On June 8, 2021, Terry Wheatley, president of Vintage Wine Estates, quietly marched the company into the future. Representing portfolio brands such as Owen Roe, Viansa Sonoma, and Girard Winery, the VWE team launched a $690 million IPO on the NASDAQ. These are all brands included in the Vintage Wine Estates portfolio, overseen and managed by Terry Wheatley.
Wheatley has dedicated her career to building brands and shaping careers in the wine business. She has held both managerial and executive positions within E&J Gallo Winery, served as both director of marketing and VP of sales with the Trinchero Family Estates, and founding partner of Canopy Management. In 2018, after four years as VP of sales and marketing for Vintage Wine Estates, she was tapped to become the company’s first female president.
Wheatley has founded charities, lent her time, skills, and expertise to a variety of philanthropic causes, and is raising money and awareness for issues related, but not limited to, social justice, entrepreneurship, and preventive health causes such as breast cancer. She is the founder of Wine Sisterhood, a 400,000-member lifestyle social media platform where women connect with one another through wine; Angels Share, a nationwide initiative addressing food insecurity; and Tough Enough to Wear Pink, which equips rodeos and western events in the U.S. and Canada to plan fundraising for breast cancer awareness.
Throughout her 40-plus-year career in wine, Wheatley has been recognized by numerous organizations for her innovative vision, sales expertise, and overall excellence in the wine business. Speaking with VinePair, she shares insights about her career, her struggles, and the ways she supports women in the wine business; as well as the ways Vintage Wine Estates is helping small wine brands, winemakers, and vineyards by preserving vintage wine brands while helping to shape their futures.
1. Tell VinePair readers more about Vintage Wine Estates (VWE) and what the company does.
VWE is a wine company with a portfolio that appeals across demographics and wine tastes. Our mission is to reinvigorate legacy wine brands and launch young brands while giving them the tools needed to be successful or continue their artfully honed winemaking craft.
When VWE purchases a wine brand, we are invisible but impactful. We are here to make a struggling business successful by pulling out inefficiencies that they don’t know how to do. We typically maintain as much of the original architecture of the business including current staff. That’s very important to us as a company because we don’t want to homogenize the purchase. We want to be good stewards of the land that we purchase. We invite the family to stay on board and we try to keep the personality, winemaking style, and sourcing that attracted us in the first place. We may update the logo and polish or rebuild the existing property, but we strive to always keep the charm or magic of the brands we acquire.
2. You are set to lead Vintage Wine Estates to its IPO this June, making VWE a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ global market. What would you say to women who are now following your career?
Be prepared to work hard and then work even harder. Surround yourself with people who believe in your vision and partner with a company who values the work and contributions of women. Two, honor your word and live up to what you say you’re going to do. Third, go ahead and establish lofty goals. Know that nothing you dream of is insurmountable. Be willing to give it everything you’ve got because that’s where the real work begins!
3. VWE has a special program that enables consumers to become shareholders in the company. Can you tell us more about this?
When we designed the shareholder passport program, we were thinking of the people that we do business with. Our suppliers, the farmers, the consumers that purchase our brands or really the general public. We wanted to give people who don’t have millions of dollars to invest in our brand a way to participate and profit from our success. The Shareholder Passport is our “sharing” program which gives our supporters an opportunity to be partners or shareholders in VWE. It’s a very approachable program where you own a part of 52 wine brands. Shareholders also will receive an invitation to the annual shareholders meeting held in the Napa Valley, among other perks and benefits. It really is a great program.
4. What makes VWE so special as a company?
I am honored to be the first female that has led a multi-million-dollar company public — but much prouder that over half of the managers in our company are women. I work very hard to increase the female representation in the organization. In fact, our CFO, head of operations, marketing, chief digital officer, director of our wine clubs, and all of our tasting rooms are all female-led departments within VWE. This has happened because the founders and current leaders of VWE have all committed to increasing the female presence throughout the company.
5. There has been a wealth of publications describing the experiences of those in the wine industry due to the compounded effects of Covid-19, recent weather-related tragedies, and the overall slim margins in wine production. It’s been reported that independent or small family-owned wine producers are struggling to keep their doors open. Does VWE have a strategy to address this and help small producers who are struggling?
The majority of our portfolio are small wine producers who needed help continuing or successfully increasing their reach in the wine industry. Now you have companies who have, for instance, been devastated by recent wildfires who now are in a terrifying situation because of the effects of Covid. These are companies whose business plans were built upon partnerships with successful restaurants, tasting rooms and wine clubs with little to no distribution plan, and they are now in serious trouble. This is where VWE can step in and help. We offer help with streamlining/improving the winemaking process, marketing and distribution. We want to maintain the integrity of the company but bring our skills in marketing, finance, and our vast network of winemakers and supplies in order to elevate the brand and continue their legacy in the wine business.
6. Let’s talk about the businesses and/or philanthropic platforms you’ve built or led. Why does Tough Enough to Wear Pink hold a special place in your heart?
There is a long history of breast cancer in my family. My grandmother died of breast cancer. My mom had a double mastectomy when she was 38 years old, and I had one when I was 48 years old. My daughter has had multiple biopsies as well, so I have a huge interest in eradicating this disease. Early in my career, I knew I wanted to be involved in the fight against breast cancer. I supported local initiatives such as City of Hope (a cancer research center in Los Angeles) but I wanted to do even more.
I co-founded Tough Enough to Wear Pink in order to involve the sport of rodeos and the Western community in the fight against breast cancer. To date, we are so proud to say we’ve raised over $32 million for local and nationwide breast cancer charities to launch awareness campaigns to spread awareness and encourage testing!
7. Why is philanthropy, and D&I initiatives, so important to you as a businesswoman?
2020 was such a profound year with everything that happened with the racial awakening and the Black Lives Matter movement. I reached out to our communications manager and said, “We need to find ways to support Black women in the wine business.” Currently, we are exploring ways, such as scholarship or mentorship, we can help grow their careers in wine. We’re also looking at a couple of [BI]POC-owned wine and spirits brands to partner with or acquire. There will be more on this coming up soon.
Separately from VWE, I serve as chairwoman of the board for CannaCraft. We are developing ways to level the playing field for people of color in the cannabis industry. Whether it’s through strain development, farming, or brand development, we want to push forward with supporting the needs of the community. Why is the African- and Mexican-American community incarcerated more over cannabis infractions than other groups? That’s just stupid, which is why supporting the Last Prisoner Project along with CannaCraft is so important to me as well. What’s the point of all of this success if you aren’t making a real difference in lives?
8. Where would you like to travel to explore wine excellence when you are ready to take a break from conquering the world?
I would love to go back to Florence, Italy! Maybe split my time between California and Italy. That would be such a great thing to do.
9. If you could share the success of the IPO with anyone, who would it be?
That’s easy: Ruth Bader Ginsburg! She was amazing, a trailblazer, and a force of nature. I hope my career is as long, impactful, and successful as hers was and continues to be.