Six years ago, a seismic life change forced Deborah Brenner to take stock and weigh her options. Though she'd flourished as a tech industry executive for most of her career, a trip to California's Napa Valley ignited her passions for food and wine — and piqued her curiosity about the women winemakers who had made their mark in a male-dominated industry. Her breezy 2006 book, Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste and Enjoy Wine, profiled 20 of these pioneers, and was chosen by Wine Spectator magazine as "Critical Reading" in 2007.
While researching her book, Brenner, 44, became alarmed by the agribusiness interests taking over California's wine industry and swallowing up some of the smaller family vineyards throughout the state. So, she leveraged her assets and launched the Women of the Vine line — an "assemblage" of sustainably grown wines made by some of the most prominent female winemakers in California, including Heidi Barrett and Carol Shelton.
This weekend, Brenner will celebrate the launch of WOTV wines in Vermont with a packed roster of events: a tasting dinner tonight at The Belted Cow, a tasting tomorrow afternoon at Burlington Wine Shop; a Farm Aid benefit featuring singer Rebecca Pidgeon at Higher Ground tomorrow night (called "Wine, Women & Song"); and a tasting at the Burlington Wine & Food Festival on Saturday. This summer, Pidgeon is playing several concerts for WOTV in support of nonprofit Farm Aid, which Brenner passionately supports, and to which she donates some of her proceeds.
Brenner was fresh from a red eye from Las Vegas — and about to leave the next morning to drive to Vermont — when she answered a few questions by phone from her home north of New York City.
SD: How did you first get into wine?
DB: I kind of grew up with it. My passion for wine and food started with my family, and on special occasions. Later it became something to celebrate the end of the day or week, very much like in the European style — a way to slow down and take a breather.
SD: What was the career turning point for you?
DB: I was the director of marketing for high-end technology and in the the last few years of my career, I was doing more and more corporate work and a lot less creative work. But the catalyst for me was a sudden and painful divorce after 10 years of being married. That kind of threw me. I wanted a complete change — I wanted out. It was that catalyst that made me dig deeper and explore where I wanted to go. I took a trip out to Napa to see if I could take my skills there, and it exposed me to the agricultural side of the food and wine. You know the saying, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade? I joke that in my case, I made wine.
SD: You've written about a pivotal lunch you had with Karen Cakebread [formerly of Cakebread Cellars]. How did it come about?
DB: It was the summer of 2005. I had put a 'for sale' sign in front of my house. I wanted to leave [NY]. A mutual friend knew Karen; she worked in marketing for Hewlett-Packard before she became the international marketing director for Cakebread. She met me for lunch in Yountville and we toured the vineyard, and talked about our backgrounds in technology and how women are very underecognized in not only the wine industry but agriculture as a whole. I identified with that, because in my [tech] career I didn't have a lot of women coworkers or as role models. I wanted to learn more about these incredible women and who they were as people.
SD: So Women of the Vine was born.
DB: I had never really been close to farmers in a personal way, and I found that they're incredibly resilient. I knew about the pressures of the corporate life, but when all of a sudden Mother Nature is your boss, and you can't control things. I think there's an incredible life lesson there. Our common denominator is always trying to find balance; here were women who were finding balance in a different way. That intrigued me so much.
SD: On the heels of writing the book, you started the WOTV label. Was there a momentum there?
DB: When I interviewed these amazing women who broke the glass ceiling and opened up doors for women today, I was saddened to find out a lot of them are really being threatened by the industrialized wine business, very much like with food. It's something i was not aware of, that the same consolidation has now entered into our wine industry. Approximately 82 percent of California wines are produced by multinational corporations. As they realized that wine could be a moneymaking business, they started buying up land, buying up wineries, and aging the wine faster so it can go to market faster. I had no idea! So I took out a home equity loan and got a small business loan [and started my company].
SD: Sounds like a no-brainer. After all, the majority of wine drinkers are women.
DB: Well, I realized how competitive it is; when you walk into a wine store, you're not just competing with American products, you're competing on a global level. There's only so much shelf space in a store, yet there's hundred of thousands of wines out there. So I thought I could champion [these small winemakers]. We started with two winemakers in September 2007, and two wines: a Chardonnay from Santa Barbara and a Cabernet from Paso Robles. We've been growing; we're now in 22 states [with 12 wines and six winemakers].
We want a broader audience to recognize these great wines that happen to be made by women, not necessarily tailored for women. The true essence of Women of the Vine is women breaking the glass ceiling and coming together to support each other, and for people to realize they're suppprting some fabulous family farms and winemakers. These are not industrialized wines.
SD: Out of hundreds of thousands of wines, which one do you most like to kick back with?
DB: The 2009 Women of the Vine Sauvignon Blanc by Alison Crowe. It's perfect for summer.