How a premed student became a leading wine company CEO

CEO Spotlight

In this monthly series, the Business Journal talks with those who occupy the lofty spot in a local organization, asking about their professional and personal opportunities and challenges.

Sponsor of North Bay Business Journal's CEO Spotlight series is Summit State Bank. It had no input into the editorial content.

Being able to authentically tell the story of a wine requires being intimate with the process, not merely popping the cork and tasting what’s in the bottle.

At least, that’s the case for Remi Cohen, CEO of Domain Carneros in Napa.

The 46-year-old started her career working in vineyards before she began climbing the corporate ladder. Even so, it’s not unusual to find her walking among the vines.

“It’s still my favorite part of the business. It’s good to follow the season and be in touch with the vintage,” Cohen said. “And it’s a good time to think. At least once a week I’m out in the vineyards. I take a nice walk and see what the vines look like.”

Back in her office she is focused on a slew of issues — with diversity being one of them. Diversity when it comes to being an inclusive workplace and diversity beyond being known as a leading purveyor of sparkling wine.

Domaine Carneros’ diversity, equity and inclusion program is tailored to the various aspects of the winery — agriculture, hospitality and wine production — instead of instituting one blanket program.

When it comes to wine production, the pinot noir program is about 20% of the business. It has a separate facility behind the château as well as its own winemaker. Chardonnay and merlot are part of this collection.

“It’s been fun to see (the program) gain traction and variety over time,” Cohen said.

The following Q&A between the Business Journal and Cohen has been edited for clarity and space.

How is Domaine Carneros tapping into the sparking wine trend which is predicted to increase?

Domaine Carneros is one of the pioneers of sparkling wine in California. Claude Taittinger visited Napa Valley as early as the 1960s, and he had a prescient vision that this area would become a world-class wine region. He anticipated that the land in Napa and Sonoma would continue to increase in value and become more scarce, so the Taittinger and Kopf families have made it a part of the longer term vision of the winery to invest in vineyard land in Napa and Sonoma Carneros. We have made two acquisitions in the last decade, bringing our sustainably-farmed estate vineyard acreage to over 400 acres. This is evidence of our commitment to growing quality grapes to produce méthode traditionnelle sparkling wines.

You had big shoes to fill in 2020 when you became CEO at Domaine Carneros; taking over from founding winemaker and CEO Eileen Crane.

What inspired me to join Domaine Carneros was that the core tenets of the winery aligned with my personal values, and our founders, the Taittinger family provided a supportive and empowering framework for achieving our goals. I was incredibly honored and very excited to have the opportunity to build on founding winemaker and former CEO Eileen Crane's incredible legacy at Domaine Carneros. Eileen's many accomplishments in her 30 years of leadership include establishing a portfolio of outstanding méthode traditionnelle sparkling wines in collaboration with the Taittinger family, constructing a stunning château that has become a wine country landmark, the acquisition and planting of hundreds of acres of vineyards, introducing a thriving sustainability program, and implementing the high standards of our unique and memorable hospitality. Thanks to that groundwork, I was fortunate to step into leadership of such a well-established operation complete with an outstanding team.

What changes have you brought to the winery?

We have expanded our DEI program and developed both internal mentorship programs and a mentorship program in partnership with Batonnage, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing women in the industry. We have launched the Le Rêve Scholarships with the Culinary Institute of America and UC Davis to support students in a wine master’s program who are committed to advancing diversity or sustainability in the industry. Internally, we established incentives and reimbursements for language learning and education.

We plan to continue to build upon our robust sustainability initiatives. As an example, we are furthering our commitment to solar energy by adding to our solar arrays and building our own microgrid. We can use stored energy we generate in the evenings and can island in the event of a power outage.

For our guests, we have created more engaging and memorable experiences. Our Bubbles & Bites tasting menu now changes seasonally, highlighting flavors of cuisines from around the globe to illustrate the versatility of sparkling wine with food pairing. We’ve also introduced an exciting experiential tasting called The Art of Sabrage. It includes a tasting of four wines, an abundance of local cheeses and charcuterie, and is topped off with a sabering demonstration. We’ve also developed a concierge-style custom tasting.

How did you go from a premed student at UC Berkeley to being a CEO of a winery?

I was studying molecular biology on a premed track at UC Berkeley when I realized I was more passionate about plant biology than the medical field. Researching graduate programs in plant science, I discovered the Viticulture and Enology Department at UC Davis and immediately enrolled in and subsequently completed the master’s program. I felt that a career in wine would combine many of my interests from plant biology, agriculture, and chemistry to sales and marketing, all with a fun and social aspect.

What aspect about your business keeps you up at night?

The wine industry is not for the faint of heart. As an estate-driven winery, we are especially impacted by Mother Nature, so the drought, atmospheric rivers, fires, and other climate-related concerns are always top of mind. Given the particular challenges of the past three years, we can add keeping the team safe, motivated, and with good morale, and the supply chain to the list of worries. What I have learned over time though, is that the worries you have today will not be the same ones you have in several months, and that keeps me from being overwhelmed. I remind myself that we will work through the challenges and become stronger once they are resolved. Then a new challenge will present itself!

What is your approach to making tough and important business decisions?

With difficult decisions, I take the time to evaluate all the options, and I consult with my team, experts, or other trusted advisors. I enjoy researching and playing out various scenarios and weighing pros and cons. When I am really conflicted, I pretend that I have made my decision and live with the imaginary outcome for a period of time to see how it feels. If I am relieved, I know it will be the right decision. If I am unsure, I will pretend to make a different decision and see if that feels better.

What lesson did you learn early in your career that you now recognize as an important one?

Know what type of company culture you are getting involved with and make sure the company’s values align with your own. It is also important to know your value and to be your own advocate. It will be respected if you ask for a title and compensation that is commensurate with your contributions.

How do you motivate people?

All employees have visibility into the company’s financial performance and key performance indicators which creates a culture of employee engagement and advancement. Through regular meetings that include acknowledging employees for their contributions, a track record of internal promotions and advancement, and programs that support learning, equity, wellness, and team building, we have created a positive and engaging work environment that is evidenced by long employee tenure.

What concerns do you have for your business and industry looking out five years?

Climate change, water availability, the rising costs of business, and labor issues and shortages.

What goals do you have for the winery in the next five years?

We have many fun initiatives we are working on. We are redesigning our hospitality “back of the house” to expand our elevated wine tasting experiences with enhanced food pairing and culinary options.

We are adding additional benefits to our wine club members that increase with member tenure, and we are making adjustments to our club to meet the changing consumer demographics and provide more personalized engagement.

We are expanding our water collection, recycling, and storage systems. We are always looking to acquire more Carneros vineyard land to grow conscientiously while controlling quality.

Internally, we are moving toward a digital future which is our goal to have a paperless work environment. We have been developing a business continuity plan and updating documents for all our standard operating procedures.

Other than money how do you measure success?

I feel like I am successful if I enjoy my job and feel motivated to contribute to the team and our goals. On a company level, aside from setting budget and revenue goals, we work with annual and three-year strategic plans, and we gauge our success by accomplishing the goals we set for each pillar of company culture, sustainability, brand and sales management, and estate vineyards and winemaking.

What are the benefits and drawbacks to being located in the North Bay?

I love most everything about the North Bay, especially its outstanding terroir for producing wine, natural beauty of the environment, and the food and wine culture. The cost of living and the intense regulatory environment are my two main concerns.

What one government regulation would you change, and why?

I don’t think there is a particular regulation I would change, but I would like to see the local governments value and collaborate more with the wine industry to facilitate sustainable growth and educate the local population about the positive impact of the industry. The wine industry contributes tax revenue and jobs while providing beautiful vineyards and agricultural scenery, which is a big advantage for our counties compared to extensive housing and urban or commercial development.

What was your first job?

My first job was working in a ski shop in New Jersey. My first career job was as the vineyard manager at Bouchaine Vineyards.

Is this the job you wanted when you were young?

Since I was good at science, my parents always suggested I become a doctor. It still seemed like a reasonable trajectory when I enrolled at UC Berkeley in molecular biology.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I enjoy dinner parties with family and friends, cooking, travel, hiking, dance, and fitness.

What advice would you give someone just starting his or her career?

Start by fulfilling your responsibilities with excellence, understand where you add value, and offer to help outside of the scope of your role so you can grow and be challenged. When you have accomplished all those things, then it is appropriate to make sure your position and compensation are in line with your contributions and industry standards. Ideally, surround yourselves with mentors and supporters, but be confident in your skills so that you are your own best advocate.

Kathryn Reed is a journalist who has spent most of her career covering issues in Northern California. She has published four books, with the most recent being Sleeping with Strangers: An Airbnb Host’s Life in Lake Tahoe and Mexico. She may be reached at kr@kathrynreed. com, or follower her at, Twitter @Kathryn0925, or Instagram @kathrynreed0925.

CEO Spotlight

In this monthly series, the Business Journal talks with those who occupy the lofty spot in a local organization, asking about their professional and personal opportunities and challenges.

Sponsor of North Bay Business Journal's CEO Spotlight series is Summit State Bank. It had no input into the editorial content.

Show Comment