Sharon Harris, Wine Maker, Woman Entrepreneur

SHarris_024When we were in Napa Valley, Monica Stevens at 750 Wines helped me get some reservations and book the buses and in turn we had a tasting at 750 Wines.  The wines were incredible and everybody bought in quantity.  I will certainly continue to buy from them as their selection is amazing.  Monica had read up on my blog and loved the Monday Womens Entrepreneur and asked if I wanted to meet any women who were making wines in Napa.  Of course I did and that is how I came to speak with Sharon Harris. 

Sharon owns 3 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 get together a few times a year.  Each vineyard became part of her umbrella over the past 15 years.  I loved speaking with Sharon because her passion for food and wine is evident but her career has been all over the place continually being drawn back to her passion for wine and finally making a full time life out of it. 

She grew up in Hillsborough, California which is about two hours south of Napa.  Stayed in California going to UCLA to major in economics.  She has always been obsessed with french and not sure where it came from.  In 5th grade she won her parents over to take french instead of spanish and never got it out of her system.  She took her junior year abroad in Bordeaux where there was an economic program. 

In Bordeaux she spoke with french with anyone who would speak to her.  When anyone asked her 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 who began to teach her everything about wine as they drank from 83's and 82's right out of the barrell that had just been stored to a 66 from years ago.  It opened her eyes and her heart.  She was hooked. 

She 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 where 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 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.  It was in publishing where she realized that 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.  It was 1985/86.  Although she would have loved to get a job in Napa the only things available were a marketing director of Christian Brothers. Instead in 1991 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. 

Her knowledge of computers got her a job at Inkotomi as VP of sales in 1995 which were the early days of the internet.  She was the 13th employee at Inkotomi.  That company is the perfect case study of what happened at that time.  She was involved in growing the business to be a $36 billion company that went public and before crashing in the dot com bubble and then eventually being sold to Yahoo for $234 billion.  It was a crazy time.  She 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 a remarkable place before the white suits came into the business and changed the company and the structure.  The industry changed but those early days for everyone who was part of it were remarkable. 

Early on the internet was about changing the world.  When you spoke 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 dimension experiences it is someone who has a plethora of experiences, like Sharon, who understand human interaction and technology that are able to build on that success.  She has always felt that 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 there and it was fun.  Yet, in 1997 she realized that Amici vineyard actually was commercially viable so in 1999, her and her husband, John, bought the majority share and moved the family to Napa.  Her live 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 a wine oeneologist.  Her kids spoke French and went to French schools.  They bought a place in St. Emilion, a beautiful village and the first Unesco Heritag site.  When they returned to the states they went directly to St. Helena to live.  Not having a direct path in her career played a huge part of her success later on, one that Sharon feels very strongly about. 

After returning she then launched Rare Cat which is her personal project of high end wines making only sauvignon blanc, chardonary and cabernet donating some of the proceeds to charities.  Exquisite wines with incredible complexity.  She also started Common Dog which she says is doggedly delicious and obedientally priced.  Amici is somewhere in the middle of both of those other vineyards and they try to create lots of quality for the price.  Most bottles range around $35 but compete with $100 bottles from other vineyards in blind tastings.  Just as another side note she owns and runs Wine 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 Sharons passions is women.  She found that in Bordeaux people loved that she was a woman in the industry but not many in the US although women account for buying 60% of the wine purchased.  How do you communicate to women how to buy wines.  She started a group with women from Napa and Bordeaux to get together and meet each other.  They held 3 days of seminars on wine making, selling, branding etc.  It was a huge hit.  It helped this group break down barriers and all of a sudden 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.  There are 30 women from all over the world who are part of this now.  They even have a website, Wine Entre Femmes

It wasn't easy following Sharons story.  She is full of life and bravado and is much more interesting in sharing her love in the present than her past.  Her goal has always been to get back to Bordeaux since she landed there in college.  She now spends half a year in Bordeaux (St. Emilion) and the other half in the states loving both 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. 


Comments (Archived):

  1. awaldstein

    Thanks for this. Great story.This has challenged my own experiences with winemakers.I’m familiar with a number of really remarkable women winemakers in Europe, many from multigenerational vineyards.Interestingly most of them are strong personalities (as well as great winemakers) but I don’t think many would be willing to think of themselves in a category of ‘women winemakers’ branded as such.Winemakers in Europe generally eschew labels of any sort (i.e., organic, Bio-D) so maybe there is a cultural thing.I polled a bunch of wine bloggers generally on this topic of a category a while back while in Italy. And while many of the best wine writers are women, the idea of a category didn’t appear interesting.I can’t see myself searching for wine under a gender based category like I do for area, grape, approach and the like.Maybe its cultural. Maybe its a change coming. Maybe its the artisanal, usually multigenerational wine world I hang out in.Something for me to think about more. 

    1. Rohan

      Great story, Joanne. Thanks for sharing. Arnold, I was just thinking of you and as I was typing this, Disqus prompted me that you had just commented! It’s nice how these things happen. Makes me certain there’s some force that connects us all! 🙂

    2. Gotham Gal

      sharon has had a really interesting career. I love what she is bringing together women wine makers across the globe.Another area/vertical where women need to collaborate and have mentors. I see those collaborations and mentors in the tech industry among women and having that group to rely on makes a huge difference in everyone’s psyche.

      1. awaldstein

        No question. I agree and am not arguing against the value of it in any respect.I just hadn’t seen this in Europe where most of my wine focus is centered. Might be my bias for the generational vineyard where the support system is still within the family.Good examples are the Conti sisters and of course Arianna Occhipinti I’m going to send the URL of her org out to my networks.

  2. Rohan

    Great story, Joanne. Thanks for sharing. @awaldstein – I was just thinking of you and as I was typing this, Disqus prompted me that you had just commented! 😀

  3. Andy Ellis

    That really is a great story, it’s always eye opening in a unique way to hear the story of someone that is able to follow their passion and find business success in it. The fact that her success is after years of trying to find the angle to break in, particularly in an industry that is dominated by a group of people not like herself (men), is a terrifically encouraging testament that dreams/goals are something that can be achieved.Also, I’ve recently found out that I’m likely to be moving to just outside of Napa next summer; it’s cool to have read about your experiences there as a interested but detached observer and now to be thinking in terms of ‘that would be really neat to check out.’

    1. Gotham Gal

      where in Napa? it is so beautiful there. lucky you.

      1. Andy Ellis

        Travis AFB, it’s about 30 min east

        1. Gotham Gal


  4. AnaRC

    I love this story! very typical to see a woman entrepreneur navigate between careers, passion and maternity break.  Sharon has done a great job.  Thank you for bringing her example to light.

  5. Zuhairah Scott

    What a great story! I love all the ebbs and flows. It makes her experience that much richer and it is so refreshing compared to all the stories you read in other publications about the “quickie” entrepreneurial success.  I love this line especially “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.” I agree 100%

    1. Gotham Gal

      sharon has definitely had so many amazing experiences, she is one positive human being, and all of them combined are how she got to where she is now.