C-Suite Network™

Alchemy in a Glass – Business Lessons From Napa Valley

“The title winemaker connotes no gender.” – Cathy Corison, Winemaker, founding partner of Corison Winery.

With all the emphasis lately on gender roles and preferred pronouns, I had never thought about roles with gender-neutral names until Cathy Corison pointed it out during a recent C-Suite Network Digital Discussion. I had the pleasure of hosting Cathy and we talked about the business of fine wine. She is an accomplished winemaker and, since 1987, has been producing some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley.

Even though her job title may not inherently have a gender attached to it, making wine is still a male-dominated field. When she graduated from college in the late 1970s with a master’s degree in Enology (the science of winemaking), she had no idea what she was up against.

“I grew up the eldest of four daughters, and I was always my father’s only son. So, growing up and then all the way through college, I didn’t know I was a second-class citizen,” Cathy said. “My major professor as I left the University of California-Davis with my master’s degree in winemaking sat me down, I think he meant well, but he sat me down to tell me I would never be able to work in the Napa Valley. There was something already inside of me, there’s this little voice on my shoulder, I didn’t say anything out loud, but it said, ‘watch me.’”

While women are making inroads into the wine business, it’s still male-dominated, even in forward-thinking California.

“Ten percent of full control winemakers in California are women,” Cathy said. “Napa Valley has done a little better than that. It’s 12% or 13%. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way as well.”

So, how did Cathy get interested in winemaking in the first place? It truly began as a whim and became a passion.

“It was a long time ago. I was 19 years old, a sophomore studying biology at Pomona (CA) College when, on a complete whim, I took a wine appreciation class,” Cathy said. “I think in today’s world, they would not have let me take that class as a 19-year-old. Wine grabbed me by the neck and ran with me. I loved it for all the usual reasons. It’s delicious, and you share it with friends and family. It makes food taste better and vice versa.”

Even with this love of wine, she didn’t intend to turn it into a business. Cathy was interested in the science and mystery of fine wine.

“But for me, it was a whole series of living systems that conspired to what is alchemy in the glass, which we don’t really understand it as well as we might want you to think we do. It’s magic.” Cathy said.

“To a certain extent, wine is alive on so many levels. It grows on a plant, and a living organism turns it from grape juice into wine. We age it in the wood of an oak tree, and we even but the bark of another oak tree in the bottle as a stopper.”

While most think of vineyards and wineries as businesses first, but Cathy looks at it from a different perspective.

“We are a small family farm. It doesn’t matter how you slice and dice it. We are a small family farm at the foundation,” Cathy said.

It looks a lot different from the family farms I’m used to in my home state of South Dakota, a farm is a farm. While a vineyard may not be thousands of acres, like Midwesterners are used to, they are just as vital to their region’s economy.

Family plays a huge role for all farmers, and Corison Winery is no exception. Over the last decades, the whole operation has become a family affair.

“My husband and I were married five years after I founded the business, and he stood too close to a very needy little business,” Cathy said. “There’s this audible sucking sound, and he was sucked right into it. That was 27 years ago. He has very different strengths. He’s a designer. He designed the winery. He’s the IT department. He keeps everything running.”

Because of COVID, even Cathy’s daughters now find themselves working in the family business. They were both in New York but returned to Napa Valley in March and are doing what they can around the farm.

“Quite frankly, when something happens to us, they’re going to have to worry about this place whether they like it or not,” Cathy said.

Besides changing family plans, the pandemic has Corison Wines tweaking its business model. With some distribution channels drying up, Corison found new opportunities.

“Mostly, we’ve taken advantage of the years of developing and a mailing list and a (wine) club that is very active. We’ve found that they’ve stepped up, and our sales are actually up,” Cathy said. “For 34 years, we’ve been taking care of people. We host people, and that tends to make people very loyal.”

You can only grow that loyalty through creating a brand a product people want, and Corison Wines have done just that.

I’d like to thank Cathy for the eye-opening conversation, and now we have something new to think about the next time we raise a glass.

If you’d like to listen to my full conversation with Cathy and an insightful Q&A with our executive community, click here.

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