Remi Cohen took the reins as CEO of Napa’s Domaine Carneros in August, 2020, mid-pandemic. The chateau, perched high atop a hill in the Carneros region bridging southern Napa and Sonoma counties, is a local landmark, part of the heritage of a brand owned by a renowned French sparkling wine house, Taittinger. Cohen stepped into the CEO role after the previous CEO, Eileen Crane, retired. Crane ran the show for the past 33 years, but stayed on through the 2020 harvest and blending of the 2020 cuvées.
You are the second CEO for the Domaine, which for its entire career, has been led by women. Is there a particular resonance for you in taking over for Eileen Crane after 33 years?
I met Eileen right as I was getting started in the industry. She was always so polished and professional. I watched her career for 20 years and now I get to be a part of it.
And you are both from New Jersey, originally?
Yes. I grew up in East Brunswick and Eileen is from Hillsdale. There is a joke now that only women from New Jersey can run Domaine Carneros. And my middle name, with the same spelling, is Eileen.
You’ve been in this role since August, mid-Covid-19 craziness. What drove you to pursue this career move during the pandemic summer?
We started talking about the role in February. Covid-19 was really advancing in March and I did not feel comfortable leaving my current position in the middle of a crisis. I was really upfront with the recruiter that I did not want to lose the opportunity, so I asked for help to navigate the situation. Domaine’s leadership went to their board and realized it was not the right time for Eileen to move either. When things stabilized over the summer, it felt like a better time for a transition. Even then, coming onboard with so many restrictions in place, it was very challenging getting to know people. Eileen left an amazing team and an amazing business. I feel really supported.
Covid-19 was not the only issue wine country had to deal with in 2020.
Everyone had a hard time this year — Covid-19 plus more devastating fires. Layer on top of that losing a CEO, someone who had built this business for the past 33 years. That’s a big change in and of itself and that change alone would be enough, but the resiliency of the team and the strength of the business really made it possible. The whole team has been so diligent. I am so grateful for this team who helped me get through this.
When you look back on the arc of your career to this point, what do you consider the single most impactful thing you have done?
Mentoring. There’s not a “higher” job than that. I like seeing continuity. I want to stay engaged and it’s a great way to give back. I know we are talking about “women of impact” but, for the first half of my career, I shied away from this subject of being a woman in wine business. I initially felt that a lot of the work had been done — by Eileen here at Domaine, Heidi Barrett (a winemaker best known for her work at Oakville’s Screaming Eagle), Marimar Torres (founder/proprietor of Sonoma’s Marimar Estate Vineyards and Winery) and others. I looked at their talent and accomplishments and then I saw as many women as men in the viticulture program at Davis. At the time, it felt obvious that the story was over. But as I moved up the ladder on the winemaking and management sides of this industry, the gap became more obvious.
What advice were you given along the way that helped build your career?
When I was at Bouchaine, Mike Richmond, my boss, loved how I loved to drill down into the data of the vineyard. He would ask me to think about what is actionable and encouraged me to think globally about the business. He helped me translate my passion for the vineyard and the winery and make it relatable to the gatekeepers — wine buyers and sommeliers and the people who are the final consumers. Those are the audiences that need to buy into your philosophy and your vision. Mike got me thinking about all of this while pruning vines. How do you carry a brand identity through these experiences to the end user?
Mark West, who was the winemaker at Saintsbury, told me I’d be a great viticulturist, but felt my path was different than to be a farmer. He suggested I go to business school. I researched and applied for a professional MBA that day.
The family at Merryvale Vineyards is a part of your story, too.
Here’s where I credit my bossy-Jewish-girl-from-New-Jersey self to become director of operations. I was already part of the senior management team and I was always making these suggestions about what they should do. They called me into a meeting and asked if I wanted the direct to consumer (DTC) program. They loved my ideas and thought I was super-organized. I became VP of Operations and ran DTC. I would spend mornings in the vineyard and afternoons forward-facing with customers. Rene and Jack Schlatter (at Merryvale) supported my MBA, too. I was working and doing my MBA, one class at a time.
For the past 10 years, you’ve been with Cliff Lede Vineyards.
I met Cliff through vineyard manager, David Abreu, and consulted for him when I was running my own business. He invited me to be the director of winemaking, but I had never made wine! Cliff said he would hire a winemaker, but I knew about grape growing and could be the general manager of the production side of the business. That experience was a deep dive into the winemaking. Cliff has a great brand sense. It really rounded me out.
In any business, that kind of support can be invaluable.
I was mentored mostly by men because there are still only a small number of women available to be mentors. At Champagne Taittinger, Vitalie Taittinger (president of Champagne Taittinger and daughter of Pierre-Emmanuel) is the head of the winery now. She truly supports female leadership.
How would you describe your management style?
I’ve been here for about nine months now and am taking over where Eileen left off. Eileen implemented the Zingerman model of management. She institutionalized their management philosophies into a program, including an employee engagement program and an open book management style with visibility into finances. To support that, management offers trainings and opportunities outside of each employee’s own job responsibilities. I’m really excited about this. We added a mentorship program to pair a coach with a less experienced employee based on their professional interests. And we launched a continuing education program — lunch and learn —with the management team.
How have you made mentorship and other programs more inclusive?
We are focused on building out more of an institutionalized diversity and inclusion program here. This is where it all happens — with the people. Maybe I’m at a pivot point, but it is time for me to think about how to give back to the industry and the community. Whenever anyone asks me for help, I make time. Those little connections make a huge difference. The program here is a work in progress. I don’t want to be exclusionist to create more equity. I made mentorship open to everyone so everyone can take advantage of it. We lead by example to be inclusive, encourage diversity, and give back.
What has surprised you most about the role or the estate?
Eileen’s parting gift was to establish this Estate vineyard with amazing bubbles, female leadership, and these incredible employee engagement programs. The CEO title is the cherry on top. Even though happened in middle of pandemic, it could not have worked out better. There is a true commitment of the families that own this business to think long term. You can feel that sense of stability amidst instability because of the strength of brand and the team and that starts with the families. Eileen is still here as a consultant. We both feel like everything has exceeded our expectations for each other.
Any connection to Marin?
May is rosé season. Come visit and try some of our sparkling rosé — always great for Mothers’ Day.
A few extra pearls of career-building wisdom:
- Know your own value and be willing to advocate for yourself. That is the number one thing. No one is going to do it better than you can do for yourself.
- Don’t try to be something that you are not to fit into a role because won’t work out in the long term.
- Ask for your title, your compensation to be equal to your contribution. Business leaders are often seen as intimidating, but the leaders are the ones who will recognize your abilities and see the value you bring to the business. It is respected. They respect you negotiating for yourself. The negotiation may not be easy but leadership knows that if you can do that, you will represent and protect our business.
- Treat everything you do as though it is your own business. No matter how small you think your contribution is, if you take that level of responsibility to the work you do, you’re most likely going to advance in that business because people will notice that level of care.
- If you are not getting what you want out of a role and doing all of the above and not seeing the doors open, then consider another opportunity. Need to be in a place that supports you. If not getting that, that is a problem. Bad for business to lose people who have potential.
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Christina Mueller is a long-time Bay Area food writer. She hails from the East Coast and has spent way too much time in South America and Europe. She discovered her talent as a wordsmith in college and her love of all things epicurean in grad school. She has written for Condé Nast Contract Publishing, Sunset, and the Marin Independent Journal, among others. She volunteers with California State Parks and at her child’s school, and supports the Marin Audubon Society, PEN America, and Planned Parenthood. When she is not drinking wine by a fire, she is known to spend time with her extended family.