DEBORAH BRENNER, 45
From | Marketing Executive
To | Wine Merchant
Deborah Brennerloves to stroll through Napa Valley vineyards, where the smell of ripening grapes mingles with the scent of sun-warmed earth. She adores the straight rows of tangled vines growing on verdant hills. Here, “Mother Nature is at work,” she says. “When you eat a grape straight off the vine, it bursts with concentrated flavors like no table grape ever could.” And when the time to harvest finally arrives (about 90 pounds of grapes will make five gallons of wine), the winemaker, drawing on science, experience and instinct, gets just one chance to produce that season’s vintage. “Vintners have to make decisions on the fly—when to plant, when to pick. If you screw up your timing, you don’t get to do it again. It’s such hard work,” says Brenner. “And yet they’re passionate about what they do.”
Five years ago, Brenner launched Women of the Vine, a company that markets and sells only wines made by women—small-scale, artisanal vintners whose products might otherwise never find their way onto dinner tables around the country. Brenner now represents seven winemakers and grape growers who last year produced 60,000 bottles, sold in retail stores in 21 states and via her website, WomenoftheVine.com. Best of all, Brenner, a former marketing executive for a Manhattan high-tech firm, has found a career that feeds her soul. “It allows me to be the best I can be,” she says.
Brenner discovered her passion after a period of painful changes that started soon after 9/11. Her marriage ended abruptly when her husband asked for a divorce. A once-satisfying career began to drain her. “It happened slowly over the years,” she says. “I was very unhappy, but I needed time to figure out what I wanted to do.” In 2002, at age 36, she quit her job, giving up a -six-figure salary and benefits, and set up an office at her home in Rockland County, New York. She took on freelance marketing and public relations jobs while searching for work that would capture her heart.
Then, on a business trip to Napa Valley in 2005, Brenner met a group of women winemakers. Their stories about the land, the seasons and the art of winemaking, as well as their resilience in the face of wipeouts caused by frost and rain, “touched my soul,” says Brenner. “They opened me up to a world that I had never fully paid attention to. I was hooked.” To celebrate the women’s achievements in a male--dominated industry, Brenner wrote a book, Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste, and Enjoy Wine. It came out in 2006, and the following year she launched her company with her first consignment of wine. The cost: $135,000, which she drew from her savings and a home equity loan.
In 2008, just before the release of her second batch—five premium wines priced from $25 to $75 per bottle—her distributor went out of business. “I had to arrange for a truck to get my wine out of their warehouse, and cover all the expenses,” she says. “I just put my head down on my computer and cried.” A loan from a relative for half of what she needed bought Brenner some time while she cobbled together the rest. “Then I hit the pavement to sell the bottles myself,” she says.