Women of Wine (From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)
It was 2004, the film Sideways was a hit, and actor Paul Giamatti had driven a cinematic stake through the heart of one of America’s favorite wines.
Thanks to Sideways and the pinot-impassioned but merlot-hating raves of Giamatti’s character, sales of merlot fell
off a cliff while pinot noir went into low-earth orbit.
In Sonoma County, Gerry Brinton and her husband, Bill, had settled into a nice midlife transition, selling their San Francisco juice company and moving to their Glen Ellen estate where they launched Charles Creek Vineyards and began making wine.
But they had a major merlot problem.
“When Sideways came out,” explains Gerry, “we had a huge number of barrels of merlot. We said, if we put all of this in merlot bottles, we’re dead.”
What to do?
“So, Bill had tasted some chocolate-flavored wine and said, ‘This is horrid.
I bet we could do something better with this merlot.’ ”
Thus was born “La Bomba,” a chocolate-flavored, brandy-fortified, merlot-based chocolate bomb.
Whether it was a stroke of brilliance, or just blind luck, the success of “La Bomba” illustrates the value of a small winery capable of responding nimbly to unforeseen events.
And nimbly is sort of how they started their wine business.
When Bill and Gerry decided to take the plunge, they searched for an entry point and found a Kenwood vintner with health issues, some unfinished wine and connections to good growers. They acquired the man’s inventory, recruited winemaker Kerry Damskey, finished the wine and entered it in the Sonoma County Harvest Fair competition, where it took home a gold medal and best of class.
“So we said, ‘Oh. We used to be in the juice business, now we’re in a different juice business that has a longer shelf life.’”
Gerry has the kind of understated demeanor of someone who grew up in say, Iowa, which she did. Bill has somewhat similar roots–he’s a member of the steel-plow John Deere family with highly entrepreneurial genes.
Gerry, who runs the business side of Charles Creek, has a Harvard MBA and is currently the board chair of Sutter Health.
Ask her if a woman’s sensibilities could influence winemaking, and she frames a thoughtful answer.
“The thing I find about women in business, in wine or anything else, is that women have a better capability to listen. It’s the ability to listen and really hear what people are saying. Women don’t always have to win, they’re willing to say, well that’s a better idea.”
She stops, thinks, then adds with a smile, “Sort of what those guys in Washington need, an ability to listen.”
(From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)