Three Women In Wine Talk Business Past and Future

, The what, where, when of wine, with special attention paid to Italy. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
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From right: MaryAnn Tsai, Debra Mathy, Nicole Carter talk to Double Forte senior vice president Maggie Zeman at the BNY Mellon Wealth Management Game Changers panel at the Nomad Hotel in New York City on October 25, 2017.
Susan H. Gordon

As part of BNY Mellon Wealth Management’s Game Changers series which the company launched in 2017 in support of its more nontraditional clients, three Napa- and Sonoma-based veteran women in wine came to Manhattan this fall to offer a taste of all they do.

Debra Mathy (proprietor of boutique Dutcher Crossing Winery in Sonoma County), MaryAnn Tsai (owner of collector-oriented Moone-Tsai Wines in Napa County’s St. Helena) and Nicole Carter (CMO and director of winemaking of Hess Family Wine Estates with wineries in California and Argentina) gathered on the NoMad Hotel’s rooftop on October 25 just days after wildfires spread through their communities, to talk to an audience of intent women, and men, about their paths to success in an industry that is only now beginning to show a larger female presence.

There are many types of success of course. A project of BNY Mellon Wealth Management, which handles $231 billion in client assets, the Game Changers series reflects the economic kind and was created “to showcase women who have reached leadership roles within their industries and who are unexpected presences there,” Tom Dicker, BNY Mellon’s president of U.S. markets, told me during a recent phone call. “At least half of our clients are women. As we go out and expand our presence in the world it’s important to represent who our clients are. In terms of what we’re seeing in the economic sphere, women are playing a much more prominent role than they ever have before.” That they are doing so in fields that have for so long been informally closed to women is important, too: past Game Changers panelists include Invenergy’s Amy Francetic, senior vice president of finance and administration of the Angels MLB team Molly Jolly and war photojournalist Lynsey Addario.

“I think you have to be creative and push the envelope and push yourself and do things you don’t necessarily love to do,” said Carter that night of her entry into the wine industry 25 years ago. “I came up through the ranks of publicly traded wine companies, and unfortunately as a female you have to do a lot of work to prove that you belong there and you’re often the only female and to some extent that still exists in the wine world today, particularly when you’re trying to sell wine.”

After so many years in, Carter along with Mathy and Tsai now occupy distinctive places in the industry, with the ability to provide support, example and corroboration to the women setting off on wine-industry careers after them. “Women like those on our panel today have a wonderful opportunity to inspire more women to be game changers in other nontraditional industries,” Katia Friend, BNY Mellon Wealth Management managing director, noted of the series’ mission in a press release after the event.

In 2003, Tsai — who spent 11 years at Beringer, taking it from a 100,000-case operation to one moving 5 million cases — co-founded Moone-Tsai Wines with her once–Beringer boss, Mike Moone. He retired soon after, and today Tsai runs her winery with the help of her husband. With a yearly production of just 3,000 cases via winemaker Philippe Melka, her hand-harvested Bordeaux-varietal wines which include bottlings from the Howell Mountain AVA can command upwards of $200 per bottle upon release. “After being in business for 20 years, we really started with the concept of what do we love. We love Cabernet,” Tsai shared during the event. “People seek us out for our wines and I think that because of that there’s a lot of respect for both me and my husband for what we’ve accomplished in the wine business,” she said in a follow-up phone call.

With seven bottlings across up to 15,000 cases each year, all sold directly to consumers, Mathy’s Dutcher Crossing in Dry Creek Valley offers a lesson in neighborliness as good business practice. A Wisconsin native, she bought the winery in 2007, following her late father’s insistence that she focus on the business side while chasing her passion for wine. There, “We dabbled a little bit in Pinot to have some of these famed growers see the way that we do business. I grew up with the motto that your word is your bond and so even you were on the losing end of the deal that you agreed to, [you say,] we’ll take our hits, honor our agreement. That earned us a lot of credibility to the point where a lot of famed growers in Sonoma, the pinot growers of the world, actually started calling us,” she explained during the event. “We’re now a pinot house, and we’re in the heart of zinfandel.”

In 2015, Carter left a 20-year post with Treasury Wine Estates to run marketing and winemaking for Hess’s brands here and overseas (the publicly traded Hess Family Wine Estates sells 750,000 cases annually in all fifty states, Canada, Asia, Latin America). As a decades’ long witness to the U.S.’s notoriously male-dominated three-tier distribution system, she says of being on the supply side, “I think there is change happening because, if I use myself as my own example, I’ve gotten comfortable in my own skin. And I think that takes a certain level of professionalism and a certain time on the planet in your career.”

Here, with a look at the wine industry from distribution models, mentorship and management style to culture shifts as women begin to make their talents known, are some of the ways in which these three women have changed the wine industry culture around them, how they got to where they are today and what remains for the rest of us to do.

Challenges then and now

Carter notes, “In publicly traded wine companies, particularly ones that are traded in foreign countries, it’s a tough go. When I got into the business I found it very difficult to break into the sales end. I had to learn how to play golf and that sounds really weird and I don’t like golf, but so much of the business took place on the golf course. The gentlemen would get together and play golf and I thought, Well if I want to do some of these business deals. . . . I’m still not very good at it.”

When Tsai earned her MBA, she “really, really wanted to be in the wine business so I wrote letters to all the wineries in Napa in 1989. There were very few professionally run wine companies, then; most were family run. Beringer Vineyards was one of the very few companies that had been sold [to Nestle]. I ran their marketing. I was an outsider but I also had a skill base that a lot of wineries didn’t have at the time and each time an opportunity came up, I said, Give that to me. I worked on our import portfolio, our export portfolio, our strategic planning and product development. It was a very male-dominated society, but more so on the distributer side, the three-tiered system. There were a lot of older men, they weren’t used to women in the industry. There were no women really running wineries so you kind of had to prove yourself, you sort of had to fight and forge your own way but once you do that you get a reputation and people want to work with you. I do remember, like Nicole said, that a lot of the guys still played golf; you used to have to go out and go drinking with the guys and you kind of had to fit in and roll with the punches.”

During the event, Mathy noted of her days as the new resident and proprietor of Dutcher Crossing: “We were big community activists where I grew up in Wisconsin and so I believed that for me to be accepted within the community was for me to get active within [it] vs. changing my business beliefs to be accepted. It was very intentional to stay true to my brand, stay true to the business beliefs and strategy but allow the community to get to know me as an individual outside the brand. I’m here to stay, and so I need to have an understanding of what the community represents and become part of that as an individual not just as a company.”

Direct-to-consumer vs. three-tier and why distribution matters to women in wine

As Carter noted during the event, the three-tier system is a powerful presence within the wine industry: “You’re giving about 30 percent of your profit margin to the distributor and then that 30 percent a second time around to the retailer so 60 percent of your profits are going down the food chain. So the direct-to-consumer model is highly profitable. It’s also highly competitive. Today there are about 5,000 wineries in the United States trying to sell direct to consumer. There are far less in the three-tier distribution system, but those ones are also much higher volume, so it’s pretty tough to be [there] if you’re small because you have to keep your share of attention from your distributor. And the distributor network is consolidated now: in 1995 there were 6,000 distributors and about 600 to 700 wineries. Today there are about 600 distributors and about 5,000 wineries. It is very much a network of people who have been in the business for a long time.”

Mathy notes, “For us, I chose not to go through the three-tier system, it’s a little cutthroat, it’s a little ruthless, and I would rather give profits to my staff who are working hard, and not have to share them with the distributors. So as long as [my staff is] willing to work hard and they can contribute to the success, the rewards stay at home for them.”

Tsai has seen both sides: “When I ran the Beringer business, when I started it was 100,000 cases and when I left it was 5 million, so we grew it through the three-tier system. Like Nicole said, that’s the good-old-boy network and that’s where it is challenging to be a female. The business that my husband and I have now is really different. We are really primarily mailing list only. We do have a club but it’s for very high-end collectors. We’re a small player. We’ve got 3,000 cases to sell.”

The importance of precedents and female mentorship

When Carter began visiting Hess’s Argentina brands, she worried how she would be accepted there. But, “The reality is that they’re more progressive than in the U.S. There are quite a lot of women winemakers, women owners. It was eye-opening for me, so the transition was actually much easier than I expected,” she said at the event. Of stateside today, she elaborated during a phone call: “When I look at the next generation of professionals coming up through the ranks, there’s a very different mindset. Young women today have much more of what I would call a fearlessness than I did 25 years ago, because some of those boundaries have been relaxed or eliminated. In order for women to make a pivotal change, they have to have examples, and it’s been incumbent upon me to mentor. In my own experience, I needed to know that somebody did it before me, that there was a living breathing example. I have several young women who I met when they came to work for me either straight out of college or soon thereafter. I’ve stayed with them on their journey to help them find their voice and to empower them to say, I can absolutely do that. It’s a personal commitment: the women I mentor today don’t work for me. It’s part of the journey to break down the barriers in an industry that’s traditionally been very male dominated. And when women in my position don’t do it, it just continues to stay in that vicious cycle.”

Of her earliest days, Tsai notes, “When I joined Beringer, it was a small company and the woman that hired me to do marketing had a strong standing in the company and held a high position and as a result she was a mentor as well. She had a lot of respect and she taught us a lot not only about business but how to deal within the company and within the industry.”

And of male allies, too

Tsai also credits another mentor. “When I joined Beringer, Mike Moone was the president of Beringer. He made it one of his points to meet all the people who joined the company. Once he got to know me, we thought along the same lines, and he took an interest in my career. When he came back to Beringer years later, he was chairman of the board; I was invited to board meetings and I was able to really show my skills. With him it’s all about results. He taught me the business, kind of taught me the ropes and treated me like an equal. And when we went out to distributors or out to events, he always made sure to talk about what I was able to accomplish.”

And when an active role in male mentorship is needed? “I’ve been super fortunate that I work for, and I have worked for, mostly, male CEOs who have super supportive of what I bring to the table. But I don’t think it’s widespread for women in general,” Carter says. “I have gently and delicately pointed out situations to my own male colleagues where there are no women in the room. I don’t think they saw it; it’s a lack of awareness until you point it out. I think it’s an awareness-raising exercise.” As far as exercises go, it’s a simple one: “Count how many women are in the room.”

On risk-taking and originality

“My key people are women, with the exception of my winemaker, because they’re the best ones for the job.” Mathy said at the event. She expanded on this during a phone conversation: “Our winery has attracted younger applicants. Coming in with a clean slate has been a real advantage. Most of my people are under thirty-five. And we’ve been able to grow [because] they’ve been aggressive; they’re open to new adventures and challenges. Except for my winemaking staff, none of them have winemaking or wine industry backgrounds; many on my business side come from child development backgrounds. They don’t seem to get overwhelmed when you throw ten-thousand projects at them. They have that mentality of, ‘Hey, let’s just prioritize and start clicking things off one by one. We don’t need to do things the quote-unquote wine-business way, we need to do things proper the business way and what’s right for our business.’ They’re not trying to just take what they already know, they’re trying to understand the brand and to do what’s best for it. Early on in my career here, we had a few seasoned veterans in the industry and they were pretty set in the way of how to do something. And it didn’t really fit. They were really nervous and hesitant to go outside their comfort zones. Our business needs should be able to push people outside their comfort zone. The desires and needs of the consumers are ever-changing, and so we as an industry better be aware of that.”

About those differences in business style? Tsai told me, “The women I know are just as passionate and just as hardworking as the men. I found that when I ran a company, my management style, my leadership style, was probably a little bit different than theirs. I was much more collaborative in terms of how I ran the company and in terms of decision-making and I think that might be something that you see more with females.”

What’s different now

Carter told me, “I think it’s changing. It’s not as fast as it should be but it is changing. One of the areas where women have succeeded is in the winemaking field. If you go back even to the Grand Dame of Veuve Clicquot, there have been women examples in winemaking throughout the centuries and that continues today. Now whether they get highlighted for that or not is a completely different story, but I think there are wonderful examples there. When you get to the commercial side of the business, the story changes. In the distribution world we’re seeing constant consolidation. And if you look at the big distributors in the United States, they’re mostly family owned. There have been female family members that have risen through some of the ranks, but not all the way to the top. I think until that happens on the distribution side. . . . There’s not that role model that exists to break those barriers, so I think the paradigm shift there is slower.”

“I think that if a women can get into a position and work hard and show results then they’re going to move up and they’re going to get respect,” Tsai told me. I asked if she thought women had to fight less now to be noticed for these positions in the first place: “The biggest change that I’ve seen is that the industry’s become much more sophisticated especially in Napa Valley. There are a lot more, through all the acquisitions and the mergers of wine companies, bigger companies that are looking for much more professional management. I see a lot more people coming out here that have MBAs or have skills from other industries, and I think that because of what they’ve accomplished in prior jobs or with the skill sets that they bring in, they’re put into higher roles entering the industry.”

Mathy told me, “I see quite a bit more quality on the direct-to-consumer side for women, there seem to be doors opening in all departments in wineries that are mainly direct to consumer. I think women bring a lot more diversity as far as skill sets with empathy and a gentle touch with hospitality but yet have hard-driven business sense, a mathematical sense as far as being able to lay out projections for the needs for the winery for acquisition of fruit, bottling, and so forth. I think women are bringing a broader skill set and less narrow-minded, this-is-the-way-that-we-must-do-it-it’s-the-wine-industry [way of thinking].”

After the wildfires

For the October 25 event, BNY Mellon Wealth Management made a donation to the Sonoma County Resilience Fund and the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.

Carter reports, “I live in Santa Rosa [and] we were evacuated but my home is fine. My community is not fine but it’s a very strong community that will put itself back together over time. We have two wineries in the Napa Valley: our winery up on Mount Veeder where people come to visit us and then we have a much bigger winery down in the American Canyon area, where we warehouse, where we bottle. From an operations perspective, we were very fortunate. We had a place to go and crush grapes that [were] still being harvested and thanks to the community and the wine spirit that’s in the community we borrowed a sorter, we borrowed machinery from other wineries, we actually borrowed 50,000 gallons of water from the other winery. Now I think our biggest challenge is to get people come back to visit.”

In Mathy’s case: “We halted operations for a day, made sure all our people were safe and their families were safe, made sure we had evacuees with us whether they be wine club members or friends and then when that settled after a day, we grouped. We have two facilities, too, and we were locked out for several days. One of our winemakers crossed the line, knowing he’d have to leave if it got unsafe. He went in and did punch downs for us. My staff took food items to the food bank, we cooked 500 meals to take to the evacuees. We halted with the understanding and blessings from all of our customers that we’re going to take care of us first, our community, and when we’re ready we’ll come back to you again. We are full steam ahead now, but we’re still keeping an eye on everybody and helping the community.”

“Where we are up on Powell Mountain is about 1,800 feet above the valley and we’re very close to Calistoga. The Tuffs Lane fire [was] about five miles away, and we were very fortunate,” said Tsai. “We’re near a thousand acres of state forest so if the winds shifted  it could have been disastrous for us. We had about 85 percent of our fruit in; it was either in fermentation or in barrel so the wine was completely protected and safe; 15 percent of the fruit was left on the vine, in a couple of really nice vineyards, and we chose not to bring that fruit in because we were concerned about smoke taint. Like Sonoma, neighbors kind of rallied together. A lot of the damage for us was along the mountainside, it wasn’t in the main part of town and there were only a few wineries affected. The restaurants and hotels are all safe, so we encourage you to come to Napa Valley. It’s the perfect time to come; it’s still beautiful right now.”

Three pieces of advice

“If you truly want to do this, it’s not a job, it’s actually a lifestyle.” Mathy shared during the event. “If you’re willing to make it part of your heartbeat, what you do day in day out, what you eat, breath and sleep, then go for it. It’s not going to be fun all the way, but you have to be persistent As much as we’re living everybody’s bucket list, it’s not that glamorous. You get to go out and drink and do the fun things, but half the time I’m knee deep in dirt and I have wine stains on my hands and purple teeth because I’m tasting with my winemaker.”

Tsai agreed: “If you do what you love to do no one will ever work harder than you. It’s really important today for people to have strong communication skills, to be able to manage people, to be able to work with people, to be able to have empathy for people. Focus on what your goals are, write them down, make strides toward those goals, achieve milestones, be relentless in terms of going after those goals. It is going to be challenging. If you want to be a game changer, challenge the status quo or change the paradigm, you’re going to have to do things that, like Nicole said, are difficult, are uncomfortable, you have to be fearless, be focused on what it is you want to do and you’ll be successful. You have to ask, and you have to want. You only get to do the things that you put yourself out there and ask for, particularly in the larger wine companies.”

And never forget, Carter reminded me, that, “You can do anything you want.”

This article is based on the BNY Mellon Wealth Management Game Changers panel on 25 October 2017 at Nomad Hotel and follow-up interviews; all has been condensed for space

© 2017, sheconquers. All rights reserved.

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