Deborah Brenner is a connector. She wrote the book "Women of the Vine" in 2006 about women's roles the wine industry, and ever since, she's been bringing women together to further their careers in the wine world.
"The theme of the book was about breaking the glass ceiling in the wine industry," says Brenner, who left a job as a marketing executive to pursue a passion for wine. She wrote about the inspiring women she traveling through wine country, a who's who of winemakers including Gina Gallo, Heidi Peterson Barrett and Merry Edwards. They all shared the stories behind their own labels and the trials encountered on their way to the top.
Out of that book came the first Women of the Vine grand tasting in Napa in 2013 and a second event last year.
Now, a public wine tasting event is nothing new. What was impressive is that Brenner managed to snag heavyweights such as Gallo and Cheryl Indelicato, who rarely pour at consumer events. But there they were.
Brenner discovered many of the women wanted more time together - to share insights, experiences and help each other out.
So she's taking what she calls a "leap of faith," asking these winemakers and more to come together for the first Women of the Vine Global Symposium, a three-day conference "devoted to advancing women and leadership and empowerment of women in the wine industry," she says.
The event, which takes place March 13-15 at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa, has already sold more than 400 tickets. There are keynote speeches, break-out sessions, networking lunches and a grand tasting, with more than 40 women pouring their wines. Symposium tickets are $699, including the grand tasting, with the option to attend just the grand tasting for $150.
"Eight months ago I sat here and thought, 'Am I crazy? Would anybody want to support this?'" says Brenner, who knew she needed sponsors to pull it off. "I had to explain to them that it is not about selling your wine. This is fostering talent, something rarely done in the wine industry."
Ever the dynamo, Brenner courted an all-star list of speakers and panelists to take part. There's Jean Arnold Sessions, president emeritus of Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma. Michaela Rodeno was an executive at Domaine Chandon and St. Supery wineries in Napa Valley and wrote "From Bubbles to Boardroom" (Villa Ragazzi Press 2013). Leslie Sbrocco is an award-winning TV host, author and wine consultant, and Susan Sokol-Blosser is the founder of Sokol-Blosser wines in Oregon.
Even though there are more women than ever working in the wine industry as winemakers, winery managers, sommeliers, distributors, importers and journalists, Brenner feels there's still more work to be done to help women fill top roles from CEO to head winemaker.
"It's very important to bring the perspective that our product may be wine, but a lot of barriers to leadership roles are the same for women across the board in many industries," she says.
That's why she's invited two industry outsiders to give keynote addresses. Holly Dowling is a leadership expert, and Ali Brown is an entrepreneur devoted to empowering women in business around the world. "They are sought out by major corporations," Brenner says. "Their expertise is mentoring."
But Women of the Vine is not a no-boys-allowed club.
Men within the industry, Brenner observes, see women taking on strong leadership roles, and they want to cultivate that talent. Terlato Wines, a global wine marketing and production company, is a sponsor of the global symposium. CEO William Terlato says, "We're proud of the work women do in our organization and willing to share best practices in this forum."
Terlato owns two wineries in Napa Valley where women are in charge. Chimney Rock's Elizabeth Vianna is general manager and winemaker, and Marisa Taylor holds those titles at Rutherford Hill. "We have had women in key executive and management roles in our company for decades, from winemaking to finance, IT -- really all roles," Terlato says.
Brenner hopes the symposium will be a catalyst for attendees. "People are looking for ways they can break out on their own or excel better in the industry or the company they are in," she says. "The women who are successful in the wine sector can collaborate and mentor and share their experiences and show others the way."