The CFO of one of Napa Valley’s top wineries on being your own advocate

March 3, 2023, 7:00 PM UTC
The vineyards of Chappellet winery in Napa Valley, Calif.
Courtesy of Chappellet

As chief financial officer of Chappellet, one of Napa Valley’s premier luxury wineries, Christine Ha is responsible for not only the short-term success of the storied estate but ensuring its legacy for years to come. Leaving a legacy is something she thinks about often: As a first-generation Vietnamese American, she wants to empower other women and people of color to forge their own paths in the wine industry.

“It’s not about where you came from, but how you are determined to grow and develop to achieve your aspirations,” she says.

Here, Ha shares what it’s like to transition from working for corporations to a family-owned winery, the importance of a diverse workforce, and on being your own best advocate.

Making the transition from corporation to family business

Ha’s professional career started in San Francisco as a CPA for KPMG with a focus on financial service companies. After meeting her husband in 2010, they moved to Napa, where Ha worked for Blackbird Vineyards and Ma(i)sonry as a controller. In 2012, she joined Silverado Premium Properties and Silverado Winegrowers, a vineyard asset management company, where she eventually became senior vice president of finance. Like many, the pandemic shifted her priorities.

“I took time to really reflect on my career, what’s important to me and my family, and the flexibility that I needed as a working mother of two young daughters,” Ha says.

With these values in mind, she joined Chappellet in 2021. “[The family] is very involved with the community,” she says. “They’re very committed to [preserving] the environment. I was impressed that they had long-tenured employees in key roles. It’s a testament to their culture and their desire to see their teams flourish and grow.”

Coming from bigger corporations, she finds the priorities different in a smaller, family-run company. “Decisions are often geared towards achieving the highest financial return,” Ha says of larger companies. But at Chappellet, she strategizes with the owners to make sure both short-term and long-term goals can be achieved. In the agricultural sector especially, things like a 20-year plan are needed to ensure a vineyard’s viability in the coming decades.

“We set aside funds to enhance sustainability efforts and reduce our carbon footprint,” Ha offers as an example. “My job is to present all the different options, identify the highest potential returns, and propose things that ensure financial success and health for the long run.”

 A smaller company means more collaboration with other departments. “The cool thing about my job is that I also get to do things like taste through our current release wines with our winemaking team, or walk through the vineyards with our vineyard manager,” she says. “I know those don’t sound like common CFO things to do, but I believe that if you want to talk knowledgeably about the cost of replanting a vineyard, or the margins of your wine, you need to really understand all the factors in play. I love that we don’t work in silos.”

Chappellet chief financial officer Christine Ha
Courtesy of Chappellet

The power of a diverse workforce

Both of Ha’s parents, as well as her husband and his family, fled Vietnam in the 1970s, “So my children are truly from an immigrant family,” she says. And her daughters are her inspiration when it comes to advocating for diversity in the workforce, and in the wine industry. “I want to show my daughters and others that there can be many different faces in the world of wine. I want to create more opportunities for minority groups in the wine industry in Napa Valley.”

As a member of the Napa Valley Vintners Grants Review Committee—which is responsible for the oversight and distribution of funds raised by the Napa Valley Vintners Association to vetted nonprofits—Ha is able to champion underrepresented organizations and causes. “Having a female of color in these groups is really, I think, moving things forward [by] providing a different perspective.”

Beyond personal motivations, Ha knows the positive impact of a diverse workforce. “I firmly believe [it] provides huge advantages in terms of bringing more knowledge and experience and creative ideas to a company.”

And as companies become more global, their success rides on being able to relate and communicate. For example, Ha says understanding Asian cultural norms builds relationships in Asian markets as well as with Asian American consumers. “The way you present your business card is a reflection of respect,” she says. Gift-giving is also fraught with meaning; the wrong gift might symbolize the severing of a relationship.

Women in wine

A 2018 McKinsey study reported that women comprise 4% of C-suite positions in the wine industry and 22% of C-suite roles overall. Meanwhile, only 14% of California winemakers are women, according to a 2020 study.

As a woman in both finance and the wine industry—two male-dominant fields—Ha navigates how to relate to her male colleagues while staying true to herself (which is universally good leadership advice). She prefers to wear heels at the office, but always keeps a pair of boots in her car for impromptu vineyard walks. “Don’t let those simple things hold you back; just be prepared,” she says.

Connection is also key. Ha is a member of several women-focused professional organizations, such as Wine Women Finance Forum and Chief, which, in addition to serving as a resource for professional development, are “on a more macro level, really pushing the conversation forward and driving change,” she says.

On being your own best advocate

While a strong network can help one advance in his or her career, being your own advocate is Ha’s best piece of advice. “You have to take charge of your career, and you have to ask for what you want,” she says. “You can’t just wait and expect others to notice your hard work and give you what you think you deserve.”

Ha says her cultural upbringing taught her to show respect to her elders and not debate what they said. “So I had to make a major shift when entering the workplace. I sometimes needed to debate with my management-level colleagues who are often older than me and often male. The experience has really taught me that you need to speak up for yourself and what you believe in, and not just patiently wait to be recognized.”

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