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This California vintner makes premium wine in a place you might not expect

CEO Spotlight

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

The series is sponsored by Summit State Bank and Sonoma Clean Power. They had no input on the editorial content.

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.

What trends that affect your industry keep you up at night?

Social media! Keeping up with the trends, the correct way to create content, and how to market our winery keep me up at night.

Sometimes it is in a good way because I get excited thinking about all the ideas we could implement.

But sometimes it gets overwhelming and I start to think we are falling behind and get wrapped up in the fresh and the new. Recently I had to take a step back and realize that we are not in it for the short term. This is a long term business venture. We can participate in trends and hype, but that is not what defines us. Our family, focused on quality, is what defines our business, and that is what I have to keep my focus on.

If you could change one government regulation, what would it be and why?

Wine shipping regulations. We still are unable to ship wine to all 50 states legally and some states still require us to go through a middle man to get wine to a customer. Many of the alcohol laws are still in place from Prohibition and it’s time to take a close look at updating them.

What are you doing to attract employees? How has recruitment changed since the start of the pandemic?

We post on winejobs.com and other online platforms, but in all honesty the best employees have come from personal referrals or wine club members that have decided to join our team.

When someone is already a fan of your brand, they make the best brand ambassadors. Selling and sharing is natural. We are seeing a real problem with finding help outside of our circle and that will continue to be a problem for the hospitality industry as the demand for good help is high.

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

My nature is energetic, independent, determined, and dynamic, so that often translates over to my approach to decision making. Sometimes I shoot from the hip in an energetic and dynamic approach, sometimes surprising our team with new ideas and projects.

However, this is balanced by my determined and independent side. Many times I will retreat to my office and write out all the ideas streaming through my head, make lists, and lists, and more lists, until the decisions are clear.

Thankfully, my partners and husband are more exact, logical, and calm by nature, so this balance helps me slow down on my execution and make sure we have looked at all the pros and cons before engaging in something that could hurt us financially.

Since I can be quick to move things into action, I have to tell myself if the answer is not clear, give it time to reveal itself. I am often surprised by how time can clarify a challenging decision.

What qualities in other executives do you try to emulate?

Patients and professionalism. I am quick to move and quick to talk. When I see other executives hold back, evaluate, and think through their moves and statements I remember how powerful that can be. Sometimes not saying anything at all says more.

How have your mentors impacted your career?

My career would not be where it is today without the long list of mentors I have been blessed to be around.

From winemakers, other business owners, past teachers, friends and family, everyone has always been willing to help, guide, and teach. A week does not go by that I do not reach out to someone in our circle to bounce a question off of, talk through an idea, or even return the favor to a fellow friend by giving them some pointers or help.

My parents were first generation farmers and business owners. They were the biggest example of how to start something from nothing and have the tenacity to not give up. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes and sometimes being humble enough to ask for help is the hardest part of succeeding.

What was the hardest lesson you learned early in your career which you now recognize as an important one?

Winemaking does not stop after harvest. This is a year-round gig. Once the wine is in the barrel after harvest you must be persistent in checking, topping, and tasting your wine. If you do not, things can go haywire right under your nose, and you can lose an entire vintage in a flash.

We had a microbial issue in one of our barrels that if we had been diligent, we would have caught early and been able to destroy. But we had not been keeping a close eye on it and it spread to many more barrels, and we ended up losing almost an entire vintage of one of our varietals. We have learned to implement a better schedule for barrel management and not just checking out after harvest for a few months.

What would you re-do in your career if you could and why?

Taking more business classes in college. Cal Poly has a great Ag Business Department and I wish I would have at least dabbled in a few more of those classes.

My engineering degree was very time consuming and challenging, so I did not have a lot of extra space in my schedule to add in classes, but I wish I would have taken a few. Additionally, maybe an internship in another country to gain more perspective on other parts of the world.

What was your first job? What was your first career job?

My first job was working for my parents sorting cherries. We had a conveyor belt and we would pour the cherries on the belt, pick out all the bad ones, sort them by size, and box them up for the market.

Funny thing, still to this day, I don’t mind sorting items. You would think I would hate it, but it is sort of therapeutic for more. Thankfully, we do a lot of grape sorting in the winery. My first career job was working at George Cairo Engineering in Arizona as engineer.

What from your childhood was a clear sign you would own a business?

As a young child I was always considered the talkative, bossy, big sister, so I would say my siblings always knew I would own my own business.

But It took me a while to realize that was the best fit for me. Watching my parents go through hard times while self-employed made me nervous to take the plunge; but now that I am here, I love it.

Do you hope your children will be the third generation of family farmers?

All of our kids (ages 10, 8 and 6) love to be out in the vineyards and orchards, exploring which fruits are ripe and ready to be picked. They love to come into the winery and help with foot-treading (stomping grapes) and pump-overs.

When you have a small or large family business, everyone has to chip in. We feel lucky to show our kids how to work, be responsible, and take ownership of their lives. It will be our greatest accomplishment if our kids want to take on the family business and don’t feel like it’s a burden. Hopefully, by the foundation my parents set, and now us building upon it, they will be able to pick up and run with it.

What advice would you give someone just starting his or her career in the wine industry?

Work as an intern in as many places as you can and take diligent notes and ask lots of questions. You might not make wine like all your mentors, but they all will teach you something. Travel abroad for a harvest or two if at all possible. Getting perspective from all over the world will help you decide who and what part of the industry lights you up.

CEO Spotlight

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

The series is sponsored by Summit State Bank and Sonoma Clean Power. They had no input on the editorial content.

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