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Bringing wine sense to cannabis marketing: Terry Wheatley of Sonoma County’s Vintage Wine Estates

Inside the C-suite

The Business Journal regularly talks in depth with North Bay business leaders to find out how they manage their companies and adapt to changing conditions. Read more interviews here.

Finding the perfect blend is something wine marketing executive Terry Wheatley knows all about.

A rarity, Wheatley not only runs Vintage Wine Estates as president, she serves as chairwoman on the board of directors for CannaCraft, a cannabis producer, also based in Santa Rosa.

But Wheatley has always looked ahead for opportunities.

She kicked off her career at E. & J. Gallo Winery, before landing a senior vice president job at Trinchero Family Estates in the Napa Valley. From there, Wheatley’s entrepreneurial spirit led to the launching of her own wine brand marketing company — Canopy Management — which Vintage Wine Estates bought out in 2014 and made her president. As the head of Vintage Wine Estates, she spearheaded the company going public this past June.

“I’ve been in wine all my life,” Wheatley told the Business Journal. With Canopy Management, sales rose to 300,000 cases in five years.

Wheatley introduced the Middle Sister and Purple Cowboy wine labels to the public. At the same time, she created a loyalty-building tool called the Wine Sisterhood, a social media platform designed to create a community for women enthusiastic about wine.

Wheatley was named Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s 2018 Innovator of the Year.

In 2019, she became chairwoman to CannaCraft’s board of directors as a result of her affiliation with the cannabis company founders.

Wheatley has also mixed the professional with the personal. A breast cancer survivor herself, she co-founded Tough Enough to Wear Pink, a campaign intended to help families deal the issues surrounding this form of cancer that afflicts one in eight women in the United States.

And as a way of giving back more, Wheatley was also instrumental at forming her company’s Angels Share program, which fights food insecurity in partnership with the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

For all her involvements, Wheatley comes across as a woman grounded in her intents, goals, philosophy and the ability to reinvent herself.

At age 68, she’s come a long way, having grown up outside of Red Bluff in the Central Valley, where ranching is king. Her love of agriculture and a retired professional rodeo cowboy husband, eventually resulted in a move to Hughson, a community located southeast of Modesto where she has lived for the last four decades.

Proving her appreciation of many interests, Wheatley has set up a roping arena in her back yard — something her grandson now uses.

As part of its ongoing Inside the C-suite series, North Bay Business Journal asked Wheatley to provide a glimpse into this multi-faceted professional’s life.

Is there a time when your experience in both industries, wine, and cannabis, has helped with a project and/or effort?

The time is now. Vintage Wine Estates is exploring innovation beverage projects that put the worlds of wine and cannabis together. Where I think I can really make a difference in my role in the cannabis industry is in the areas of marketing, sales and distribution. I would love to see cannabis be marketed, merchandised and sold using a wine model, and I believe there will be opportunity for both industries to collaborate in the future.

“I would love to see cannabis be marketed, merchandised and sold using a wine model, and I believe there will be opportunity for both industries to collaborate in the future.“

Are there any crossover opportunities?

There are endless crossover opportunities with a little creativity. Wine-flavored edibles would be fun. Wine and cannabis pairings — winemaker-dinner style — are already a bit of a thing. Infused beverages with de-alcoholized wines are growing. We’re just on the horizon of possibilities.

What kind of advice would you give young people wanting to follow in your footsteps at either a startup or to advance to the upper echelons of management in one of those industries?

My footsteps might not be anybody else’s footsteps, but here are the fundamentals in my humble opinion:

Be educated. Sometimes that means “formal education”, but sometimes it doesn’t.

I’ve been in the wine business for 40 years and been involved in the cannabis business for three. I did a real-life crash course in cannabis, courtesy of the founders Ned Fussell and Dennis Hunter, and now I’m chairperson of the board of Cannacraft, California’s second largest cannabis business.

Pat Roney, founder and CEO of Vintage Wine Estates, took my knowledge to another level about finance, mergers and acquisitions, and I became the first female president of a wine company to take the company public in June of this year. One of my personal values is mentorship, especially to young women coming up in the wine and cannabis businesses.

Inside the C-suite

The Business Journal regularly talks in depth with North Bay business leaders to find out how they manage their companies and adapt to changing conditions. Read more interviews here.

Be curious. I’m an annoyingly curious person. I’m humble about what I don’t know and intensely interested in learning more. I love to understand what makes businesses, the people behind the business and most importantly, customers, tick.

Be persistent. I can guarantee that I have heard “no” a million times more than I have heard “yes.” There’s a saying in sales — that “no” means “maybe,” and I have taken that probably way too much to heart.

When you’re advancing in business, whether it’s a startup or (in) traditional management, it’s important not to get discouraged if you meet pushback. It’s a golden opportunity to find another door.

“Wine was vigorously promoted in Napa and Sonoma as among the finest in the world due to its unique sense of place as to where it is grown. I think cannabis can follow suit.“

Do you believe there will be a time when cannabis gains the same level of respect as wine even in Wine Country? When and why?

Wine was vigorously promoted in Napa and Sonoma as among the finest in the world due to its unique sense of place as to where it is grown. I think cannabis can follow suit.

(Northern) California is already known for (having) the “Emerald Triangle,” which is really a brand for growing ultra-premium cannabis in the ideal place. It will be all about premium farming, production branding. It won’t happen overnight to be sure, but that’s where it needs to start. I think the wine business is an ideal model to follow.

Are you living your dream?

Absolutely. I’ve had such an incredible career and am surrounded by brilliant, talented and creative colleagues who make me better every day.

What's your favorite varietal and why?

My current favorite varietal is sauvignon blanc, and my go-to glass is Girard, which is the founding brand of Vintage Wine Estates.

Have you tried various forms of cannabis?

Currently, I am a big fan of CBD-infused beverages.

When you travel, do you find yourself looking into a region's commodity because that's possibly "your thing"?

If the opportunity presents in states where currently legal, I will do the “store check” to see how shops are merchandising their wares. The customer experience is always of great interest to me.

Name something people would be surprised to learn about you.

I have a former champion professional rodeo cowboy husband, a former champion professional rodeo cowboy son and a daughter who is a top salesperson for CannaCraft. I’m a proud Nana and Boston Bull Terriers are my favorite breed. They’re the inspiration for my Bar Dog wine brand!

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