Women for WineSense November 2016 Member Spotlight
featuring Joan Maxwell, CFO Heitz Cellars
Submitted by Gianina F. Arturo
G) Tell us a little bit about your professional journey. Were you always interested in the wine business?
J) Growing up in San Francisco, I spent my summers either vacationing or working in Sonoma County and always thought I would eventually want to move here. After college I went to work for a CPA firm in SF. I spent a lot of time working on an out of town client along with a team of about 20 people. Every Thursday night we would go out to a nice dinner as a team with good wine to accompany it. I started to get interested in wine at that point and thought it might be fun to get a job in the wine industry. Once I got my CPA, I moved up to Sonoma County, intending to get a job in the industry. I started at Glen Ellen Winey (owned by the Benzigers at that time) and then went with the sale to Heublein which eventually became Diageo. After 15 years of promotions and moves I was working at an office park in Napa and barely getting to see a winery anymore. I decided I wanted to get back to a small winery environment and took a job as a Controller at Paul Hobbs Winery, working my way up to CFO in a few years, reporting directly to Paul and working closely with him on all aspects of the business After 10 years I left and joined Heitz Wine Cellars as their CFO.
G) Recently, as you just mentioned, you transitioned from Paul Hobbs (which you were on staff for many years) to Heitz. Tell us a little bit about that decision and professional next step.
J) I had been acting more as a COO at Paul Hobbs than a CFO getting involved in many operational areas which I really enjoyed. The company was growing fairly significantly which required me to spend more time on the Finance/HR side and necessitated bringing in a COO to help Paul run the business. I decided I wanted to get back to a smaller winery environment where I could once again work closely with the owner.
G) What would you say is the largest difference between a “corporate” winery and that of one that is family owned? (Or as others might say large scale vs small)?
J) When you work at a family owned property, you interact daily with the owner. You see that they are personally invested and you feel an even stronger fiduciary responsibility to them. The decisions are more personal to you and the trust that they have in you is extremely important.
G) Do you feel that in your position, given that you interact with owners and senior decision makers, that you have the ability to influence change?
J) Absolutely. In most cases, the CFO is the owner’s right hand person and gets involved in all aspects of the business. I enjoy working closely with the owner, helping them with decision making for all aspects of the business.
G) What would you say is the skill set that you utilize for your role of CFO?
J) You have to have REALLY good judgement. That’s key. Technical skills go without saying. Because you are in constant communication with an owner, the understanding of when to push, when to act, when to engage, is critical. One other piece is temperament- no ego and pragmatism – we have the good of the company in mind at all times.
G) As a woman, have you felt supported & mentored throughout your career? If so, who are some of those that gave you direction and what did you find to be of the most impact from them?
J) I would have to say that most of the time the answer would be no when referring to my bosses. With a few exceptions, I really had to figure stuff out on my own during most of my career. My bosses were generally pretty hands off, especially at Diageo. Early on in my career at Heublein, I had just been promoted to Assistant Controller and they hired a Controller from the East Coast. He was a great guy and taught me nuts and bolts winery accounting that has helped me though my entire career. I also had a couple of other bosses, while maybe not a huge help from a technical side, were huge role models because they demonstrated integrity and a true caring for their subordinates. We are still close friends to this day. I did get a lot of support from my teammates. I love being part of the executive team reporting to the owner or president. We support each other and help each other and the business succeed.
G) Given your professional experience, have you found yourself wanting to be a mentor for others?
J) Yes, at Paul Hobbs there was a gentleman (a young, ambitious, employee) who I worked very closely with. The key element is that those who are the mentee need to be as invested as those of us who mentor. He was as committed to working together as I was in encouraging him. He wanted to strive to be a CFO or GM someday and my role was to guide and encourage him in the steps along that path. I really enjoyed that as I myself never had that experience before.
G) Similar to your mentee, what piece of advice would you give someone aspiring for a role like yours?
J) Just get your foot in the door and be patient. I started off as a temporary staff accountant and worked my way up over the years. If you are talented, the roles will fall into your lap. Also, don’t be afraid to make a move to get yourself in the right environment even if it means taking a step down. I did that when I left Diageo and quickly worked my way up again.
G) Do you have a personal motto or mission that drives you?
J) Integrity, honesty and treating your employees respectfully and compassionately. I could not operate any other way.
G) What is one thing that folks may not know about the role of a CFO?
J) A lot of what I do is non-finance stuff. It’s fun! We are very involved in Operations and the day to day. I never know what is going to come across my desk next.
G) What do you enjoy most about what you do?
J) I love accounting and finance as well as all the operational side of the business. Just don’t ask me to sell wine! The fact that I can do it in such a fun industry that has so much camaraderie is wonderful.
G) What would you say has been your largest challenge?
J) Figuring everything out without a lot of guidance. I have pretty much always been left alone to manage as I see fit and figure out what needs to be done. Could be fairly daunting early on in my career but I learned to embrace and enjoy it.
G) What would you say has been your largest advantage?
J) My largest advantage has been my breadth of experience with a strong mix of large company corporate environment and small company family owned environment. There is pretty much nothing in the industry that I have not been exposed to and I feel that makes me a very valuable asset to any organization.
G) How have you seen the wine industry change over the course of your tenure as it relates to your role as a CFO for a brand?
J) Winery accounting has really not changed. The type of sales have changed with the huge increase in the DtC channel and the accounting and data mining that goes along with it. What has changed for the better is the software systems available. There is some really good software out there that has really evolved to meet the needs of the industry, especially the explosion in the direct to consumer segment. What has also been interesting is the large number of mergers and acquisitions, especially in the last 10 years. Lots of new significant players.
G) On the personal side, what do you like to drink at home?
J) I love the Cabernets made my new employer, Heitz Cellars. Iconic, historic style of Napa Valley Cabernet. I’ve been able to try 40+ year old wines that still taste fantastic!
G) How important has networking been in your career? Do you find that organizations like WWS assist in that process? Do you have thoughts on ways we can improve?
J) I would say very important although I never went to formal networking events. Over the years, I developed a network of colleagues at CPA firms, banks, insurance companies and past jobs. I was surprised to see how many people I knew in the industry because I never considered myself a “networker”. It’s a very social business (yes- even the accounting/finance part of it) and you just accumulate contacts over the years. WWS was the icing on the cake. I joined to get access the HR and Finance roundtables and have met the most amazing network of women (and a few men).
Women for WineSense October 2016 Member Spotlight
Featuring Lise Ciolino, Owner and Winemaker at Montemaggiore Winery
Women for WineSense member Laura Larson sat down with winemaker Lise Ciolino to learn more about her journey to becoming a winemaker and winery owner in this entertaining interview. We hope that you find some inspiration from this impressive Woman of WineSense.
Lise Ciolino first experienced wine as a child when her father let her take a few sips at dinner. She became more intrigued with wine when her father took her to the Rhone Valley and she visited the house of Chapoutier, where during a four-hour luncheon she tasted her first Hermitage, which is made solely from the Syrah grape. After studying mathematics and computer science at Brown University, she pursued a career in the tech industry and after living in the Bay Area; she rekindled her deep interest in wine. Her passion immersed herself in enology, wine chemistry and marketing at UC Davis and Sonoma State and she soon began experimenting making wine at home in her garage. Deciding to live the dream in 2001, Lise and her husband Vincent purchased 55 acres in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley with 10 acres of vineyards. Their small country farm estate now also has olive trees and working farm animals. Using organic and biodynamic farming practices, Lise focuses her energy on making world-class wines, with a special fondness and fascination with French style Syrahs.
Montemaggiore, named for the family’s ancestral home in Southern Italy and is built all around family, which includes her husband Vincent (the winegrower), her son Paolo, one dog, two cats and three sheep.
1. You followed your passion and made a complete career pivot from technology into winemaking. Have you discovered any parallels between the two Industries?
There are only a few parallels between high tech and winemaking, but the more interesting comparison is that of extreme opposites. The parallels I could make would be that both industries benefit from people being detail oriented; and both represent a mixture of art and science. But it’s the vast differences that are more interesting: the fact that wine is almost completely made by nature, and technology is almost completely dreamt up by humans: one delves into the world around us, and the other focuses on the world inside...
2. What do you like best about your job?
What I like best is optimizing grape growing to make better wine. Because most of our wines are estate grown, I can make small changes in vineyard practices that have large impacts on the quality of the wine. Watching the grapes grow, and shaping the conversion of sunlight into wine is perhaps extremely fulfilling—only second to the idea that people around America are enjoying Montemaggiore wine with their friends and family.
3. What is the most difficult aspect of growing organic grapes wine?
While my winemaking methods are minimal and non-interventionalist, I do make use of yeast nutrients, sulfur dioxide, and tartaric acid which are strictly limited in an organic winemaking regimen. Having said that, the most difficult aspect of growing organic grapes is vineyard floor management. In our mountainside estate vineyards, the trifecta of a steep slope, closely spaces vines, and organic practices means that we must employ a lot of hand labor to prevent the native grasses from stealing nutrients, water, and sunlight from our grapevines.
4. How do you know when you've got a good vintage?
I know there is potential for a great vintage based on an ideal growing season, but more likely confirmation of a great vintage comes after the secondary, malo-lactic fermentation. At this point the sugar can’t mask other flavors; the ML fermentation itself has calmed the acids down; and there’s little dissolved gas so you can really taste the wines fully. Since I make a lot of Syrah, which has a tendency to become reduced, I can never let my guard down until bottling—and even after bottling things can go wrong, but at that point, there’s little I can do.
5. Does one year or one vintage come to mind when you think about one of the best Syrahs that you've made?
In recent years, our best vintage was 2013, although in the past 15 years our 2004 and 2007 were also exceptional. These are the only vintages in which we produced a Reserve Syrah.
So what specifically makes an exceptional vintage at Montemaggiore?
• Lots of rain in the early spring to saturate the soils and fill our ponds
• Warm sunny days later in the spring to bring uniform bud-break and even pollination
• A mild summer with highs in the 80s and 90s keeping the ripening process steady during the day, with cool (but not too cold) nighttime temperatures to maintain acidity levels
• Warm and dry in the early fall so that we are not dodging raindrops during harvest
2013 followed these four tenets fairly closely, producing grapes with balanced acidity, ripe tannins, and reasonable sugar levels—all leading to a classic vintage at Montemaggiore.
6. What is one aspect of your job that might surprise people?
Wine industry outsiders often see me relaxing, chatting about wine, drinking and eating—and they may think that winemakers do this most of the time. In fact I can rarely afford to relax—and both outsiders and insiders are surprised to learn that I do everything at our winery from deciding on new product offerings to blending to washing equipment to compliance to website building to performing punchdowns on fermenting grapes 4-8 hours per day during harvest. My husband handles the vineyard, and I do all the winemaking—which, given our 10 acres of grapes and ~1,200 cases of wine, means that we are both very busy.
7. Did you encounter any adversities as a woman during your career path as a winemaker?
I have not encountered many gender-based adversities perhaps because I moved quickly from being a home winemaker to owning my own winery. Although I interned at smaller wineries in between, I never had to deal with all the politics and people typically found at larger wineries. Indirectly I’ve been exposed to situations in which gender-bias had the potential to occur, and I’ve just avoided those situations because... life is too short! Everyone is going to face bias at one point or another, and for myself, I try to just to ignore it or avoid the whole situation.
8. What advantages have you experienced as a woman in this Industry?
All throughout my career I have found it an advantage to be a woman. In the male-dominated technology industry women stand out even moreso than in the wine industry—but I think that being a woman and standing out is a good thing! People pay attention to you because you are different and all you have to do is use that to your advantage. Besides, everyone knows that women are better tasters—and at the other end of the spectrum, that women drive most wine sales. So what’s the problem with being female?
9. What is the best piece of wine/business advice you have been given?
The best advice I was given was to “take the Tahoe option” when faced with a difficult winemaking decision. Wine is a “natural product” and often time will solve a perceived problem. So when faced with a problem wine, it’s often best to just let it rest for a while, go to Lake Tahoe for a few days (or months), and the problem may solve itself. While certainly this is not always a solution, it’s an option that frantic winemakers may forget to seriously consider.
10. How do you spend your days off?
What days off?! There’s no such thing as a day off when you have a family and your own business--and certainly not if you have a vineyard and winery. I’m lucky if I can catch a free hour or two to go for a run, read a book, or share a meal with friends.
11. What is the biggest benefit you have gotten out of Women for Wine Sense? Any guidance for new members to leverage to get the most out of the network?
The biggest benefit I have gotten from WWS is simply connecting and sharing ideas with likeminded winemakers. Since I have a very small business and generally work alone in the winery, WWS provides a great opportunity for me to lift up my gaze, see what others are doing, and interact with smart women. The only guidance I would give new members is don’t be shy—just introduce yourself to others at the events, and learn about what they do best.
Special thanks to Women for WineSense member Laura Larson for submitting this member spotlight.