This California vintner makes premium wine in a place you might not expect
Lisa Howard is no ordinary winery owner and winemaker. For starters, the winery she and husband, Cliff, own is in Solano County — a location often overlooked by the masses when it comes to growing grapes and producing wine.
“When you visit Suisun Valley you are still bound to meet the winemakers, experience a bucolic energy, while still enjoying top notch wines. We hope to keep this charm, while still becoming a household name,” Howard said.
And then there's the 40-year-old's career path to making wine. She's an agricultural engineer who decided to leave that job and move with her husband to her parents farm in Fairfield to start a Tolenas Winery in 2015.
Today, Tolenas bottles about 2,000 cases of wine, selling many of those bottles on weekends at their tasting room, where white pinot noir is the best seller. In the next five years the goal is to double that amount or even reach 5,000 cases.
“We only make wine from grapes in the Suisun Valley,” Howard said. “We have about 100 acres planted in three different properties.” All of the land is family owned. “We sell a large majority of grapes to other wineries.”
The following Q&A between the Business Journal and Howard has been edited for space and clarity.
You have a degree in agricultural engineering, but winemaking was not your career goal. What led to the transformation?
Agriculture has always been my passion. I love the land, working with my hands, and educating people about where their food and beverages are produced. Agricultural engineering interested me while in college as it combined my love for agriculture, but also allowed me the financial security of being in agriculture without the cyclical nature of true farming.
After 10 years working as a water resource specialist and consulting engineer, I realized the challenges of self-employment and hands-on farming/winemaking were worth the risk and I quit my job in Arizona.
My husband and I decided “moving back home” and being part of the day to day family farm and starting our own business was more in tune with our long term plans for our family and hopefully that of our children.
Kids change you and make you reflect on what is really important in life. When I realized I was going to have to hire full-time day care, raise our kids away from family, and also not be with my parents and brothers and sisters, it hit me that moving back “home” and changing careers was the best decision.
It has not been an easy transition, and surely quitting a secure job like engineering is not for everyone. The transformation from my previous job to owning and making wine with Tolenas has made me realize that a job can be more than a job; it can be a lifestyle.
How has your previous job as a water resource specialist helped you with your winery?
My background in project management has helped me tremendously in navigating all the moving pieces of the winery.
We have to coordinate when the fruit needs to be picked and match that with available tanks, staff, and weather. Once the fruit comes into the winery there are daily tasks that need to be carried out that take a team of people and lots of micro decisions to make great wine. We are a small winery so we do it all from harvesting to packaging design.
It feels like harvest is just wrapping up and we need to forecast how many tons we are going to bring in the following year and then how much glass, cork, and labels we need to acquire to bottle previous vintages. It’s a full circle project that lets you wear many hats and do something different daily.
Do you envision Solano County becoming a destination wine region like Sonoma and Napa counties?
Absolutely. We are already seeing it.
Visitors are starting with plans in the more well-known regions, and spilling over into our area. Search engines like Google Maps are a powerful tool to expose “lesser known” regions like Suisun Valley/Solano County.
Visitors realize that we are minutes from their favorite Napa wineries and decide to try something new. Plus, with the addition of world renowned brands like Caymus having a tasting room in Suisun Valley (Caymus-Suisun), we are getting on the map quick.
What is it like to work in such a male-dominated industry?
Challenging, but in a good way. This industry is becoming more and more accepting of woman winemakers and women-owned businesses.
Every situation has its pros and cons. One of the benefits of working with men is they are more physically stronger and can do the things I can’t do.
It’s actually in the vineyards where it’s more of a challenge because out of respect in the Hispanic culture, men don’t think they should be addressing a woman in a business setting. It is not out of disrespect, but it’s challenging when I am the boss. The guys who have worked for us for many years have learned it’s OK to hand me the money and it’s OK for me to tell them things to do.