa College (later to be rebranded Napa Valley College).

Our small class had a good time, meeting at 8:00 a.m. every weekday for a semester. Liz (Mrs. Louis P.) Martini and Jamie Davies of Schramsberg Vineyards were among my students. We read aloud to one another, practiced ordering in French from restaurant menus, and did our best with the French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” a much easier melody to sing than the Star Spangled Banner. We three made the mistake of trying to counsel a bright young student working as a nursing home aide that she had the potential to try for anything she wanted; perhaps feeling badgered, she quit the class.

At the same time I undertook the project of publishing the Napa College catalogue, an organizational challenge that revealed another career I would not pursue.

To increase my contribution to our rent, I started looking for a part-time job as a winery tour guide. I didn’t realize how scarce those jobs were, because there weren’t many visitors to the Napa Valley in 1972.

I first met Margrit, the future Mrs. Mondavi, when I came to the winery looking for a job. She gently pointed out that I was overqualified to be a tour guide, even had they needed one in those relatively quiet days. At that time, Margrit and one other person easily handled the visitor traffic at Mondavi.

So I must have been lucky to land a job at Beaulieu Vineyard in Rutherford. Longer established than Mondavi and well known for its Cabernets, Beaulieu needed a team of tour guides. I learned much later that I was their first female tour guide, which seems in hindsight a rather low ceiling to break through. At the close of my first week on the job, the avuncular manager Maynard Monaghan must have decided I was trustworthy. He handed me the keys, asked me to lock up, and ambled off to his cottage on the de Pins estate.

BeaulieuBeaulieu was one of the few pre-Prohibition wineries that had kept its doors open by taking advantage of the “sacramental wine” loophole in the Volstead Act. I recall pouring tastes of its various Napa Valley Cabernets for a Catholic priest in black cassock and white collar who was carefully selecting his (very high quality) altar wine. We still have in the cellar a five-gallon jug of non-vintage BV Cabernet clearly labeled “sacramental wine” acquired during my 6-month tenure at Beaulieu. We never got around to opening it for a party, and now we’re afraid to.

Gregory and I spent my entire paycheck and more buying 1968–1971 BV Cabernets at the employee price, which I recall as $2.19. (Or was that my hourly wage for working in the dorm cafeteria during my freshman year at UC Davis?) The BV Founder’s wines cost employees more, maybe four dollars, with a two-bottle limit that applied to everyone. We still have some of those wines, which have aged beautifully and are pulled out of the cellar only for special occasions.

This was near the end of the long reign of their winemaker André Tchelistcheff — arguably America’s most influential post-Prohibition winemaker — and the wines were superb. Maynard, bless him, honored us with a 1946 Georges de la Tour Private Reserve Cabernet from his own cellar for my birth year, and a 1945 Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir to Gregory for his. We were among those privileged to be invited to André’s 1973 retirement party, a well-attended sit-down dinner in the cellar. André continued thereafter to work as a consultant for Chateau Ste. Michelle and others well into his 90s.

In the spring of 1973 a headline in the Napa Register (later rebranded the Napa Valley Register) caught my attention: “French Company to Build $5 Million Winery.” This was big news in the wine world, since California was then considered a producer of mostly jug wines. France and Germany produced the world’s best wines, and it raised eyebrows around the world for a renowned French producer to invest in California.

It was also big news for me. To a French major with no marketable skills other than fluency in that very language, this sounded like opportunity.

Lacking actionable details, I tapped into my husband’s legal network to unearth a local contact for this elusive new enterprise. Within two weeks I’d learned that the founding president was John Wright, a former management consultant who was working out of his garage on Mt. Veeder. The connection came through his neighbors, two young attorneys with small children. She was keeping the books for the fledgling wine company, hiking through the woods every few days to pay bills and make hand-written entries in the general ledger.

I commandeered our only vehicle, Gregory’s prized Alfa Romeo, and motored up the mountain without an appointment. Walking into the garage at 1743 (an address chosen because it was the year Moët & Chandon was founded) Mt. Veeder Road, I found John Wright working alone at an improvised plywood standup desk and managed to blurt, “I speak French; do you need help?” He was surprised, but kindly gave the idea a few seconds of thought and replied, “Yes, I guess so.”

Not long before he died in 2012, John would tell my St. Supéry colleague Lesley Russell that the day I walked through that garage door was the best day of his work life. Mine too.

EDF GlassEvery Startup Is Different – Chapter 46

My first startup, Domaine Chandon, was born with an identity and a mission. We would make Napa Valley sparkling wine in the traditional méthode champenoise. The enterprise would be blessed by the imprimatur and support of the largest of the grandes marques champagne houses, Moët & Chandon. It would have the advantage of being the first major investment in the U.S. by a respected, established French wine producer at a time—the early 1970s—when California wines were just starting to gain recognition for quality.

St. Supéry was a different matter. Fifteen years later, the U.S. wine market for still wines had become crowded. Apart from the financial support and business acumen of its French owners, the Skalli family, the mission lacked competitive advantages. Unlike Domaine Chandon, whose parent and its products were well known in the U.S., the Skalli name was not linked to its revolutionary varietal wine project in the south of France, Fortant de France. Further, Fortant was targeted at a lower tier of the U.S. market than the Napa Valley wines would be. To avoid confusing consumers and trade, the new winery’s identity would have to be created from scratch.

When I joined the entity known as Skalli Corporation late in 1988, the first harvest in the new building was winding down. The 1986 and 1987 vintages from very young Dollarhide vines had been custom crushed elsewhere and were awaiting bottling. Robert Skalli had contracted with marketing guru Terrence Clancy to write a brand plan. His goal had been to go to market in 1989 with the 1986 Cabernet, 1987 Chardonnay, and 1987 Sauvignon Blanc.

I read the business plan, which was predicated on the notion that low prices were the only way to sell 500 producing acres worth of fruit as bottled wine under an unknown brand. That may have been correct, but it was a short-term answer to a long-term problem. Even if successful in moving a lot of product initially, this plan would make it difficult or impossible later to raise prices, thus limiting the return on the Skalli family’s considerable investment in vineyards and winery.

The Australians are still trying to overcome their strategy of entering new markets like the U.K. and U.S. at low prices to gain market share quickly, only to find their wines stuck for years at suboptimal prices. I suggested to my new boss that this plan should be rethought.

The brand was to be Skalli-Atkinson, perhaps inspired by other successful hyphenated winery names of the time like Kendall-Jackson and Ferrari-Carano. The designer had to compress this long name into illegibility to fit the limited space available on a front label. I advised Mr. Skalli that a name change should be considered.

When we tasted the young wines, still in tanks and barrels, it was clear to me that, given the durability of first impressions, it would be wise to wait for better quality wines to launch the new brand. I recommended that we keep the 1986 Cabernet for sale only at the winery under a simplified brand label, bottle the 1987 Cabernet, and wait for the more-promising 1988 whites before launching the new brand yet to be created.

Not everyone survives telling a proud owner that his name on the label will not be an asset. Or that six years of intensive vineyard development work had not yet produced a market-worthy white wine.

Perhaps surprised by my American directness, instead of firing me on the spot Robert Skalli agreed to give me a year to get it right. That year was the only time in my long tenure at St. Supéry that I didn’t have to get on an airplane, and I loved the opportunity to hunker down and lay a foundation for the future.

I used to marvel at how John Wright, my boss at Domaine Chandon, continually found good questions to raise. Now I was the one asking questions. In a startup situation, there is everything to do: build a team, create products and business plans, develop systems, point everyone in the same direction, and get to work! I who had unspoken reservations about my ability to lead a company realized that I had answers as well as questions. What I’d learned at Domaine Chandon during its startup phase proved useful in this new venture.

grapesThe Patron Saint of Lost Causes– Chapter 73

St. Jude must have been hovering over me throughout my wine career. I seemed always to be heading in a direction that everyone else at least initially perceived as a loser: sparkling wine instead of champagne, racy Sauvignon Blanc not soft Chardonnay, Meritage rather than fantasy names, Pope Valley instead of the watershed of the Napa River, unoaked Chardonnay vs the popular barrel-fermented version, dry rosé instead of sickly sweet pinkies, and Sangiovese—another “Next Big Thing” that failed to ignite (this last in my personal life, with our family’s Villa Ragazzi winery).

When Domaine Chandon introduced its first sparkling wines in 1977, New Yorkers wrinkled their noses at this “fake champagne.” West of the Hudson River there was a warmer welcome.

The neighboring vintners in Napa Valley kindly kept whatever reservations they might have had to themselves, and in fact embraced this first major French investment that confirmed to the world Napa Valley’s status as a prime winegrowing region. Potential competitors remained wary. While closely tracking the progress of Moët’s audacious California venture, other champagne houses seemed to fear it would fail. Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger, Mumm, et al., gave Domaine Chandon a lengthy head start before deciding it was safe to follow.

Upon moving from sparkling to still wines in 1988, I found St. Supéry’s most promising estate wine to be Sauvignon Blanc. The Dollarhide fruit had a certain verve that was unique and attractive. This was welcome news, as I had decided ten years earlier that Vichon winery’s Chevrier Blanc, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, was so delicious that we replanted our family’s Oakville vineyard to those varieties. (The people who knew how to make money were planting Cabernet in Oakville, even before Silver Oak and Opus One blessed the area.)

The bad news is that Sauvignon Blanc grapes and wine are hard to sell even at low prices, as Robert Mondavi had discovered some years earlier. Renaming his wine Fumé Blanc didn’t entirely solve the problem, but my predilection for Sauvignon Blanc remains, nonetheless, solid.

stsuperywineSt. Supéry’s solution to the market problem was to convoke a Sauvignon Blanc symposium for winemakers, the trade, and media in 1990 to discuss how to address the market’s lack of appreciation for this varietal. We were well down the planning path when we discovered that Dave Stare at Dry Creek Vineyard was on the verge of founding what he had dubbed The Society of Blancs, aka S.O.B.

Rather than compete with one of the few U.S. champions of Sauvignon Blanc, we offered to join forces; the St. Supéry symposium would become the inaugural S.O.B. gathering. Dave brought along his friend Henri Bourgeois, an enthusiastic vintner from Sancerre who makes delicious wines. A real entrepreneur, Henri now also produces Pinot Noir in New Zealand.

At that first Sauvignon Blanc symposium, winemakers and marketers talked about how confusing consumers found the myriad of Sauvignon Blanc styles. These stretched along a spectrum from soft, Sémillon-laden blends to bright citrusy wines, then to wines dominated by ripe tropical fruit characters and finally to oaky, Chardonnay wannabe styles.

We talked about food and wine pairings. We discussed where to plant, best vineyard practices, and how to modify Sauvignon Blanc wine styles in the vineyard. We tasted dozens of Sauvignon Blancs. The day ended with everyone all fired up and ready to advocate for our favorite white wine.

In spite of the unfortunate acronym, S.O.B. members worked hard to promote good Sauvignon Blancs and enjoyed a measure of success. When Cloudy Bay started getting traction in the U.S. market in the late 1980’s, it quickly became a sensation—rather like what happened with red wine after the 60 Minutes report on The French Paradox.

Suddenly, everyone “got it,” and zesty Sauvignon Blanc joined the ranks of accepted wines in America. Nonetheless, prices for high quality Sauvignon Blanc remain relatively low compared to Chardonnay and even Pinot Grigio, and volume remains small but steady at about four percent of the market.

Savblanc

From left: 2013 Spottswoode Napa and Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc; 2012 Arkenstone Vineyards Howell Mountain Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc; 2013 Massican Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc; 2013 Lail Blueprint Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc; 2013 Hourglass Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

As for St. Supéry, its success with Sauvignon Blanc resulted from a change in winemaking that released the full potential of Dollarhide grapes. Michael Scholz embraced the vibrancy of the varietal, eliminating the softening effects of Sémillon and oak aging to reveal a zingy, compelling grapefruit-lime-floral character that was an instant hit.

Blending was the next challenge we took on. It’s hard to believe now, with winemakers marrying wildly diverse varietals in ever more creative ways, that in 1988 blending was still often suspiciously viewed in the U.S. as an attempt to stretch or dilute a wine.

suprey Sav blanc

Few then knew that the traditional way to create a wine better than the sum of its parts is by blending across varieties, traditional in Bordeaux and Champagne. Perhaps if the bordelais had been more transparent about their winemaking practices, Americans might have better understood the benefits and the art of blending.

Also working against blending as a way to make better wines is the typically American belief that if some is good, more is better, and 100 percent must be the best of all. In the 1980s, the federal government increased the 51 percent minimum requirement for varietal labeling to 75 percent to reinforce varietal character. Winemakers and consumers generally regarded wines without varietal labels as inferior, perhaps because the regulations offer only the pejorative-sounding alternatives of “red wine” or, worse, “table wine.” In Europe, anything labeled table wine is considered plonk.

In 1974 Joseph Phelps was the first to make a bordeaux-style blend in the U.S., which he named Insignia to counterbalance the federally required “red table wine” designation in small type on his label. He was blending to make a superior product, and wanted that understood.

Soon after, more Napa vintners started making bordeaux-style blends carrying fantasy names. Opus One is probably the most famous among them. While these wines were nearly always superior in quality and high-priced to reinforce the point, this highly individualistic approach to branding did little to help American consumers understand the concept.

A group of vintners who were strong proponents of blending decided to take the matter in hand in 1988. Following months of effort to find a suitable name for this new category of fine wines blended in the Bordeaux tradition, they agreed on Meritage, a combination of merit and heritage.

Even though Meritage is an invented word and certainly not French, francophones and most Americans continue to mispronounce it as mair-eh-tahge. (Actually, it rhymes with heritage.) This word proved to have inherent, positive connotations of quality for many, and has been adopted by real estate developers and restaurateurs as well as wineries.

After a couple of years of energetic marketing to launch the concept, its founders lost steam and the Meritage Association dozed off. That was the situation when I stumbled onto the scene in 1997.

We had identified a choice lot of 1994 St. Supéry Cabernet Sauvignon and set those barrels aside for future consideration, perhaps for bottling as a reserve or a special blend. With the arrival in 1996 of winemaker Michael Scholz, a bordeaux-style blend became our first choice for this 1994 Cabernet.

A native of Barossa Valley in Australia, Michael was already well acquainted with Sémillon. It seemed appropriate to ask him to create a white bordeaux-style blend that could be released in late 1997 along with the special 1994 red wine he was to blend. There was only one problem with this excellent plan: what to name these new blended wines?

I was opposed to proprietary or fantasy names on the grounds that consumers were confused enough already, and a fanciful name would not be enlightening about the contents of the bottle. I did try to come up with one though, since my boss thought proprietary names were the key to success: witness Insignia, Soliloquy, Dominus, Ariadne, et al.

Our team brainstormed. We had company-wide naming contests. We researched. Nothing clicked. We were getting uncomfortably close to the planned release date when I came across a mention of the Meritage Association. It seemed the perfect solution, as Meritage is, by definition, a red or white blend of at least two bordeaux varietals. And of course everyone knew that, didn’t they?

Meritagelogo1One month before the release of our inaugural 1994 Red Meritage and 1996 White Meritage, the Wine Enthusiast published a lengthy article pronouncing the demise of the Meritage concept, a silly idea (another failed “Next Big Thing”) that had never taken hold. There wasn’t time to soak off and replace our Meritage labels, and we didn’t have an alternative name anyway.

My only recourse was to find someone involved in the Meritage Association and offer to become active in promoting or at least defending the concept. Orville Magoon, then owner of Guenoc Winery, was the association’s president. I called him to offer help. After hello, his first words were “Would you like to be president?”

I spent the next five years as president of the Meritage Association, St. Jude hovering nearby. We rebuilt the membership, made progress convincing the trade to create Meritage sections on wine lists and in shops, and cleared up some consumer confusion.

Then adventurous winemakers started blending non-bordeaux varietals into their Meritage wines. Blending was finally catching on. Soon after came Syrah-Zinfandel blends, and Rhône-style blends. Even “Sem-Chard” blends. Blending had grown well beyond bordeaux varietals and was becoming a new creative outlet for winemakers and marketers.

Robert Skalli had never given up his notion that St. Supéry’s blends should have a name we could own rather than a generic name like Meritage, so that debate was still going on. I ultimately conceded. Over a wine-heavy lunch, graphic designer Melanie Doherty and I came up with Élu for the red and Virtù for the white. Sorry, consumers: fanciful names rule.

In my defense, we did explain the Meritage concept and the precise varietal components of each vintage on St. Supéry’s Élu and Virtù back labels.

In its first report on St. Supéry, in 1989, the Wine Spectator characterized Dollarhide as a high-risk proposition in “Napa’s Outback.” They were referring to its location in Pope Valley, which is one of several mountain valleys in the Napa Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), or appellation.

There have been Pope Valley and other mountain grapes going into Napa wines since the nineteenth century. That is why Pope Valley and similar areas of Napa County outside the Napa River watershed were included in the Napa Valley AVA when it was delimited in 1981, with the support of Napa vintners.

Robert Mondavi himself made a fine speech to that effect at the public hearings held to determine what would constitute the “Napa Valley.” Even now, three decades later, some still disagree about including the mountain valleys in the AVA. They should get over it.

When Robert Skalli purchased and started planting the Dollarhide Ranch in 1982, it was only the second vineyard of any size in bucolic Pope Valley. Today, many of its broad meadows of grasses and wildflowers have been converted to prime vineyards.

Nonetheless, 30 years ago there was a perception, particularly among Napa old timers, that the best grapes came from vineyards on the valley floor. They may not have known that many European appellations outright forbid planting wine grapes in deep, rich soils. Oregon’s Willamette Valley AVAs, defined less than ten years ago, start at 200-feet elevation and go up. The mountain vs. flat vineyard debate rages on.

Over the years growers have become more sophisticated about Napa’s many soil types, microclimates, exposure, moisture retention, and all natural things associated with differentiating terroirs. Pope Valley, like most of northern Napa Valley, is well suited to Bordeaux varietals (and Sangiovese), just as Carneros is a good home for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The proof is in the wines, not dated generalizations or idées reçues.

EDF Glass

The Things We Do to Sell Wine – Chapter 78

This is a story of pigs and people.

St. Supéry’s hard charging, entrepreneurial young vineyard manager Josh Anstey was easily bored. The considerable challenge of managing a 475-acre vineyard with a wild diversity of soil types, elevations, aspects, drainage, rootstocks, and wine grape varieties wasn’t enough to keep him entertained.

So he planted several kinds of olive trees on parts of the thousand acres of Dollarhide Ranch that were unsuitable for wine grapes, with an eye to olive oil production. Olive trees grow too slowly for Josh, so he expanded into fruit trees: heirloom apples, peaches, pluots, and apricots all thrived and were soon yielding bumper crops.

Next, our UC Davis graduate with a master’s degree in Agronomy went into animal husbandry with a dozen head of cattle, most of which he personally helped convert to steerdom, yielding plentiful Rocky Mountain oysters. Then a couple of paint horses arrived. His purebred German shorthairs loved to harass a growing flock of turkeys, ducks, and chickens, even after putting in many happy miles chasing the vineyard foreman’s dogs all over the ranch. A farmer’s paradise, but still…not enough.

dollarhide

Fortunately I had warned Josh about the pumpkin project we had undertaken four years before his arrival in 1999, so he wasn’t tempted to try that again. The idea had been to strengthen relationships by enticing visitors to Dollarhide, where they could gather as many free pumpkins as they liked. And if they happened to stop by the winery in Rutherford on the way home to pick up some wine, well, that was fine too.

Our vineyard manager in 1995 had a very different idea from mine what “a few pumpkins” could mean. Thinking big, as usual, he planted five thousand pumpkins. Each would have to be individually upended to assure a classic round shape, not to mention nurturing and harvesting.

Walking through the pumpkin patch just before they were ready to harvest, I was flattered to discover a splendid five-foot long (someone had neglected to upend it) specimen into which some wag had carved my initials early in its development. By harvest time, that “MKR” had grown to marquee size.

This personalized prize soon arrived on my doorstep along with a few dozen large, classically round pumpkins. Hundreds more soon decorated the winery entrance, an idea quickly adopted by other wineries and now something of a Napa Valley winery tradition at Halloween. We begged winery visitors to “steal” the pumpkins at will, and they obliged. We replenished the display daily from our bountiful stores.

pumpkin circle

Courtesy of Dallas Arboretum; FCC Arlington; Storybook Ranch; Country Critters Farm

By mid-December the pumpkins on my front porch had begun to rot, so I heaved them into our family vineyard to enrich the soil. I had forgotten about the seeds; volunteer pumpkins sprouted amid our Sauvignon Blanc vines annually thereafter. And at Dollarhide. But I digress.

As with the pumpkins, eventually there was a problem of surplus produce from Josh’s orchard. His solution was a wine marketing tour de force: he would offer tree-ripened, hand-picked-that-day Dollarhide peaches to local restaurateurs in the hope they would in turn look favorably on carrying St. Supéry wines. This worked well, as Josh was the first to think of it and the peaches were superb; it also helped that the “locavore” phenomenon was well under way.

While I was enjoying lunch one day at Cindy’s Back Street Kitchen in St. Helena, including an irresistible dessert made with luscious Dollarhide peaches created by pastry chef Annie Baker (really! that’s her name), chef/owner Cindy Pawlcyn stopped by the table to chat.

I asked what else she had in mind for locally sourced foodstuffs, and she promptly responded “heirloom pork.” Clearly having done her homework, she further specified Berkshire or Red Wattle. This was beyond my ken, but I offered to talk to Josh about raising designer pigs at Dollarhide.

The next thing I knew, Josh had dispatched assistant vineyard manager Geoff Gatto to Iowa to pick up a pregnant Berkshire. She was large, lean, and pink; we enchanted non-farmers naturally named her Petunia. Lonely in her shady pen, personable Petunia loved company, grunting happily at visitors and arching her back to be scratched.

I made the mistake of introducing Robert Skalli to our porcine charmer on one of his regular visits to Napa Valley. That introduction was to have disastrous results for our budding heirloom pig program.

In time Petunia gave birth to an impressive passel of piglets, about half of which did not survive. Of the seven remaining, six were male, useless for breeding but excellent for meat production. The sole female was destined to carry on the line. Two weeks after giving birth, exhausted Petunia expired during a brief but intense heat wave, leaving Josh to bottle-feed seven ravenous piglets. This was not in the playbook of this former All-American defensive end, but he did it and they all thrived.

The USDA has something to say about meat processing. Petunia’s baby boys grew apace and soon needed to be converted. This required a six-hour drive to Eureka, site of the nearest USDA approved abbatoir.

Cindy was thrilled with Josh’s first delivery, and promptly put Berkshire pork chops on the menu. To keep supplies flowing to Cindy while awaiting Petunia’s grandchildren, Josh acquired a few pre-teen Berkshires. He even godfathered the not exactly in vitro fertilization of Petunia’s virgin daughter. Oh, the things we do to sell wine.

At the height of the H1N1 (Swine Flu) virus crisis in the spring of 2009, Mr. Skalli again returned to Napa Valley. Alarmed by the American media’s characterization of the potential pandemic, his thoughts turned to Josh’s Berkshires. What if some of Petunia’s offsprings’ delicious pork were to be linked to swine flu? It would be a public relations disaster for St. Supéry! The pigs must go.

Mr. Skalli knew me well enough to understand that I would probably wait for the whole thing to blow over rather than act on his concern, so he called Josh upon landing in Paris and issued a direct order to eliminate the pigs. Good citizen Josh sadly complied.

The media eventually got around to publishing the uninteresting update that pigs do not spread swine flu, people do.

Video visit to Dollarhide Ranch

EDF Glass

Michaela K. Rodeno is a business leader, entrepreneur, corporate director, consultant, vintner and grape grower, wife, mother, author, and co-founder of Women for WineSense. Her 40-year career in the wine business in Napa Valley began serendipitously with the arrival of Domaine Chandon, where as employee #2 she learned wine on the job and evolved into the VP/Marketing. Next came a two-decade position leading another startup, St. Supéry, as its first CEO. [St. Supery announced its acquisition by Chanel, Inc. in 2015.] She relaunched the family’s tiny Villa Ragazzi, described as “perhaps the best Sangiovese in California,” and published a business memoir, Bubbles to Boardrooms, available from Amazon. She served on the board of directors of Silicon Valley Bank for 10 years, and is currently on the board of Bank of Marin and is advising two startups. She has BA and MA degrees in French Literature from UC Davis, and an MBA from Berkeley/Haas. Michaela resides with her attorney husband Gregory on their 25-acre Cabernet Villa Ragazzi vineyard in Oakville, and loves to play tennis.

Michaela and Greg Rodeno in 1983 at Domaine Chandon.

Michaela and Greg Rodeno in 1983 at Domaine Chandon.

Ragazzi wine

 

One thought on “From Bubbles to Boardrooms

  1. Your story takes me back. My first trip into Napa as a wild eyed east coast wine enthusiast was in the early ’70’s. Just yesterday I was thinking how much has changed there, and that my image of Napa still goes back to the time I so easily got around, and at the vineyards met, without prior appointments, some impressive people. One of them was George Viara at Vichon, tasting his newly introduced 1980 Chevrier Blanc. I loved it!
    I am writing for a couple of award winning wine blogs now, and like yourself enjoy recalling how Napa has evolved. Perhaps one of my next pieces will be “Not the Napa I Will Take With Me.” This prompted by the new SF Chronicle story on Harlan’s new property and offering (Promontory), which in a sense saddened me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s