Ep.12: A Winemaker’s Pleasure and Pain

Delia Viader may make “liquid cashmere,” but it took more than fine wine to restore her Napa Valley winery after a devastating setback.

The Story Exchange By The Story Exchange

Listen to the Episode (15:33)
Delia Viader, Viader Winery. Photo credit: Cathy O’hagain

Delia Viader, Viader Winery. Photo credit: Cathy O’hagain

Delia Viader calls her signature wine “liquid cashmere,” but it took more than a love of winemaking and the land to revive her Napa Valley, California winery after one of the biggest setbacks you could possibly imagine.

Watch related video: Delia Viader: After a Disaster, a Winery Starts Anew

Read Full Transcript

DELIA VIADER (DV): Making great wine takes a lot of nurturing. You’re really nurturing the grapes from the vine to the bottle.

NARRATOR: (as music plays lightly in background) Welcome to The Story Exchange, featuring the stories and strategies of entrepreneurial women around the world. I’m Colleen DeBaise, host of The Story Exchange podcast, and we’ll be joined later by our co-founder, Sue Williams.
It’s not everyone’s romantic dream to start their own winery. But I have to say, for myself -- I love wine, I love beautiful countryside -- the thought of planting grapes in Napa Valley and creating a delicious wine that people enjoy would be pretty much at the top of my bucket list. And I suspect a few of our listeners might agree.
Today, we’re speaking to a woman who has done just that: Delia Viader, an Argentina native who started Viader winery in 1986.

SOT: . . . That freshness is--
-- That freshness comes from the fruit, yeah. It’s really pretty.

DV: Well the types of wines that I will like to make are definitely wines of pleasure...a complement to a good time between two friends that get lost in conversation. And all of a sudden, they realize, oops, the bottle is empty.

NARRATOR: Now, really, does that sound like work? But let me assure you, it is. In fact, after hearing Delia’s story, I’m realizing that my romantic dream might be just that: a romantic dream. Building a winery from scratch takes a lot of hard work, a lot of money and a lot of patience.

DV: Definitely it is a business. And we do it for the love of the land but also because we have bills to pay at the end of the month.

NARRATOR: And as any winemaker can tell you, there are any number of things that can go wrong: too much rain, not enough rain, a pest that invades your entire crop. Delia had to overcome one of the biggest setbacks you could possibly imagine…

DV: October 12, 2005, an arsonist set on fire the warehouse where all of my 2003 was stored — and literally my entire 2003 vintage went up in smoke.

NARRATOR: But Delia is a survivor -- and today, Viader winery is known for its blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that she calls “liquid cashmere.”

SOT: It has some very subtle, subtle blossom . . .
-- Yeah, and a subtle cherry . . .

NARRATOR: We headed to Napa Valley, to the rolling hills and spectacular views of Howell Mountain, to talk with Delia about how she started -- and how she started over after a major disaster. If you go to our website, TheStoryExchange.org, you can watch a picturesque video we produced, telling Delia’s complete story. Today, we’re going to share snippets of that conversation. If you’re so inclined, and it’s 5 o’clock (at least somewhere), grab a glass of wine, and keep listening.

*Musical Interlude*

DV: The site was absolutely astonishing. Beautiful. But a very big challenge in terms of how would you lay out a vineyard in such a rocky piece of mountain?

NARRATOR: That is Delia, recounting the first time she paid a visit to what would become her California vineyard. It was 30 years ago...before Napa Valley -- or the U.S. wine industry, for that matter -- was on the map.

DV: It wasn't the trendy thing that it became later. People in the 90s jump because all of a sudden, Robert Parker was talking about wines made in the Napa Valley that were comparable to those of Bordeaux.

NARRATOR: So, standing on this undeveloped property way back in 1986, Delia saw an opportunity. While she was born in Buenos Aires, she had grown up around the world, mostly in France….known, of course, for its wine culture.

DV: My father was a diplomat. That gave me throughout my childhood a lot of exposure to different languages, different cultures.

NARRATOR: Delia had just taken business courses at MIT’s Sloane School of Management -- and she was looking for a way to stay in America. A young single mom, she already had three children, including one with special needs.

DV: It took me not very long to figure out that this very young industry in the United States, winemaking, could give me an opportunity to raise my children in a fantastic, idyllic place and also make a living.

NARRATOR: She and her father checked out the rocky, hilly property on Howell Mountain, which Europeans had been drawn to since the 1800s.

DV: Well, it was a — at the beginning, a fantastic — for my father, a fantastic real estate opportunity, and he fell in love with the view.

NARRATOR: Her father loaned her the money to buy the property. Next, she had to figure out a way to plant vines on a steep hillside with 30-degree slopes. She used traditional French techniques, something most growers in the US weren’t doing….

DV: I planted them closer to the ground like they do in Burgundy, for the reasons that — this very rocky terrain, volcanic rock, will trap heat, and will maintain the ripening effect hours after the sun comes down.

NARRATOR: Delia also took classes at UC-Davis’s famous winemaking program, plus she used a lot of consultants. But it was all an expensive gamble.

DV: It would have to have a certain output, an economic, financially viable output. Because I need to make a living out of this. And pay back my dad.

*Musical Interlude*

NARRATOR: We’ve been sharing the story of Delia Viader, who 30 years ago built a winery on a rocky piece of land in California.
I’m being joined now, as I often am, by Sue Williams, our resident filmmaker, who headed to Napa Valley to make our video profile of Delia.

SUE WILLIAMS: It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it. (laughs)

NARRATOR: By the way, if you’ve never checked out our site, please do so -- it’s TheStoryExchange.org. We’re a nonprofit media company and we produce articles and videos about owners. Welcome, Sue.

SUE: Great to be here.

NARRATOR: So I spoke with Delia as part of our research...and I was really struck by how challenging it is to start your own winery.

SUE: It really is, especially if you’re planting your own vines, which really need to be nurtured over time. There’s a lot of waiting involved. And then, as we know, the wine itself needs to age. Delia started in 1986, harvested her first crop in 1989, and then finally sold her first commercial wine in 1991. Let’s listen to what she has to say.

DV: It takes a while. In many instances, they say it's about seven years. Then you get to see the first penny out of your investment. It's a very capital-intensive industry, and definitely this was no exception.

NARRATOR: Yeah, that’s a long time to go without revenue. And back then, California wines were a tough sell.

SUE: Yeah, Europeans in particular really looked down their noses at American wines…

DV: 30 years ago, they vaguely knew in Europe where Napa Valley is located. I would present to top restaurants or to top people in the trade in France, in Paris, and they would be astonished that we produced such fantastic wines.

NARRATOR: Yeah, that was a time when White Zinfandel was really, really popular in the U.S., and that didn’t exactly help our international reputation...

SUE: (laughs) No, not at all. But Delia didn’t let that stop her. And this is where her international background really helped. She’s fluent in five or six languages, and she studied at the Sorbonne back when her father was ambassador to France. She comes from a sophisticated, ambitious family – and that’s a huge advantage if you want to make it in the wine industry.

DV: I was presenting it in Europe. I spoke the language, I knew the people, and I've always felt that I was making wine of international quality, so to speak. So I had no problem showing it all over the world.

NARRATOR: It also helps that she studied business at MIT and also Berkeley…

SUE: Yeah. It took her a while to get Viader started out but once she did, her sales were really impressive. In 1997, she produced 10,000 bottles of wine, which she sold to restaurants, distributors and exporters. And she paid her father back.

NARRATOR: So you got a tour of the winery -- what’s it like?

SUE: Oh, it’s just amazingly beautiful. It’s high up on Howell Mountain and it’s surrounded by eucalyptus and evergreen trees and it smells just wonderful. And Delia lives on the property in a beautiful house that overlooks the vines and has endless views of the mountains and the Bell Canyon reservoir.

NARRATOR: Wow.

SUE: Yeah, yeah. Delia’s son took me through the vineyard and he really impressed me with how they’re using technology, which I’d never particularly associated with growing grapes.

NARRATOR: Hm. In what way?

SUE: Well, one of the biggest challenges any farmer in this area faces, of course, is water.

SOT: . . . On this amount of property with this amount of rock and this amount of sun exposure we really need to be as efficient as possible with our water . . .

SUE: The area is so dry every drop is precious. So they’ve installed thin plastic tubes next to each vine and these go down into the soil and water the roots directly -- so they don’t lose any water to evaporation -- and these tubes also allow them to monitor each plant’s condition on computer and decide, for example, which one need how much water when.

SOT: Fifty percent of our water usage is quite significant, so.

NARRATOR: Wow, fascinating. And now, her children are involved.

SUE: Yeah, yeah, and Delia’s really pleased about that...her son Alan actually grew up working in the vineyard with the other farm hands, and he’s now is Viader’s winemaker. And her daughter Janet helps with sales and marketing.

DV: When I see them arguing about a release or arguing about when to set up a wine and, you know, here is my son the artist defending the wine and here is my daughter the salesperson saying, "I absolutely need it now." They make mom proud (laughs) in many ways.

SUE: It’s truly a family business.

NARRATOR: That’s wonderful. Thanks for joining us, Sue.

SUE: It’s a pleasure.

*Musical Interlude*

DV: There was a significant, uh, blow in October 2005. My wine — my entire vintage was — up in flames, so to speak. Arson fire. So I had no wine to sell.

NARRATOR: We’ve been telling the story of Delia Viader, who plunged into the wine business in the 1980s and set out to create a world-class wine estate. By the early 2000s, she had successfully done so -- and while not exactly sitting on her laurels, she was enjoying the fruits of her labor. And then...

SOT (Alarms wailing) The man who torched the Vallejo Wine Warehouse has been sentenced to 27 years in prison…

NARRATOR: That’s KCRA News in Sacramento...this was a big story in California. An arsonist set fire to a warehouse where Delia -- and nearly 100 other vintners -- stored their wine. In one day, Delia lost 84,000 bottles, which she had already promised to restaurants and distributors. She had been just about to make $4.5 million dollars.

DV: I had absolutely nothing. So I had all the bills of making the wine, but no wine to sell.

NARRATOR: When I spoke to Delia about the fire, she actually had trouble talking about it….it was that traumatic.

DV: Things were very difficult. And it just forced me to scale back and start all over again.

NARRATOR: You may be thinking -- well, she probably had insurance. She did -- but it took years of fighting to get paid less than 10% of her claim. Meanwhile, she had a winery to run, and 28 employees who needed paychecks. She got a $1 million bridge loan from the bank, and sold assets. But that still wasn’t enough. She lost her customers.

DV: I had, uh, many accounts, many placements, many restaurants all over the world that could not continue to have my wine because they couldn't supply it. And — that's why I had to basically start anew.

NARRATOR: Nineteen years after starting up, Delia changed her business model.

DV: I do a lot less distribution than I used to do and I do a lot less exporting. I'm making less wine and I'm also, uh, selling more direct, meaning people that come here and buy direct at full retail price.

NARRATOR: Delia basically made another gamble: She bet that the wine lovers who now tour Napa Valley would stop by her winery, and pay $150 a bottle for Viader’s signature Cabernet blend. She converted her guesthouse into a tasting room.

SOT There’s a lot of chocolate.
-- Yeah?
-- Um, but you know, and a little bit of . . .

DV: My tasting room became a little bit more populated, and people come here as a destination. And I'm selling out the door most of the production.

NARRATOR: Life is good again. Delia is once again making about $4.5 million in annual revenue...she credits her children with helping her get through the fire.
DV: I've always believed that there is the silver lining that when one door closes another one opens. And yes, it was financially devastating, but it was — in the sense of the family, a call to arms, a call to — really go together and work together towards a common goal.

NARRATOR: And while I’m not sure I have the chops to start my own winery, Delia certainly makes it sound appealing…

DV: I remember being here on top of the mountain. It was really my refuge. And today, it's like I'm in the middle of things. (laughs)
I'm doing fantastically well and definitely I consider myself privileged.

*Musical Interlude*

NARRATOR: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or….maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange. If you liked this podcast, please post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for . I’m Colleen DeBaise. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Michelle Ciotta. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.
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Posted: March 16, 2016

The Story ExchangeEp.12: A Winemaker’s Pleasure and Pain