By Joanne Wilson
Sharon Harris owns three vineyards including Rare Cat, Common Dog and Amici. She is also a big supporter of women entrepreneurs, and has put together a group in the wine industry that gets together a few times a year. I loved speaking with her because her passion for food and wine is evident. Her career has been all over the place, although she's continually been drawn back to her passion for wine until she is now finally making a full time life out of it.
Sharon grew up in Hillsborough, California, which is about two hours south of Napa. Sharon stayed in California--going to UCLA to major in economics, but has always had an obsession with French and is not sure where it came from. In fifth grade she won her parents over to let her take French instead of Spanish and never got it out of her system. So she took her junior year abroad in Bordeaux at an economics program.
In Bordeaux she spoke French with anyone who would speak to her. When asked if she loved wine she always said, “yes”. She got to know everyone in Bordeaux and eventually ended up at Chateau Haut Brion on a rainy day talking to Jean-Michel Damase. He began to teach her everything about wine, as they drank everything from newly-stored 83 and 82 vintages right out of the barrel-- to a 66 vintage. It opened her eyes and her heart. She was hooked.
Sharon returned to UCLA graduating with a degree in International Economics with honors and immediately moved back to France. She took a job as the lowest-ranking person, the low of the low, in a two- star kitchen. She had been introduced to Jean-Marie Amat who owned St. James at the time. After a year she ran out of money and moved back home.
It was the early 80's, and she took a job working for a steel company. She tried to find a job in Napa but there were none to be had. At the steel company, she was put in the tech end of the business, which people seemed almost scared of, but she was happy to try anything. She flew everywhere to figure out what the platform would be. They wanted to promote people in the industry and they put Sharon in charge of customer service with outside sales calls including technology with the customers, credit and business relationships. That was back when a PC was connected to a main frame.
Sharon decided to leave the steel industry to go to the Monterey Institute of International Studies to get her MBA. After graduation she went into publishing, where she realized her knowledge of wine was an asset. In a field that is all about connecting with people she could use that social skill in her job. Although she would have loved to get a job in Napa, the only one available was Marketing Director of Christian Brothers. Instead, Sharon and a group of friends got together to buy a small vineyard for their own personal cellars. They made wines and called the vineyard Amici--Italian for friends.
In 1995, her knowledge of computers got her a job at Inkotomi as VP of sales, which were the early days of the Internet. She was the 13th employee at Inkotomi--a company that is the perfect case study of what happened at that time. Sharon was involved in growing the business into a $36 billion company that went public before crashing in the dotcom bubble and then eventually being sold to Yahoo for $234 billion. It was a crazy time. Sharon closed a deal at 5pm and had her kid that night.
It was time to get out and she did right before they went public. Inktomi was a place where buyers and sellers could communicate. It was remarkable before the white suits came into the business and changed the company and the structure. The industry changed but those early days were remarkable for everyone who was part of it.
Early on, the Internet was about changing the world. When you speak to CEO's, across the board they will say the most important thing in the next ten years is innovation; but if you look at linear one dimensional experiences it is someone who has a plethora of experiences, like Sharon, who understand human interaction and technology who are able to build on that success. She has always felt those diverse experiences made her able to see ways to create solutions to adapt to whatever industry she was in.
After having her first child and leaving Inktomi she took at job with Visa. She was working on some really big projects and it was fun. Yet, in 1997 she realized that Amici vineyard actually was commercially viable, shortly after she and her husband, John bought the majority share and moved the family to Napa. Her life as a wine maker and love for Bordeaux was coming together.
Her husband came in and took over the management and sales end of the business. In 2004, Sharon went back to Bordeaux, with the family in tow, to study wine. It was like getting an executive MBA for an oenologist. Her kids spoke French and went to French schools. They bought a place in St. Emilion, a beautiful village and the first Unesco Heritage site. When they returned to the States, they went directly to St. Helena to live. Not having had a direct path in her career played a huge part of her later success—something Sharon feels very strongly about.
After returning, Sharon then launched Rare Cat which is her personal project of high end wines-- making only sauvignon blanc, chardonary and cabernet and donating some of the proceeds to charities. Exquisite wines with incredible complexity. She also started Common Dog , which she says is doggedly delicious and obediently priced. Amici is somewhere in the middle, and tries to try to create lots of quality for the price. Most bottles range around $35 yet compete with $100 bottles from other vineyards in blind tastings. As another side note, Sharon owns and runsWine Villas, a luxury rental company with properties in Napa and Bordeaux.
There is a saying in the wine industry, if you want to make a million then you have to start with ten million. Sharon laughed when I mentioned that but she is thrilled to be able to take what she has grown and hand it down generation to generation. Another one of Sharon’s passions is women. In Bordeaux, people loved that she was a woman in the industry, yet there are few in the US even though women account for 60% of the wine purchases. How do you communicate to women how to buy wines? To help figure that out, Sharon started a group with women from Napa and Bordeaux to get together and meet each other. They held three days of seminars on wine making, selling, branding etc. It was a huge hit which helped break down barrier. Suddenly, they have created this non-competitive group of women in the industry who are sharing and mentoring to make the wine industry a better place. Now, there are 30 women from all over the world who are part of it. They even have a website Wine Entre Femmes.
It wasn't easy following Sharon’s story. She is full of life and bravado and is much more interesting in sharing her present love than her past. Her goal has always been to get back to Bordeaux; she now spends half a year there in St. Emilion and the other half in the States. And she loves the culture, food and independence of the wine industry on both sides of the globe.
Sharon proves that you never know where life can lead you, each step of the way connects with the next and you can use all of that to start a brand new endeavor in something that you love when the time is right.
Joanne Wilson has been blogging since 1994 as Gotham gal and recently started The Women's Entrepreneurial Festival affiliated with NYU. Wilson is an advisor and investor in startups, including Curbed (Eater/Racked), Food52, Red Stamp, Catchafire, DailyWorth, Editd, Hot Bread Kitchen, Nest.io, Gotham Gym, The Moon Group and MOUSE. Her most successful venture is being married to her best friend Fred and raising her three kids, Jessica, Emily and Josh. Follow her on Twitter at @thegothamgal
Part of Gotham Gal's Entrepreneur Monday series, this interview has been reposted with permission