Jen Berman envisioned she would become a veterinarian, but a chance trip to Wine Country put her on a quite different road, one that in 15 years has put the 37-year-old at the helm of two Sonoma County wineries.
The Phillips family behind Michael David Winery of Lodi hired Berman last month to get their new Sonoma County winery ready to receive North Coast grapes this fall. It had been Silver Oak Cellars’ Alexander Valley facility until the sale in May.
With harvest coming in the next couple of months, Berman has dived in, hiring a cellarmaster and preparing to hire a small harvest and cellar crew. The Lodi winery team is also pitching in for this year.
“We’ll keep it there for now, because the focus this year really is just about production and consolidating the grapes that Michael David already purchases in Sonoma County, Lake County, Mendocino County, and producing it in this facility rather than through custom-crush facilities,” Berman said. “But in the future the vision is to create a Sonoma County- or Alexander Valley-focused brand under the Michael David umbrella. In which case, we’d certainly utilize the tasting room and winery space there for a hospitality program.”
The plan is to crush about 1,000 tons of grapes at the Geyserville winery this fall. While some upgrades to the facility are envisioned, but Silver Oak turned over a turnkey operation that could be operated that way through harvest, Berman said. The winery is permitted to produce 70,000 cases annually.
Berman’s first turn in winery top management came at another Alexander Valley producer. She became co-general manager of Stryker Sonoma with Craig MacDonald in March 2010 and assumed the full role in 2013, when MacDonald moved to the same position at Selby Winery in Healdsburg. That’s also when Berman received her Sonoma State University MBA, obtained while planning her wedding to Annie Ebiner and preparing for Ebiner’s birth of their daughter.
“It was a good credential to back up the little experience I had and give some credibility I felt I needed,” Berman said. “People were thinking, ‘You’re 29-30 years old, and you’re a GM?’ … I struggle in this industry, not only as a female but also as a young person.”
While there have been more women moving into leadership roles in the decade and a half she’s been in the business, Berman has been working to make up for not growing up as a scion of generations of vintners. One thing that attracted her to the Phillips family is their five generations of grapegrowing and winemaking, with the sixth generation already getting involved.
“I had to grab mentors where they were available,” Berman said. Those have included MacDaniel and Kim McDaniel, chief financial officer of Pat Stryker’s Bohemian Foundation.
On finishing an undergraduate biochemistry degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2002, the idea of several more years of medical school was daunting, and working indoors in a laboratory for an outdoors enthusiast was too confining. A welcome diversion came when a family friend from Healdsburg talked her into visiting.
Wine wasn’t part of family culture while growing up in the eastern L.A. suburb of Claremont. But entrepreneurialism is, thanks to parents Ann and Dan Berman, who still run Rooms N’ Covers patio-cover installation in Ontario. The weeklong visit led to a new career.