Live Like a Winemaker: 5 Lessons in Authenticity

These wine industry professionals offer actionable advice on maintaining authenticity.
Virginia Wine, Monticello Wine trail

A selection of Stinson Vineyards wines. Credit: Jill Barth

Anyone that has visited wine country has seen the abundance of wineries dotting the landscape. We gather our friends and make the trip for this very reason – there are so many choices. While this means competition for your business, every winemaker understands this also helps create a vibe and draw in a crowd.

Same goes for wines on the shelves in your local store. Winemakers want to be recognized for their own good taste as well as for being a part of a region with distinction. Standing out as something special requires authenticity. This isn’t a catchphrase or trend. It’s a requirement for anyone who wants to succeed for the long-haul.

Here five respected wine industry pros from around the world share how they keep their footprint fresh while staying true to themselves:

Keep an Open Mind, Especially When You Can’t Control It All

Mental resiliency is key, especially in an industry that literally changes with the weather year after year.

“The key is to stay open-minded and to expect that things don’t go always as planned rather than being surprised when they don’t,” said Melissa Burr, Director of Winemaking at Stoller Family Estate, the first LEED Gold Certified winery in the world, located in Dundee Hills, Oregon. Ask yourself which of your strengths and resources are useful and delegate what you can’t do yourself.

Female winemakers, Oregon wine,

Melissa Burr, Winemaker, Stoller Family Estate in Dundee Hills located in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Credit: Andrea Johnson

Valeria Zavadnikova is the owner of Fattoria di Montemaggio in the Chianti region of Italy. Russian-born and educated in England, Zavadnikova came to Italy to realize her dream of owning a winery at the age of 23. While this sounds like a fantasy to many of us, this livelihood comes with great sacrifice and willingness to learn.

“No matter what lies ahead, we always have to make wine of the highest quality. Even if it means to throw out half of the production. Even if it means to walk every morning and evening to repair holes that the animals make to enter the vineyards. Even if it means not to sell for a few years in order to let the wine mature and evolve enough to be able to represent itself in the best way. I try to take such events now with a certain wisdom and hope that in the next year and with the next vintage we will be able to make things even better,” Zavadnikova said.

“I believe that with a positive attitude and truly believing we can accomplish everything we can make it work,” Zavadnikova adds. “I think to be able to stay sane and stay afloat everyone has to learn to let it go.”

People Come First. Period.

In some parts of the world, there aren’t enough hands to harvest wine grapes. Labor shortages are a real concern and a signal that nothing happens without people – even the most natural methods require skilled workers. On the other end of the picture are the people that buy and drink the wine, a reminder that who is just as important as what.

“In terms of values, personal relationships are the most important to me,” said Rachel Stinson Vrooman, Winemaker and Director of Operations for Stinson Vineyards in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Rachel adds, “The respect with which you treat your customers and colleagues should remain consistent no matter what.” With this outlook, you can always sleep at night knowing that the irreplaceable factor – people – wasn’t sacrificed in the name of short-term gain.

Sonoma winemaker, Women in Wine, Female winemaker

Cindy Cosco, founder of Passagio Wines. Courtesy: Passagio Wines

Treating others well is a courtesy that should extend to all partnerships, including others in your industry, and those in support roles. Cindy Cosco is Founder of and Winemaker for Passaggio Wines in Sonoma, California. Being surrounded by high-caliber competitors isn’t a negative for Cosco, who shares that the community is willing to learn from one another.

“There is enough room for everyone to be themselves and maintain that authenticity. There are seven tasting rooms in the alley that I am in. We are each very unique, but we help each other. It is what life is all about, even in business. It makes us all better at what we do,” Cosco said.

Being authentic requires an astute perspective of why you entered or created our workforce: people. “People come to our territory to take a little piece of heritage and culture with them, to bring it home and share with family and loved ones. Isn’t it what wine was really invented for?’ said Zavadnikova.

“As an opportunity to gather with loved ones and friends to share the meal together, to share the moment, to be in The Now, to be truly alive together in this particular unique moment,” Zavadnikova offers.

Leave Breathing Room for Creativity

An environment rich with creativity is like a master’s program for authenticity, a generator for ideas and structure that simply can’t be duplicated. “People want to support brands that have a purpose and a story and a uniqueness to what they are doing, it allows them to feel connected to others,” Burr said.

Italian winemakers, Female winemakers from Italy, Chianti Classico

Valeria Zavadnikova, Owner of the Fattoria di Montemaggio. Courtesy: Fattoria di Montemaggio

Keep time in your schedule to connect with creatives and get playful exposure. “From winemaking to tours and degustations [arranged wine tastings] to cooking classes and paintings on ceramics and textile – it is definitely a blended effort of various artisans to give a unique product and service to groups of people who would like to experience the heritage of our particular territory with their own hands and with their hearts,” said Zavadnikova, who introduces visitors to more than her own wine by making connections with other local craftspeople.

Roll with Change, But Keep Your “True North”

“In this ever-changing business, I would say priorities do change at times. But always maintain that ‘true north,'” Cosco shared, and she knows a thing or two about change. She left a 15-year career in Northern Virginia law enforcement to work in the California wine industry. She gained industry experience and an education before opening her own tasting room in 2014 and production facility in 2016.

A ‘true north’ is personal, but everyone has one and it is there to help shoulder us in the right direction as things around us change. “When things don’t turn out as planned, we move on and adapt. It’s just what we do,” Cosco shared.

Maintain Practical Perspective

Vrooman also makes a good point about authentic efforts being practical, not just decorative, “Authenticity is so often used as a marketing message that it can seem inauthentic. Today’s wine consumer is more educated than ever and also has more options to choose from.”

Before making even the smallest decision, check in with how you want the customer or client to feel when they come into contact with anything with your name on it. Keep your own perspective – clear and simple – on a mental sticky note. Don’t let a cloud of competition, chaotic culture, and overwhelm confuse practicality and know-how.

Virginia Wine, Meritage, Tannat, Cabernet Franc

Rachel Stinson Vrooman’s lineup of Virginia wines. Credit: Jill Barth

“Sometimes I feel that we need to rely on our intuition. Sometimes even when you have all the data in front of you telling you no, it’s that intuition and faith that sometimes tell you yes. I had that happen to me when I started Passaggio Wines. I started this company on a leap of faith,” said Cosco.

And let’s never forget the ease that comes with harmony and balance. While there can be a temptation to overdress our message in an attempt to come out ahead, an authentic message is essentially one of satisfying consonance. “I believe everything needs balance,” Zavadnikova says. “Balance makes me feel that I am not alone and that what I am doing is completely correct and right for my business.”

7 thoughts on “Live Like a Winemaker: 5 Lessons in Authenticity

  1. Interesting read, Jill. I believe “People Come First” is one of the most important in the list and it dovetails into your “Creative” and “True North” lessons. Take time for self, family, and friends, in that order. Artisanal wine, as you know, is not a commodity like Coca Cola. It comes from the soul of the people who tend and harvest the grapes and those who transform it in the wineries into the beverage we know and love. The soul of the vintner is nurtured by having time to rest, to reconnect with nature and those in their lives who make life special. I see in Piemonte now a tremendous pressure on the vintners, particularly the young mothers and fathers for whom family time, even a daily hour-long lunch around the table is important, although often interrupted by people without appointments seeking a tasting (note – those same people would never dream of not having a lunch or dinner booking!). The bottom line is there is so much pressure on the young vintners that I believe the pressures of a global market place and growing wine tourism, particularly in Piemonte, challenges the personal elements of “creativity” and sticking with their “true north” that go into their wines by limiting their time to be members of their families and communities. Just some thougths.

    By the way, Jill, I so enjoy your posts, particularly this one, and it gave me some much needed inspiration to get back to the keyboard with my own writing.



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