Solano County’s Tolenas Winery co-owner wins North Bay Forty Under 40 award

Lisa Howard


Co-owner and winemaker

Tolenas Vineyards and Winery

4185 Chadbourne Road, Fairfield 94534


Read other profiles of North Bay Business Journal’s 2021 Forty Under 40 Awards winners.

Responsibilities with your company: As co-owner and head of winemaking I have the opportunity to make an impact from the start to the finish of our Tolenas experience.

I oversee the entire production process of creating wine, including grape harvesting, crushing, fermentation, aging, blending and bottling.

In a small family owned business like ours, owners wear many hats! In addition to wine making I am also in charge of all the marketing, packaging, product development, branding, sales, and wine club membership management.

On the weekends I get to enjoy pouring wines and sharing our Tolenas journey with our customers and wine club members. Every day is different and challenging, but compared to all my previous jobs, this one has become a lifestyle, not just a job.

How do you exemplify the spirit of being a top Forty Under 40 professional?

As the co-owner and award-winning winemaker of Tolenas Winery, I'm committed to capturing the spirit of Suisun's community and inspiring the next generation of winemakers.

Years with company: 5

Length of time in current position: 5

Number of companywide employees: 0

Number who report to you: 0

Greatest professional accomplishment: Scoring a Gold Medal in the International Women's Wine Competition for our wine, the Eclipse – White pinot noir.

Greatest professional challenge: Trusting my gut instinct--there have been so many times where others have influenced my decisions, despite my gut telling me otherwise.

As a professional in the industry, I have had to learn to trust that intuition. Some of the greatest wines, our Eclipse – a white pinot noir -- and our Lot 38 Dessert Wine were made out of a “crazy gut feeling.”

As a woman in the industry, it is intimidating to bring that female emotion and passion to the table. We (women) can sometimes feel the need to stifle that innovative and risk-taking part of our personality, and it has been the greatest challenge to show that, especially when it is not fully appreciated.

Best advice received: Happiness is a byproduct of accomplishing your goals and be yourself, there is no one else you can be!

Single most important event in your professional life in the last 12 months: In the last 12 months so many things have changed in our daily lives. My quick answer is surviving distance learning with our three young kids while at the same time having the best sales year so far in our business and launching a new wine that was featured in FORTUNE Magazine.

However, with all of that said, there is a story that keeps coming to my mind that really touched me personally. After a day of hosting guests at an outdoor wine tasting, one of the guests returned late in the afternoon. She asked to speak with me.

At first I was concerned she had a complaint, or something was not right with the wine she had purchased. Instead to my surprise, she shared with me that during her visit she had a true “ah-ha moment.”

She went on to say that as Cliff (my husband) and I shared our story of leaving our safe jobs as an engineer and a police officer to chase our dreams of farmers and winemakers she felt a huge weight being taken off her shoulders.

Our story inspired her to go after her dreams, something she had been putting on the back burner and something that had been nagging her during these crazy “COVID times.”

Sharing our story touched this guest in a way that allowed her the freedom to give herself permission to take the “different path,” to dare to dream and go after those opportunities we sometimes bury in our hearts.

If all I do day in and day out is inspire people to find happiness in life and the vehicle is TOLENAS wine, then I feel complete!

What’s the biggest change COVID-19, the restrictions and the economic impact has had on your work and personal life?

The biggest change COVID-19 has had on our business and my work as a wine maker and winery owner is the ability to have large events.

Wineries in our area have built up a following of wine club members that like to have wine club events and other regional events.

Without the ability to gather in these large formats we had to reinvent how we were going to get our members their wine as well as expose our wines to new customers.

We had to go to private seated tastings outside, with touchless payment methods, special one use wine glasses, and of course all of us and our staff taking extra precautions to remain socially distant and safe.

The changes were hard for us in the beginning, as we had not been open for tastings in the past and only really hosted large quarterly events.

As soon as we realized these events had to stop, we got busy brainstorming. We designed a “wine thru” curbside pickup system, we rebuilt our website to be able to book private reservations, and we even released a new wine club system called “Tolenas to You” where you get wine delivered to your door around the U.S. and it includes fun virtual events creating that feeling of community we all crave during this time.

In my personal life, our family has had big changes due to COVID-19. Our children 8, 6, and 4 all had to adjust what schooling looked like for the year. We had the pleasure of having my mother in law move in with us so she could help watch them since school had to instantly become a version of homeschool.

Distance learning was a huge challenge due to someone needing to be home nearly all day without the ability to take the kids out to grocery shop, run errands, etc. Our home became an office, a school, and our everyday place for almost a year!

And what’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken from that experience?

Kids are resilient and people drink more wine during pandemics! HA!

Our kids adjusted quickly and were able to master distance learning like champs. With a little reminding, help with charging devices, and some encouragement, they both (all) really were able to nail it. Of course they missed their friends, but our family bond truly became stronger.

We also learned that our pivots and adjustments with TOLENAS Winery paid off. Both pick-up sales and online wine sales increased due to people being stuck at home and creating their own date nights and farm to fork dinners.

What steps is your company taking to sustain your organization and morale in the current economy?

We are changing daily to help keep morale high and sustain this volatile economy. We have focused on partnering with other local companies on a regular basis. Each month last year we partnered with other local companies to sell our product together.

We would feature the guest business and a special promotion that helped both businesses and our community together.

For example for Valentine's Day, we partnered with a local flower grower here in Suisun that was struggling due to weddings and other large events being canceled.

We bundled their locally grown flowers with a bottle of wine at a special price and offered it to the community – it was a big hit. These partnerships really help elevate the local economy, keep our business going, and also offer people the ability to support more local business at once.

Next professional goal: Score 95 points or higher on a wine by a highly ranked wine critic.

Education: Bachelor of Science degree in bio resources and agricultural engineering licensed professional engineering in California and Arizona

Hometown: Fairfield / Suisun Valley

Community/nonprofit activities: Suisun Valley 4h Project Leader Solano County Agricultural Advisory Committee; Solano Land Trust Advisor; Solano County Ground Water Sustainability Act Technical Committee Member; Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Bio Resource and Agricultural Engineering Advisory Committee; Suisun Valley Vintners; and Growers Board of Director and Head of Marketing Committee

Mentor/admired businessperson: I am so lucky to have so many mentors in my life.

First and foremost my parents--they both set the bar high for setting goals, working hard, and accomplishing your dreams. They were active in their community, served on many boards, and still managed to run their own business, a farm, raise four kids, and make time for dinner as a family every night.

Recently, I have been very lucky to have a winemaker in our area really take me under his wing and answer questions around the clock.

Rick Lanza from Wooden Valley Winery has always been willing to help me whenever I have questions, or want to bounce ideas off of him. There was even a time when I briefly lost my sense of taste and he helped me to finalize one of our wines right before bottling.

What is your most disliked industry buzzword?

“Natural Wines”-- I dislike this buzzword simply for the fact that it is undefined and often misinterpreted.

The industry has no set qualifications or requirements for what makes a wine classified as "natural." Therefore, sometimes people incorrectly use it as an excuse for why wines taste weird or “off,” giving ""natural wines"" a bad connotation.

This is frustrating for producers like us who pride ourselves in making unmanipulated and “natural wines” that don't use chemical additives.

To us, we do all we can to make clean, aromatic, tasty wines without the use of additional chemicals, agents, fining materials, or flavorings. We would never release a wine that has faults or issues just because our wines are unmanipulated.

Typical day at the office: In my line of work there is no typical day and there is hardly an office. Ha!

During crush (Aug-Oct) days are long and physically demanding. We wake up early to harvest the grapes, work into the afternoon crushing them and then finish our day checking on the rest of the wines fermenting and plan for the next day's work.

After crush we work in the barrel room, topping wines, planning blends, and also forecasting sales to determine how much wine to make the following year. This time of year, in the spring, we focus on bottling the fresh wines and planning our year of marketing in sales.

One of the best things about being a winemaker and winery owner is that every day is different. Some days are all about physical labor and working with your hands, some days are about chemistry and math, then there are days you spend time with people and selling wine. It takes a well-rounded high energy person.

In a business sense, what is the greatest thing about being under 40; and then what is the worst?

The greatest thing is still having that drive, energy and enthusiasm to feel like you can accomplish anything and everything. I still feel like I have so much of my life ahead of me and want to learn so much and be part of it all. I love that I can bring a fresh perspective to our industry and relate to the next generations coming into the space.

The worst part of being under 40 is people still not taking you seriously, especially as a female under 40.

Also I am still in the thick of raising young kiddos, so I have to find balance between the demands of home and my desires to move forward in my career.

Best place to work outside of your office: The vineyard! I love walking the vineyard rows, checking on the fruit, sampling the grapes and seeing how they are ripening. I usually get to bring my kids with me and they romp and play in the vineyard and eat way too many grapes.

Hobbies: Boating, hiking, cycling, yoga, cooking, camping, reading -- anything involving the outdoors while eating and drinking good wine with friends!

What you wanted to be when you grew up: Astronaut! I wanted to go in a spaceship and fly to the moon. It seemed like a job so big and so “out of this world” that I wanted to accomplish it.

No. 1 thing you want to accomplish by the time you turn 40: Be on the Forty under 40 list! In all seriousness looking at the Forty under 40 lists in all major publications has been a true inspiration for me. I would be honored to be featured.

First job: I grew up working at a young age for my parents on the farm, but my first “paid job” was at the local coffee shop, La Barista Coffee. I remember when they handed me my first paycheck and I exclaimed, “Oh yeah! I get paid to work here!”

Social media you most use: Instagram

Favorite book: This is such a hard choice! I love so many books, but I will confess I have a very hard time “allowing myself” the time to read fiction.

I read personal development books like they are going out of style. It is really too hard to choose, I would say “EntreLeadership” by Dave Ramsey, “Girl Wash your Face” by Rachel Hollis and for fiction one of the only books I could not put down was “Eat Pray Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Favorite movie: “Shawshank Redemption”

Favorite App: Headway: Self-Growth Challenge. This app is one of the very best downloads! I LOVE to read personal development books. I am notorious for having three different books going at the same time.

One about business, one about relationships, and maybe one about spirituality or raising kids! I always struggled with finishing the books.

I would flip through them, take nuggets of info and then move on to another book. Honestly, I felt guilty about it. THEN, I found the app Headway! This is a personal development book lover's dream! It has all of the best books, summarized into 10 pages with the headliner quotes bolded and you can choose to read it or listen to it! I read a new book daily!

Favorite after-work drink: Well I guess for me it goes without saying a nice glass of wine. In our house we have anywhere from 3 to 6 different bottles of wine open or out on the counter in line to be tried. We are always trying our Tolenas wines to see how they are progressing – either from barrel or the bottle - and of course trying out different wineries to learn and explore different styles and varietals.

Last vacation: Lake Tahoe!

When I was a little girl my grandparents bought a small cabin in Tahoe, it was their dream that their six kids would bring their kids up to Tahoe to make memories. The cabin has stayed in our family and now their grand kids and even some of their great grand kids enjoy making memories together. We love going up there to play in the snow, go sledding, have snow ball fights, and go hiking.

What does your mom or dad brag most about you?

That I am smart and work really hard to make things happen! They always tell me that if I put my mind to it, I will get it. They both have always been my biggest cheerleaders.

Lisa Howard


Co-owner and winemaker

Tolenas Vineyards and Winery

4185 Chadbourne Road, Fairfield 94534


Read other profiles of North Bay Business Journal’s 2021 Forty Under 40 Awards winners.

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