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The Lure of the Vines

Many CEOs dream of jettisoning the constant pressure of their day jobs for the pleasure of running a business that …

Many CEOs dream of jettisoning the constant pressure of their day jobs for the pleasure of running a business that indulges a personal passion. Owning or running a winery gives many top executives the opportunity to live that fantasy. It’s an industry that embodies social cache, glamour and lifestyle. And how many jobs justify the constant sampling of delicious wines as homework?

So perhaps it’s no surprise that a number of top executives, celebrities and business titans have built or purchased wineries. Well-known examples include the Firestone family, the movie producer/director Francis Ford Coppola, Tom Jordan of Jordan Oil and Gas, and Joe Phelps, the former Colorado construction magnate, all of whom proudly feature their family names on their wine labels. Other CEOs “retire” to run wineries, as did Lewis E. Platt, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, who joined Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, one of Napa Valley‘s biggest wineries.

Because vineyard management, grape harvesting, winemaking, distribution and marketing can keep a winery executive in harness 24 hours a day, there are only a handful of CEOs who can run a winery in addition to their regular day jobs. T.J. Rodgers, founder, president and CEO of 6,500-employee Cypress Semiconductor, is perhaps the best example.

Seeking the Holy Grail of Burgundy

Rodgers is a bundle of restless energy. His hobbyist interest in wine began in the 1970s with trips to Napa Valley and France, and culminated in a visit to Roma-n�©e-Conti, the Holy Grail of Burgundy, where he shaped his lofty vision of making the best Burgundianstyle Pinot Noir in the New World.

The fact that many winemakers around the world have tried without any great success to reproduce the taste of great red Burgundies did not deter T.J. Rodgers. “I view this daunting task as a lifetime challenge,” he says. “And I am willing to commit the time, talent and money to achieve this goal.” His initial California vineyard released just 100 cases of the cuv�©e Domaine du Docteur Rodgers Pinot Noir. With the addition of two larger vineyards and the construction of fermenting and storage capacity, Clos de la Tech, as his new winery is called, is headed for an annual output of 10,000 cases. Each bottle bears a silicon chip on its neck-hence the “Tech” part of the name.

Dedicated to creating a Pinot Noir to challenge the best Burgundies, Rodgers has worked and studied hard to master the many facets of viticulture, vinification and maturation necessary to produce top quality Pinot. In the vineyard and in the winery, he uses the same techniques used at Roman�©e-Conti, including the age-old custom of crushing the grapes by foot-methods he says, “translates to integrating new-world technology with old-world artistry.” Despite this diligence, Rodgers admits that his first vintage, while quite good, was the sort of lucky accident enjoyed by rookies. After two “cycles of learning” (admitted failures) in 1997 and 1998, and a “jury’s-still-out” year in 1999, he patiently waited and finally produced what he considers to be world-class Pinot Noirs from 2000 through 2005.

“I learned a lot from my failures, and I believe it has helped me enormously in developing the quality wines of the later years,” says Rodgers, who has vowed to sell 10,000 cases of Pinot at premium prices-and to do so in an unconventional way. “I have a very active mailing list from which I expect to sell most of our output.”

Will the tenacity and attention to detail that made Rodgers’ Silicon Valley success story enable the fledgling vintner to make the best Pinot Noir in the New World and seriously challenge the greatest red Burgundies that have dominated Pinot Noir wines since the 13th century? Rodgers thinks so. “I realize that it is difficult,” he acknowledges, “but I am a very determined individual and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to make this happen.”


Christine Ansbacher (www.thewinediva.com), author and wine entertainer, conducts wine tastings at corporate events across the U.S.

 From Boardrooms to Wine Barrels

T.J. Rodgers isn’t the only CEO who’s made the plunge into winemaking. Here are the backstories of a few more business execs-turned-vintners:

Vanity Vintages
In 2002, Michael Brill ripped up his San Francisco backyard and planted Pinot Noir vines. Soon, he was hauling tons of fruit back from wine country to make wine in the city, showing up at his day job bleary-eyed and purple-fingered. Vowing to put things in perspective and get some sanity back in his life, he formed a company to help wine lovers like himself create their own premium wines without moving to wine country. Crushpad provides grapes from top West Coast vineyards, an industryacclaimed winemaking team and a state-of-the-art winery in San Francisco that makes custom wine in small lots. You choose your level of involvement and they do the rest. With over 15 years’ experience founding and building start-up companies, Brill is well-equipped to turn his passion for wine into a thriving business to help other wine devotees.

Back to Nature
David Hehman was writing software in sixth grade and stretching his management skills to help local businesses in junior high. This entrepreneurial spirit led to his co-founding and serving as CEO of HealthDeskCorporation, a health care software company. But he gave it all up and moved from Connecticut to Sonoma wine country to get closer to nature, nurture his love of wine and help local businesses. He is now the director of the Wine Business Program at the Sonoma State University School of Business and Economics.

Clubbing It
Marshall Sontag founded a series of Web-based businesses ranging from nutrition retailer to Internet recruiting. Due to his extensive experience with Web application development, Internet marketing, social media and even wine hangovers, he decided to found WineQ, an innovative wine club that offers wine lovers the unprecedented flexibility to select wines from a variety of wineries, choose the frequency and number of bottles-and enjoy free shipping.

Attention Wine Shoppers
Joseph Antonini, the former president, CEO and chairman of Kmart, is now helping his old friend, race car driver Mario Andretti, run Andretti Vineyards. The duo met when Kmart was a major sponsor for Andretti. One could say that while his daytime job is CEO of JEA Enterprises, a conglomerate of 10 companies, Antonini actually spends about two-thirds of his time on winery business, where his active role in marketing and sales has resulted in the growth of Andretti Vineyards to about 40,000 cases a year. He says he especially enjoys the challenge of wine marketing, where he can employ his long experience in the retail sector; however, he finds the complex wine distribution system required by Federal law to be frustrating and the pace of change to be slower than that in discount retailing-but then, grapes and wines are on their own timetable. Still, Antonini says he gets a lot of personal satisfaction and makes a small profit.

A Segue to Chardonnay
Bill Seavey made a long journey from law to wine. In 1979 he bought a small cattle ranch in Napa Valley that had been a winery in the 19th century. He planted a few acres of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and by 1990 had taken the plunge into winemaking. Today, Seavey Vineyard puts out about 4,000 cases per year, and Seavey’s law practice takes less and less of his time. His story is one of patience. Depending on how you count, it was more than 12 years from property purchase to first wine sale.

Cultivating the Dream
What all these VIPs-turned-vintners have learned can be boiled down to three principles. Leaving the boardroom to go into the wine cellar is a business for long-range thinkers and those with family legacies in mind. It takes a minimum of four to five years to get your first crop, and often a decade before you make a marketable product. So their advice to anyone considering a second life in wines is: Start early, bring capital and be patient. As with almost all who have taken this road, the rewards are generally not in the bank account but in the memory bank.

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