Michaela Rodeno and I are standing in the light-filled kitchen of her cube-shaped home in Oakville, CA, which also doubles as the tasting room of her family’s Villa Ragazzi winery. She hands me a bottle of their flagship Sangiovese wine and a corkscrew while she chunks a wedge of aged gouda onto a plate to accompany our tasting. I insert the corkscrew, twist it a few times, lift, and the cork snaps apart, leaving half lodged in the bottle.
Color my face red. I’ve just embarrassed myself before a preeminent pioneer in California’s wine industry.
In 1973, when Napa Valley was a sleepy farming community, albeit destined to grow into an internationally acclaimed viticulture region, Michaela Rodeno became part of the two-person team that launched Domaine Chandon. The American outpost of Moët & Chandon, it was the first major French wine investment in the U.S. The winery’s second hire, she rose to become vice president of marketing. In 1988, she joined St. Supéry Winery, also a new, French-owned enterprise, as its first CEO, a rare position for a woman then. She retired in 2009 to focus on Villa Ragazzi, home to the first Sangiovese grapes in Napa Valley, and a multitude of other interests.
Unfazed by my bottle opening ineptitude, Michaela graciously takes control. She extracts the remainder of the cork, not a single crumb daring to dive into the aromatic, ruby liquid below. She pours, we clink glasses, and she offers “santé” while I simultaneously say “cheers.” Composure recovered, I sip and savor what the home page of Villa Ragazzi’s website calls “perhaps/possibly/probably/likely/may well be the best Sangiovese from California/Napa Valley/USA,” given the wine’s stellar reviews.
Of course accolades flow for the Rodenos’ Sangiovese. Praise and honors have accompanied Michaela Rodeno throughout her 40 plus-year, multi-hyphenated professional life as (pausing here for breath) business leader, entrepreneur, startup authority, innovator, corporate director, consultant, author, board member, global traveler, grape grower, role model, and all-around champion of wine.
I’ve come to Villa Ragazzi following an email introduction by a mutual friend. In response to my request for an interview, Michaela kindly invited me to visit and “talk about – all sorts of things.”
Beforehand, I’d read about Michaela’s storied career in her breezy and inspiring memoir, “From Bubbles to Boardrooms: Serendipitous Stories from Inside the Wine Business.” She candidly shares experiences and lessons learned about business and life as one of, and among, wine-making’s elite.
As anticipated, we do indeed have a wide-ranging and lively conversation. It takes place over several hours and throughout the 25-acre property she owns and runs with her attorney husband, Gregory.
Accompanied by the family cat, Lira, Michaela and I share a bottle of Villa Ragazzi Rosato di Sangiovese while seated beside olive trees shading the sun-soaked piazza in the back yard. Stretching our legs, we inspect the jalapenos, San Marzano tomatoes, green beans, arugula, and sorrel flourishing in her kitchen garden. We walk under the climbing rose-covered arch she constructed for her daughter’s wedding, a gateway of sorts to the Rodenos’ 21-acre, green-certified vineyard. We stroll among regimented rows of lush, grape-laden Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon vines, where she tutors me in the art and science of planting and pruning. With towering cypress trees framing the St. Helena Mountains in the distance, I almost fool myself into thinking I’m in Italy.
The Roads Traveled: My favorite anecdote from your book is how, with no marketable skills – your words – except for being fluent in French and possessing a healthy dose of self-confidence, you strode into the makeshift office of Domaine Chandon’s founding president without an appointment and left with the job of a lifetime.
Michaela Rodeno: My antenna went up when I read an article in the Napa newspaper that said, “French Company to Build $8 Million Winery.” I drove up Mt. Veeder to see John Wright, who was working out of his garage. “Hi, I speak French,” I said. “Do you need help?” He replied, “Yes, I guess so,” and that was the best day of my work life.
I saw no reason why women can’t do anything that appeals to them. Being asked to do things is fine, but part of my character is being resistant to taking orders and being bossed around. John turned out to be a total non-manager, which was perfect. I’m forever grateful to him for giving me running room, and I’ve tried to make that possible for others. I’m still impatient with people who won’t try things.
What was the startup culture like at Domaine Chandon?
Our mission was to improve sparkling wine in California. We flew by the seat of our pants. There was so much to do, and John and I divided it up. He took what he wanted, and I took everything else. It was freeing – no one saying you don’t know how to do that. We worked with people not afraid to take risks. I’m a big believer in branding. We were first with a lot of things, like the first fine-dining restaurant in a winery. Our newsletter was a big program. We started the Chandon Club, which grew like crazy, and held membership events around the country.
What was different about heading St. Supéry?
We had no identity. We had to invent the whole thing. Our owners’ brand in France wasn’t their name, and other wineries were making sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon. It’s more challenging to run a company for someone else, because it’s theirs, not yours. But you do have resources.
You co-founded the organization Women for Winesense. Why was that so important to you?
In the mid 1980s, an anti-alcohol campaign started in America, and wine got caught up in it. We were on a mission to save wine, like a crusade, and, more importantly, stand up for wine because no one else was. We educated ourselves, got research data from Europe, and sent information to the press and policy makers. As the moderate middle, we provided the common sense element.
After a “60 Minutes” segment about the French paradox – how you could eat cheese and foie gras and drink red wine and not drop dead because of the wine – wine sales took off like a rocket.
I’ve never been as pumped up. Working on this big, important cultural issue with other women was so empowering, fun, and worthwhile we didn’t want to disband. Now the mission of Women for Winesense is supporting one another, including men, in wine education and careers.
You’re also a founding vintner of A Woman’s Palate, which celebrates wine by women for women.
Most wine education and collecting has focused on men. A Woman’s Palate saw that as an unexploited market niche. It connects business women who need to know about wine to function in a business environment, and those who enjoy wine, with women wine makers and producers.
What’s it like running your own winery?
Villa Ragazzi is a little winery. We sell almost everything direct to consumers. In Napa Valley, 95% of wineries are family- owned, and most are small. I learned a lot about the wine business through osmosis. I don’t have technical training, but I hung around people who did. At St. Supéry, I had deep discussions with wine makers. Viticulture is endlessly fascinating because you’re constantly learning. New bugs and opportunities pop up. You figure out what worked in this growing season and why, and when you pick. Quality is king, and nothing about it is static.
I’m on the Wine Market Council’s board, which does research on the U.S. wine industry, so I get a good feel for trends based on real data. I’m also on some tech-based startup boards. For one, we’ve figured out how to get wine direct to consumers in China based on cloud computing.
Describe your Sangiovese.
We usually decant it, because it takes about 20 minutes to open up. It has a clear, medium red color, and a lovely, fruity aroma with dried cherries and hints of leather. Some people find strawberry, but I don’t. It ages well and pairs well with good food, like ragù Bolognese, grilled salmon, and porcini risotto.
You’ve traveled a lot in your career.
That’s one reason I was happy to retire. I’m a lifetime platinum airline member with two million miles, which isn’t good, because think of the time away from my family. I telescoped travel into as short a time as possible. I never checked baggage, and only took one carry-on. That almost misfired when I was flying home on a non-stop from Paris on 9/11. Our flight was grounded in Calgary, and I had to share a room with another single traveler – a male flight attendant. In the taxi to the hotel, I worried I didn’t have anything to sleep in, then remembered I’d packed an old pair of boxer shorts and a T-shirt.
When traveling on business, I liked to stay in what’s called a hôtel de charme in France. If you’re somewhere else, you should feel like you’re somewhere else.
After leaving St. Supéry, it took me awhile to think traveling for fun could be fun. Except for Paris, I’ve lost interest in big cities. The displacement part of travel – getting there and back – has turned into sort of a misery, but being in other places is wonderful.
What are some recommendations in Napa Valley?
Wine brings tourism here. It’s our customers discovering us, which is good for small wineries. Avoid weekends if you can. Weekdays are much better any time of the year. November-April has less traffic and competition for restaurants and hotels, and locals have more time to interact. Plan your itinerary geographically to minimize travel time. Some favorite restaurants are La Toque, Redd Wood, Bistro Jeanty, Bistro Don Giovanni, and Mustards Grill.
What life lessons have you learned from wine?
Life is better with wine. Wine makes you happy. It’s an important social glue that creates bridges to other people all over the world.