In October, the Napa Valley Vintners welcomed a group of independent retailers and wine bar owners from all over the country to experience an immersive program, exploring everything Napa Valley has to offer and to uncover the unexpected.
Our session, “Napa Valley Through a Leadership Lens,” was an opportunity to explore the evolution of our valley and what it means to be a leader in a place that has been a hub for development in the wine industry for generations. Mailynh Phan, Laura Diaz Munoz, Evyn Cameron, and Derek Baljeu are an illustration of what is possible when we are willing to share educational resources, innovate, try something new, and remove barriers.
Creating Access to Education
Napa Valley is one of the most collaborative places to work. Winemakers are often mentored from early stages in their career, a form of education that weaves experience and relationships together for the benefit of individuals and a region. In addition to education, mentors and champions contribute to elevation opportunities, which means more diversity at the decision-making level.“My personal journey from intern to winemaker was full of passion, hard work, and mentorship. Through my dedication and relationships, I was able to work with amazing people who taught me how to be successful as a winemaker,” says Evyn Cameron, a consulting winemaker in Napa Valley.
Finding a mentor can be a barrier to some, especially those without what our industry deems “traditional” education. Napa Valley has been involved in a growing number of education programs dedicated to creating pathways for diverse professionals in the wine industry. “In Napa, there are more educational opportunities than ever before for women and the BIPOC community,” says Cameron. “The Napa Vintners collaborate with multiple organizations that offer scholarships and funding in order to make this a reality and better the future of our community.”
Leaning into Innovation
In addition to creating access to education, Napa Valley is a thriving community of innovators who are addressing some of the biggest challenges that agriculturists face today. Ehlers Estate has been farming organically since 2005 and is certified in Fish Friendly Farming. Their commitment to sustainability is evident from the moment you arrive on the property. The property attracts beneficial insects with its hedgerows that surround the 40 acre estate and has a no-waste approach to water usage. “We are in the process of installing Biofiltro, a processed water system that uses worms to digest and treat processed water from the winemaking facilities,” says Laura Diaz Munoz, winemaker and general manager at Ehlers Estate. “This will allow us to recycle 100% of the water we use for production, which we will reuse for irrigation for all of our landscaping and at least 25% of our vineyards,” she explains. The winery has also planted permanent cover crops in every other row to minimize the impact of cultivation and reduce CO2 emissions. Building a better future for the region will take place over time and require a tireless commitment to leadership, but the diligence and intention of the winery is expressed in every glass of wine at Ehlers Estate.
Trying Something New
While Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay reign in Napa Valley, wineries are exploring grapes and styles that show just how diverse the region can be. RD Winery, located in south Napa, seeks to create belonging in a hospitality environment that can often feel intimidating, especially for those that are new to wine. The winery offers a tasting experience inspired by Vietnamese culture and traditions that defy the definition of “traditional” food and wine pairings. With this different and distinct experience, RD Winery welcomes more wine drinkers to the table, a result that benefits everyone. "Our food and wine program is an extension of our mission to make the Napa Valley more inclusive. It breaks down walls, and shows how wine can be made to pair with a range of dishes and cuisines, not just the traditional ones,” says Mailynh Phan, CEO of RD Winery. “We're inviting more people to join us at the table and to feel like they have a place in the world of wine."
Since 2020, Napa Valley has been a leader in both financial and professional investment in wine industry diversity initiatives. Like many industries, we still have a long way to go, but we are seeing a measurable impact from the many initiatives based in and working within the Napa Valley. Organizations and wineries have teamed up to create apprenticeship and internship opportunities geared toward diverse, up and coming wine professionals. These opportunities provide an entrypoint for positions that are otherwise gatekept, even if unintentionally. While we are in this work together, it takes an individual commitment to build community and remove barriers that exist more broadly. “Leadership is ensuring the path you manifested for yourself has more resources, support, and accessibility, so those who want to follow a similar path can achieve equal if not greater achievement. Ultimately raising the bar of the industry as a whole,” says Derek Baljeu, winemaker for Knights Bridge Winery.
Napa Valley has evolved beyond cursory perception and continues to pave a way forward. There are a great number of leaders that are pushing the envelope, embracing changing consumer tastes, and building inclusive communities in the Napa Valley while creating premier wines that showcase the realm of possibilities in this diverse region and welcome a new generation of wine drinkers.
Maryam Ahmed, Maryam + Company (Moderator)
Laura Diaz Munoz, Winemaker and General Manager, Ehlers Estate
Mailynh Phan, CEO, RD Winery
Derek Baljeu, Winemaker, Knights Bridge Winery
Evyn Cameron, Consulting Winemaker, Napa Valley
Photo by Ed Pingol