Vineyard Maven

By Bard, Mitchell G. | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Vineyard Maven


Bard, Mitchell G., The World and I


AS CLEO OF ST. SUPERY VINEYARDS IN NAPA VALLEY, MICHAELA RODENO HAS BECOME ONE OF THE WINE INDUSTRY'S MOST ARTICULATE

Sitting at a specially prepared luncheon table with white linen and sparkling china beneath a several-hundred-year-old valley oak near the entrance of St. Supery winery, I expected to see the company's CEO go through the full wine-tasting ritual of sniffing and swirling. But, instead, Michaela Rodeno sipped her own vintage in between bites of radicchio lettuce and roasted chicken with the same unpretentiousness that she describe her unlikely rise from community college French teacher to one of the few women to run a Napa Valley winery.

Soft-spoken and quick to laugh, Rodeno bears no resemblance to the matriarch of the fictional Falcon Crest winery, the tyrannical Jane Wyman character who ruthlessly sought to ruin her competitors. Rodeno is tall, thin, and flows into a room rather than taking it by storm.

Dressed in a white blouse and purple suit with her sunglasses perched on her head, the New Jersey-born navy brat explained that she grew up with no real exposure to wine beyond the memory of being given "sticky timblefuls of wine" by her father at Thanksgiving. In fact, she didn't begin drinking until college, when she went to study in Bordeaux. In France, she picked up the natives' attitude toward wine as a natural complement to a meal. "They drink wine with meals so I drank with meals. Before that, I never thought about wine. When I got back from France, I continued to drink it with meals," Rodeno recalls.

She pauses to mention that the white wine we are now drinking, a Sauvignon Blanc, was just named the best Napa wine at the California State Fair. St. Supery grows eight varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Zinfandel, Muscat) to produce a total of eleven wines, four under the Bonverre label and two kosher wines on the Mt. Madrona label. The St. Supery label depicts three dancers on a gold medallion surrounded by the Latin words "Pota Salta Bonus Es" (Drink, dance, and be good). The winery just produced two new premium wines with labels that have artist's renderings of their image of Saint Supery.

The St. Supery vineyards had not even been planted when Rodeno returned to college to complete her degree at the University of California at Davis. During her senior year, she met a law student whom she later learned was known for his interest in wine. This turned out to be just one of their shared interests, and Rodeno eventually married him.

Rodeno was still far from the Napa boardrooms. In fact, she left school with an M.A. in French literature and was living in Sacramento, where her husband got a job with the Corps of Engineers. A friend of his worked in Napa and suggested that he move and become a country lawyer. The idea appealed to both of them, and they moved to the valley in 1972. While her husband built his practice, Rodeno taught French at a community college, published the school's catalogs, and did other part-time work.

THE WINE BUSINESS BECKONS

You make your own opportunities in life," Rodeno says, and she did just that when the local press began trumpeting the opening of Domaine Chandon, the first big French winery to invest in Napa. "I found John Wright [Domaine's president] and said, `I speak French, do you need help?'" Wright hired Rodeno and became her boss and mentor.

"John is a total wild man, who operated in an unstructured environment and hasn't a clue about dosing doors on anybody," she comments. "There were lots of exciting things to do and not too many people to do them. For people inclined to just jump in, there was no one around to say, `don't do that,' so I just jumped in."

Since Rodeno was the only one at Domaine who spoke French, she was the person who talked to the French winemakers and architects when they came to visit. …

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