In 1972, Beth Milliken’s family stumbled upon some of Napa Valley’s most sought-after land for wine making. Literally.
Milliken was 11 years old and her father—an emergency room doctor named Jack—made an impulse decision to move his family from southern California to the then-undiscovered Napa Valley. Land prices were about $4,000 an acre. Now they go for around 100 times that.
Beth, along with her parents and four siblings, settled into a 45-acre estate called Spottswoode on the western edge of St. Helena, CA. The property came with a vineyard, which was more or less an afterthought in the decision to purchase the property.
Milliken’s parents knew very little about grape growing. “It was not like they were grabbing the soil and looking out into the distance and saying, ‘This will be great for Cabernet Sauvignon,'” Milliken laughs during an interview with Fortune. “It was a lifestyle change that was very lucky.”
Five years after acquiring the property, Jack Milliken suddenly passed away from a heart attack. Beth, along with her mother Mary and sister Lindy, stepped up to look after the land and grow the budding family business. Despite the lack of premonition and experience, the trio grew Spottswoode into a renowned winery with an award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon.
Beth—now the president and CEO of Spottswoode and the former president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association—spoke with Fortune about what it’s like to be one of the few women in charge in the wine industry.
Why did you decide to come back and help your mother with the vineyard after your father died?
My plan was not to come back to Napa Valley. It was a very small community and I wanted a broader experience. I was a junior in high school when he died and then I went off to UCLA. But my mom called me up and asked me if I would start coming up a couple days a week. Quickly that turned into full-time. There was no family business that I was thinking of because our first vintage of Cabernet was not released until 1985 and I graduated from college in 1983. So there was never an obligation to carry anything forward, but my husband and I started looking for places to live in St. Helena and we ended up loving it.
Do you enjoy running the vineyard with your mother and sister?
My mom and I get along really, really well. Our personalities are different, but complementary. We don’t clash and she was willing to let me run the day to day. Having all five of them would be too much family, but it is a family business. I’ve also always gotten along with Lindy. I don’t know—it just works.
What did your mom teach you about running a business?
My mom was never really a business person. She taught me more about ethic than management practices. Humility is always something that is important to us. We are not chest thumpers. We want the wines to speak with themselves. We are stewards of this amazing piece of history and this 45-acre estate that we were so lucky to come along by accident. It ended up being something truly unique.
What’s it like running the vineyard as a woman?
More wineries are owned by men and men are the driving force. If my husband accompanies me to a tasting at Spottswoode, people often make the assumption that he is the one running the winery. He says he is the spouse of the president. But I don’t make a big thing about it. I don’t think there is any real gender dynamic with female winemakers in charge of the business.
You were the first female president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Did you feel any pressure taking on that role?
When you are working for a family winery, people are obviously going to think the reason I got that opportunity is because of my last name. So I always thought I had to prove myself. Without saying it, you want to prove yourself. Keep your head down and do a really good job and hope that people notice what you bring to the table. I think I carried that into being on the vintners board and being president.
This #FoodWineWomen series highlighting powerful women working in the wine industry is in partnership with Food & Wine and A Woman’s Palate. To read why Milliken is devoted to organic farming, what her favorite food pairing is with Cabernet Sauvignon and more, click here.
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