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Women in Business: Mary McAuley, Founder, Ripe Life Wines

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Mary McAuley, culinary school graduate, sommelier, and founder of Ripe Life Wines, grew up on the Jersey Shore clambaking with friends and family throughout the summer months. Naturally, she was always tasked with bringing the wines, but couldn't find the absolute perfect compliment for the sweet, local seafood. At the same time, she realized that even some of the most wine-savvy consumers are daunted by the wine and food pairing process, and in need of a trustworthy brand in the market. Finally, in 2013, she decided to go out on her own and create that perfect wine for the occasion--thus giving rise to The Clambake Chardonnay.

Since its release in July 2013, Ripe Life Wines' signature Clambake Chardonnay has exploded in popularity across the East Coast. Then, in September 2014, came the release of The Clambake Limited Edition Rosé: a 100% single-vineyard Syrah that boasts flavors of wild strawberry, Bing cherry, orange peel, and herbs with a long white pepper finish.

Mary believes in the single-vineyard theory, where she selects specific grapes for each batch of wine based on their flavor profile. While this form of artisanship may result in a slight variation in flavor from year to year, or batch to batch, she ensures consistency in another sense: always high-quality, always full flavored, and always perfect compliments to shellfish and seafood. Ripe Life's wines have become available across New England, and have garnered the attention of outlets like: Wine Enthusiast, Harper's Bazaar, Epicurious, Fork + Plate, Hamptons Magazine, Hamptons Cottages & Gardens, CBS-WUSA9, Foodie & the Beast, and many more.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I feel like my leadership style can be summed up in two words: compassionate and fearless. Firstly, in terms of being compassionate, I have been really lucky to have great bosses and coaches throughout my life, all who have taught me that respect isn't granted on account of a leadership title, but rather earned the hard way, and from also being a friend to me at times. I strive to inspire people to wholeheartedly back the Ripe Life Wines brand, whether as an employee, brand ambassador, or wine enthusiast. I'm not a fan of the "all business" mentality; you have to care for people to be a good leader, too, in my opinion. I know they say you're supposed to think "it's not personal, it's business," but that isn't who I am and I refuse to be anything but authentic. I was always most inspired to perform my best by past bosses who were passionate, compassionate, and driven, so I really do believe in this leadership style.

Secondly, I'm fearless in that I'm applying the "slow food" or "foodie" trend--happening now in the food industry--to the wine world when the mass wine market isn't quite there yet. I'm really passionate and interested in where my food is coming from, and once I became a wine expert, beverages obviously followed. When I saw people light up about the story and origin of the food I cook for them, served them, and the wine I poured for them, I could see the whole "Michael Pollan" affect happening and I knew, sooner or later, non-wine people were going to start paying attention to what they were drinking too. I can proudly tell people everything about my wine from grape to glass because it's made in the most ethical and prestigious fashion possible. I don't focus on the economics like other major wine brands do. I'm a pioneer in this way, but I know that people will pay for better ingredients and practices. I am one of the first producers, if not the first, who is putting good, small-batch, craft wine under a "cute, beach-y" label. Most of the big brands out there can't tell you where all their grapes are coming from much like most fast food chains can't tell you where their meat is coming from, or, more accurately, don't want to. While being a trailblazer is scary for most, for some reason, it ignites me. It might come as no surprise that I derive a little too much enjoyment from saying "I told you so."

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Ripe Life Wines?
Working in restaurants after culinary school helped a lot because I was in a buying position and a selling position in regards to wine. I worked in restaurants that were casual, but also very much known for excellent food. Selling wine tableside--either as a sommelier or server--at those places opened my eyes to a lot of what a "foodie" is looking for in their everyday wines: a fair price, a cool narrative, and a combination of complexity and drinkability amongst varying palates. I kept that mind when starting my company, Ripe Life Wines. Also, being involved with the buying for a restaurant opened my eyes to the various types of distributors and portfolios out there, and how a wine like "The Clambake Chardonnay" would fit in that world. A distributor's reputation and portfolio can really enhance or hurt a wine label just by brand association; it's not just about their ability to move product. Today, as the owner of Ripe Life, my focus is mostly allocated to business development and that means keeping the distributors, the retailers (aka restaurants and wine shops) and the end consumers at the forefront of every decision I make, including the "Four Ps" and everything in-between. Having that experience in the retail world, by the way of restaurants, I was in the middle of it all and that was crucial to my success in developing a product that works.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Ripe Life Wines?
Highlights: the people, the travel, the creative process--in that order. Ripe Life has led me to meet so many amazing people, those I work with and those I meet at wine festivals and in-store tastings. I also get to travel to my two favorites types of destinations: wine-growing regions and clambaking regions, which is my dream come true. Those are the places that bring me peace and get me through the tough times, like legal or financial work. Lastly, creating something from start to finish is extremely rewarding and being able to hold--hell drink!--it is really, really incredible.

Challenges: Lack of business operations experience and the struggle of getting California chardonnay accepted into polite company once again. On the first challenge, many people don't understand that delivering a great product and being a great visionary is a totally different skill-set than that for growing a lucrative, machine-like business. Honestly, I wish I had taken accounting courses in college. I wish I wasn't intimidated by the operational demands some of my MBA friends grasp so easily that I have had to learn along the way. I'm not just the CEO and the "dreamer," but I'm also the acting COO and that has been a challenge.

My other big challenge is overcoming the stereotype of mass-produced, oaked chardonnays. In an effort to set themselves apart from France, Californian producers began using new oak and malolactic fermentation to produce a style of chardonnay that was spicy, racy, bold, and with a buttery finish like no other. This style, when done well, is magnificent. However it's also costly, so when you had mass producers trying to emulate this style and start cutting corners, the market become flooded with cheap buttery/oaky chardonnays and the grape's reputation has been tainted ever since the 90s. My wine is completely unoaked, experiences no malolactic fermentation, and is a crisp, light, acidic and un-doctored expression of beautiful citrusy chardonnay that even non-chardonnay drinkers love. But getting them to try it for the first time is hard. One way we are overcoming it is by putting "unoaked" on the label, since I've noticed that some people are catching on, but we've got a long way to go.

What advice can you offer women who want to start their own business?
I think, by nature, us women are people-pleasers. And when you're starting your own company, there's nobody to please on a day-to-day basis, no one telling you "good work, today." The only person who can truly assess your work and tell you "you're doing a good job" is you. Women, I find, have a hard time telling themselves that they are great in any capacity. I was recently texting a fellow entrepreneur (a male) after I closed a major deal. He was congratulating me and I was simply brushing it off; I felt I was just lucky it went through, or that someone else would've closed this deal earlier or perhaps it was going to fall through... He told me, "Sooner or later I'm going to need you to accept that what you are doing is amazing and no one does sh*t like this." It clicked. I started becoming comfortable with feeling proud of myself and giving myself more credit for my successes. It makes trudging forward with the hardship of starting a company much easier. That being said, the advice I would give to any women starting their own business is: get comfortable with tooting your own horn. You're alone in the beginning of a start-up and you are the acting CEO, so when you feel you can do better, tell yourself you're amazing and you will, and when you feel you've done a good job? Credit yourself!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Part of the reason I wanted to start my own company was to create balance in my life. I don't thrive on routine, but rather by marching to the beat of my own drum. This is a much easier task to do when you have your own company. I named the company Ripe Life Wines for this reason, actually. The name "Ripe Life" actually means "Balanced Life." In the winemaking world, when a grower/producer says a grape is "ripe," he or she means it has reached the ideal balance of sugar and acid. I'm all about balance. Of course, most days can be overwhelmingly busy and I have no freedom, since I cannot delegate to others and there's no option to be "out of the office," especially in start-up stages. But, some days can be blissfully "free." That's a gift I never take for granted.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I can't really say. I've been in extremely lucky where I have never experienced/witnessed women having gender-specific "issues" in the workplace.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorships are invaluable when you're starting your own company. You need to build your network of mentors more than anything else. I cannot stress this enough. You can't afford consultants and you need people you can trust--a bona fide companion who's invested in what you are doing. I tell everyone who is starting their business to expose themselves to as many potential mentors as possible and the ones who are most responsive are the ones you need to cling onto. In order to survive as an entrepreneur, you need to build your network of brand champions and your mentors will help you do that. I've felt less alone in work (and in life) knowing I have people I trust, respect, and admire and who are actually rooting for me. I am very passionate about my mentors. They are like that cool aunt you can tell all your problems to without sugar-coating and know will help you, but you also want to make them proud.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire any and all risk takers and trailblazers, male or female. Having guts impresses me the most. Tina Fey is one female like this who comes to mind. All female comedians of that era (and before Tina's era) really inspire me, actually. If you read anything about the history of cinematic comedy in America, or know anything about the history of Saturday Night Live, you know a female actress was never intended be funny unless she's playing a bimbo... but you can't deny talent, wit and getting people to laugh. Any woman who broke that mold in show business is very admirable. It's the "I told you so," thing.

What do you want Ripe Life Wines to accomplish in the next year?
I'd like to hit every state on the Eastern seaboard by the time Batch 5 comes out in Spring 2016. Right now, we're in 7 states and rapidly expanding. I'd also like to write a lifestyle/cookbook on variations of the local "clambake" up and down the coast. My wine will really help take me on this journey--see how the shellfish taste different, understand different techniques, and really uncover the nuances of the different versions and local "names" for this coastal tradition (from shrimp boils, to crab feasts, to clambakes).

This is very specific, but I'd also like to expand to the point where we can lower our costs on everything involving packaging, shipping and some production processes, and then negotiate on more expensive grapes and vineyards for the next harvest... to only get better for our consumers without having to charge more.