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It Ain't Over Till It's Over: Women Who Wine


First Posted: 12/13/11 04:24 PM ET Updated: 12/15/11 10:38 AM ET

One of the reasons I started my website, Marlothomas.com, is that I wanted a place for women (including me!) to come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them - that there is always time to start a new dream. In that spirit, I'm so excited to introduce a new series called It Ain't Over, profiling women who have pursued -- and fulfilled -- their dreams and passions, no matter what their age or circumstances. I find these stories endlessly inspiring. I hope you do too.

By Lori Weiss

On her 41st birthday, Deborah Brenner found herself surrounded by people raising their glasses and toasting her special day. But these weren't just any people, and they weren't celebrating just any birthday. Deborah was at the Newport Mansions Food and Wine Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, and the cheers were coming from wine connoisseurs as she introduced the very first vintage produced by her company, Women of the Vine.

"I couldn't believe it was actually happening," Deborah recalls with a smile. "Our hearts and souls were in every bottle. And there we were, surrounded by all these vendors from amazing wineries -- and the guests were telling us they'd tried half the wines there, and ours was the best!"

For Deborah it was the culmination of a journey that had begun several years earlier, when her own personal glass had become disturbingly empty. After pouring everything she had into her career and her marriage, she suddenly found herself with neither. "I had a company paying me to travel the world and play with the latest technology," she recalls. "I worked my way up to become the only female director in a male-dominated company. Yet the higher I rose, the less creative I felt. People would tell me to be grateful that I had a great income. But I'd lost my passion. I changed jobs, twice. But the problem wasn't the company. The problem was me. "

Deborah's husband, who had been her high school sweetheart, was going through some changes of his own at the same time. "I thought that he was experiencing the same midlife feeling I was," Deborah says. "I begged him to quit his job -- to find something he loved." Unfortunately for Deborah, he already had -- another woman.

"I didn't even know who I was at that point," Deborah says sadly. "We'd been together since we were kids. I was always trying to do the right thing for others -- for the company and the marriage. I felt like I'd been playing dress-up. I needed to figure out who I was." To do that, Deborah reflected on the things that had made her happy throughout her life and career. She'd loved the time she spent wining and dining clients, and she looked back fondly on the celebrations she'd witnessed as a child when her family lived in Brazil, where wine flowed at meals and a certain joie de vivre filled the air. She wanted to find that spirit of hospitality and joy again - and she started her search for it in California's wine country.

"I spent some time in Napa and Sonoma," Deborah says. "A friend introduced me to Karen Cakebread, who at the time was the head of international marketing for Cakebread wines. Over lunch and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, I listened to her stories about women in the wine industry, and I began to realize that our stories were the same: that whether you were selling technology or working in the vineyards, the women who were making it happen weren't being recognized."

Deborah decided to write a book about women in the wine industry -- they were rock stars in their industry and she wanted the world to know it. But the more she learned, the more she wanted to do more than just tell their stories. She wanted these women to step out of the vineyards and take center stage. And, amazingly, she realized she wanted to join them. She also had a novel idea. Individual wine producers, all women, would create their own wines but market them under a single label: Women of the Vine. She called Signe Zoller, who had just left a successful career with the large wineries to go out on her own, and pitched her on the idea.

"I told her we could do this collectively, kind of like a record label," says Deborah. Signe came on board, as did five other women, plus a group of sustainable grape growers. Deborah took out a home equity loan to fund their first vintage. And before she knew it, the first cases of wine were being delivered to her warehouse.

"That was the scary part," Deborah remembers. Women of the Vine had a warehouse full of premium wine just as the economy was taking a nosedive. Small distributors were going out of business and the larger ones didn't want to take on any new brands. Deborah found herself conducting tastings at wine shops, finding her customers one at a time.

"I was watching people sip and spit, wondering whether they were going to like it," Says Deborah. "I was literally holding my breath as I opened these bottles and thinking, Please buy my wine!"

And that's where the courage of the winemakers kept me going," Deborah says. "They don't give up when something unexpected happens. Weather might destroy a third of their crops, but they keep moving forward -- because there's only one chance to harvest." So Deborah kept moving forward as well, adding a mid-priced vintage to the mix and refocusing her efforts from small wine shops to bigger merchants like Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, and Stew Leonard's. And four years after Deborah's happiest of birthdays, Women of the Vine can be found in 23 states.

As for that book Deborah had planned to write? Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste, and Enjoy Wine was not only published, but also voted the best new book of the year by Wine Spectator magazine. Most importantly, Deborah no longer feels as if she's holding an empty glass.

"I feel like I'm leading a richer life than I ever have," she says. "Every day I feel alive and my passion has been renewed. But the most important lesson I've learned from all of this is to have hope. When I was feeling total despair, the women around me saw the harvest coming. Sometimes you just have to rip everything out and start again. You have to replant and look forward to what the next crop will bring."

Women of the Vine wines can be purchased at retailers throughout the country or online here at ultimatewineshop.com.

You can learn more about the women behind the wine at Womenofthevine.com.






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