Vineyard Maven



Sitting at a specially prepared luncheon table with white linen and sparkling china beneath a several-hundred-year-old valley oak near the entrance of St. Supery winery, I expected to see the company's CEO go through the fill wine-tasting ritual of sniffing and swirling. But, instead, Michaela Rodeno sipped her own vintage in between bites of radicchio lettuce and roasted chicken with the same unpretentiousness that she described her unlikely rise from community college French teacher to one of the few women to run a Napa Valley winery

Soft-spoken and quick to laugh, Rodeno bears no resemblance to the matriarch of the fictional Falcon Crest winery, the tyrannical Jane Wyman character who ruthlessly sought to ruin her competitors. Rodeno is tall, thin, and flows into a room rather than taking it by storm.

Dressed in a white blouse and purple suit with her sunglasses perched on her head, the New Jersey-born navy brat explained that she grew up with no real exposure to wine beyond the memory of being given "sticky thimblefuls of wine" by her father at Thanksgiving. In fact, she didn't begin drinking until college, when she went to study in Bordeaux In France, she picked up the natives' attitude toward wine as a natural complement to a meal."They drink wine with meals so I drank with meals. Before that, I never thought about wine. When I got back from France, I continued to drink it with meals, Rodeno recalls.

She pauses to mention that the white wine we are now drinking, a Sauvignon Blanc, was just named the best Napa wine at the California State Fair. St. Supery grows eight varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Zinfandel, Muscat) to produce a total of eleven wines, four under the Bonverre label and two kosher wines on the Mt. Madrona label. The St. Supery label depicts three dancers on a gold medallion surrounded by the Latin words "Pota Salta Bonus Es" (Drink, dance, and be good). The winery just produced two new premium wines with labels that have artist's renderings of their image of Saint Supery.

The St. Supery vineyards had not even been planted when Rodeno returned to college to complete her degree at the University of California at Davis. During her senior year, she met a law student whom she later learned was known for his interest in wine. This turned out to be just one of their shared interests, and Rodeno eventually married him.

Rodeno was still far from the Napa boardrooms. In fact, she left school with an M.A. in French literature and was living in Sacramento, where her husband got a job with the Corps of Engineers. A friend of his worked in Napa and suggested that he move and become a country lawyer. The idea appealed to both of them, and they moved to the valley in 1972. While her husband built his practice, Rodeno taught French at a community college, published the school's catalogs, and did other part-time work.


"You make your own opportunities in life," Rodeno says, and she did just that when the local press began trumpeting the opening of Domaine Chandon, the first big French winery to invest in Napa. 1 found John Wright [Domaine's president] and said, 'I speak French, do you need help? "Wright hired Rodeno and became her boss and mentor.

"John is a total wild man, who operated in an unstructured environment and hasn't a clue about closing doors on anybody," she comments. were lots of exciting things to do and not too many people to do them. For people inclined to just jump in, there was no one around to say, 'don't do that,' so I just jumped in."

Since Rodeno was the only one at Domaine who spoke French, she was the person who talked to the French winemakers and architects when they came to visit. She also worked with the press, which was very interested in the newcomer. "It was the first time a French winemaking concern had invested in California, and it occurred at a time when no one was giving California wines their due," Rodeno says, recalling how she backed into public relations. "The stories were wrong, and I decided to talk to reporters so they'd get it right. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I could write things down and answer questions."

Rodeno says she learned a lot and was never scared by the amount of responsibility she was assuming. "I've always been totally oblivious, ever since I was a kid. I never think about failure. It's not in my vocabulary." She speaks with confidence, while habitually swirling her glass of '94 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Meanwhile, her husband, who she says has a Pygmalion complex, felt Rodeno needed to know more and convinced her to get an MBA "I didn't really want to go back to school, but I knew I should do that to be taken seriously in the business." She got the degree while continuing to work at Domaine and then, "amazingly enough, shortly thereafter, I was made the vice president of marketing."

Since Napa is a chummy community, it is common for people in the industry to get together and talk about wine. One person Rodeno met early in her career was a Frenchman named Robert Skalli who had a vision of creating his own winery in Napa. Skalli was running back and forth from France and would meet with Rodeno and some other people in the business to pick their brains whenever he was in Napa. One day, Skalli invited her over to his "office" to discuss his need for a sales and marketing person. She gave him some names and then he dropped a bombshell. "I sat in this trailer in the mud nursing a one-year-old and still didn't realize Skalli wanted me. I was totally shocked when he asked."

Though it was tempting to work for a start up, Rodeno's boss at Domaine told her what she was doing was valuable and convinced her to stay. "Over the next year and a half, things deteriorated at Domaine and I couldn't do anything about it," she says. "I got frustrated and wrote a letter to Skalli saying I was interested in helping him."

The letter arrived just as Skalli was about to hire someone to run the company "He was comfortable with me, but he wanted the rest of his family to be comfortable also," Rodeno says, so she interviewed with a headhunter Skalli had retained. Rodeno got the job. She laughs, recalling how several months later Skalli showed her the headhunter's evaluation saying she's a nice lady with good marketing credentials but nothing to indicate she could be a CEO. "Robert thought that was hilarious."


Though the winery was new, the location was a vintage one. The winery's headquarters and visitors center are on the main drag through Napa between Oakville and Rutherford, where many of the best-known wineries are based. Robert Mondavi, for example, is just down the street. You drive in through a small vineyard that leads to a large, modern office building just behind a quaint Queen Anne Victorian home built more than a hundred years ago by Joseph Atkinson, a successful clothier from Philadelphia who was attracted to California by the Gold Rush. The house has been restored to its original condition and turned into the only museum devoted to life in the valley at the time of the wine industry's last great boom in the 1880s.

The winery takes its name from Edward St. Supery, a French winemaker. He became a leading Napa vintner when he purchased the Atkinson property at the turn of the century, after the valley was ravaged by the root louse phylloxera and the vineyards were ruined. During the years between the phylloxera disaster and Prohibition, the vineyards were never reestablished. It was not until 1957, after the property had passed through several hands, that grapevines once again sprouted.

The headquarters is also where the wine is actually made. The facility has a 180,000-case capacity and a bottling machine that can churn out 2,500 cases a day. The fifty-acre vineyard at the visitors center actually represents only a fraction of the winery's property Most of the winery's grapes are grown in Pope Valley at a former cattle ranch where Skalli decided to experiment with different varieties in the mid-1980s. More than one-third of the 1,500-acre Dollarhide Ranch has since been planted with grapes. Because the climate is warmer during the day and cooler at night than the rest of the valley, the St. Supery wines have a different taste and aroma than those produced elsewhere. 'he wines of the Dollarhide Ranch exhibit a delicate fruitiness and light, body-pleasing qualities distinct from those of central Napa Valley wines. It is on the appealing, fresh drinkability of these wines that St. Supery bases its future," according to the winery's promotional material.


The taste of wine was far from Rodeno's lips when she arrived at St. Sup6ry. "When I got here, there were offices but no people yet," she remembers. Because Rodeno feels doors pose barriers to communication, one of her first acts as CEO was to have the walls knocked down. sI was used to an open working environment and didn't want doors. The only doors are on the bathroom and the conference room, and when that's closed, people always think someone must be in trouble."

Though she'd never supervised people before taking over St. Supery, she was a natural leader. "As issues would arise, I found I knew exactly what I wanted to do about them," she explains. "For example, we needed someone to handle sales and marketing. A lot of wineries have one person do both jobs, but my experience was that people who were really good in sales were not necessarily good in marketing and vice versa, so I hired two separate people."

Rodeno quickly gained a rep utation for her open management style and hospitable environment for female employees. Her predominantly female management team is unique in the industry. "We don't have an affirmative action prOgram. Applicants just see fewer barriers here," notes Sandy Flanders, director of marketing and one of the members of that team. She adds that "women want to come to work with Michaela"

"I have no specific drive to help women break through the glass ceiling," Rodeno explains. "If you've got what it takes, I have the opportunity. I operate that way because I learned that way I believe in giving people running room. Most people put limits on people rather than opening doors and seeing what will happen."

Rodeno is one of only two or three female CEOs in the industry. Usually, women come to power through family ties. For example, Carolyn Martini was tapped by her father to run Louis M. Martini. There must be barrriers [for women]," says Rodeno, "I just don't notice them." She adds that "it's a small industry that started anew in the sixties. There's not much mobility for anyone. The first generation [of leaders] is just getting to retirement age."


The respect Rodeno has earned is reflected by her selection as the chair of the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction. The event is a four-day celebration considered the biggest occasion of the western wine year. When it started in 1981, participants sold used aprons and baskets and collected about $140,000 for the Queen of the Valley and St. Helena Hospitals. In 1996, the wine auction netted approximately $2 million for local health services. "It's like running a multimillion-dollar company for a year," she says.

The wine business has a certain element of glamour, but it is tough to make a profit, especially for new wineries like St. Supery, which didn't make money until 1996. Though Napa Valley wineries have won international acclaim, they produce only a minuscule fraction of the wine made in the United States, which ranks fourth in world wine consumption and sixth in production. Still, more than two hundred wineries are located in the Napa Valley. Though St. Supery ranks among the top ten in terms of acreage planted, it is dwarfed by larger ones like Christian Brothers, Charles Krug, and Robert Mondavi.

The Napa vintners are competitive but nothing like the fictional rivals in the old Falcon Crest TV show, according to Rodeno. "I believe in group marketing and community service," she explains. "Actually, it's a very chummy group. We're basically a community of farmers with one crop a year, and it's perishable.

If my press breaks down, I call for help and I can get it, and I would do the same for others." Rodeno sees her competition more as other beverages-water, tea, soft drinks, beer. "We're a small group swimming against a large tide of liquid out there."

Like any CEO, Rodeno's day is filled with meetings and administrative duties, but as a mother with two children, ages 10 and 13, she still wants to be home in time for dinner with the family. She works from about eight to six and usually eats lunch at her desk (a diet Coke and a bag of pretzels).

Rodeno's hard edge comes out when discussing policy issues, such as the efforts to put greater curbs on the sale of wine. 'he anti-alcohol lobby was active in the 1980s, especially, and wine was caught up in the sweep. In the '80s the industry had to mention sulfites on labels because a small percentage of the population goes into shock from sulfites." The furor was provoked when a child died because of a reaction to eating guacamole, which is treated with sulfites in salad bars. "It was a tactic to scare people," Rodeno maintains. Next came Surgeon General Koop and concerns about fetal alcoholism and scientific evidence of links between alcohol and cancer.

The industry has not responded to the attacks effectively, according to Rodeno. She says that some of the major players were afraid of product-liability cases and thought the whole issue would blow over. The winds, though, are still howling. Out of this "social crescendo of negativism" Women for Wine Sense was born.

"Back in 1990, when many women in the industry were grousing that negativity was overwhelming the positive messages about wine, a group got together to brainstorm and found that there were wonderful responses to the criticisms they were facing," says Rodeno. For example, they learned that "fetal alcohol syndrome only occurs in incredibly heavy drinkers and even then most get away with it." She says the group was instantly successful "because people wanted to hear both sides," if for no other reason than to justify their habits.

Part of her strategy was to approach schools that were using antidrug programs like DARE and try to convince them that wine should not be equated with drugs, especially after her son came home from the DARE program at school one day and saw her drinking a glass of wine with dinner and said, "Don't you know you're drinking poison?" Rodeno was taken aback "I said I'm not drinking poison. Alcohol can be toxic, but there's only a little bit in wine. Don't worry about me keeling over. He just said, 'Okay,' because he'd seen me drinking wine all his life and I hadn't keeled over yet.

"We told the DARE people you're telling kids whose parents are in the wine industry that they're like drug dealers and asked if they couldn't be a little more sensitive." Rodeno says the local DARE leaders understood and modified their message and talked about alcohol abuse rather than drugs and alcohol together Rodeno believes that "if you teach people to drink responsibly when they're young, they're less likely to binge later."

Women for Wine Sense changed its focus to wine appreciation when the attacks died down. They were helped by an unlikely source, 60 Minutes, which ran a story in 1991 about "the French paradox." What the news magazine discovered was that the French, whose diets are high in fat, have a lower incidence of heart attacks than Americans. One theory was that their consumption of red wine was the reason. A follow-up story, based on a Danish clinical study, found that drinking moderate amounts of red or white wine reduced mortality rates from all causes. From then on, it was possible to make the case that drinking wine was actually good for people.

The industry, however, has been reluctant to push this line too hard for fear of triggering even greater attacks from what Rodeno calls "neo-prohibitionists" and groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which believe that the health benefits of wine are being exaggerated and the dangers minimized Nevertheless, vintners are campaigning to be permitted to put a voluntary label on wine bottles to, in their view, balance the surgeon general's required warning that alcohol is dangerous to pregnant women and drivers and could cause health problems.

Some winemakers want to take advantage of the government's 1995 Dietary Guidelines, which say that moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease, and add labels that say, So learn the health effects of moderate wine consumption, send for the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans." Since the USDA guidelines also say this only applies to some individuals and immediately add a list of negative effects of alcohol, it's not clear how useful such a label would be.

Rodeno is not pushing for the new label. She prefers to market wine in a way that "plants the idea that wine can be a part of normal life." She'd like to see Americans adopt the European attitude toward drinking. Since it is viewed as no big deal, it is rarely abused.

Another way in which Rodeno is changing attitudes toward wine is through the Women and Wine List Survival course she created because female executives felt uncomfortable ordering wine during business meetings (see sidebar on p.136). Rodeno wants to help women navigate the wine list at restaurants so they won't be intimidated by snooty sommeliers or know-it-all men.

Rodeno says you need to study wine and keep up to date with developments in the industry to truly understand a wine list, but as the survival course outline says, "choosing an enjoyable wine of fine quality for your meal is not brain surgery." The seminar is part of Rodeno's grand strategy to take snobbism out of the wine business.

It's an interesting approach for someone in an industry that has always promoted a certain element of glamour, romance, and elitism. The casual attitude toward St. Supery's image reflects Rodeno's own unpretentiousness. She comes across as someone comfortable with herself and her professional status. You have to press her to reveal any insecurities and then she confesses only one: She doesn't like her looks.

Having risen to the top of her field, Rodeno hasn't lost her ambition. If she had her choice, though, she'd change gears completely. Td like to be a novelist. That would be really fun."

The fantasy is interrupted by reality. Rodeno's assistant says her next appointment can't wait any longer. The CEO enjoys a last sip of her dessert wine and then goes back to the work that enables her to put food-and wine-on the table.


Mitchell G. Bard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland.