Cecilia de Quesada needed a crash course. In October 1998, with no experience in wine, she became marketing and sales manager at Ristow Estate, the Napa Valley property owned by her mother and stepfather, Urannia and Brunno Ristow.
Ristow's inaugural offering, 973 cases of 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon, was ready for release. De Quesada, 28 at the time, had never worked in sales, and she didn't know the difficulties that come with introducing a new label. "Looking back, I knew nothing about wine," she says with a laugh. "I was asking if there would be enough for me to do."
In retrospect, that probably seems like wishful thinking to de Quesada, who majored in art history at UC, Berkeley. After college, she went to New York to work in the Latin American paintings department at Sotheby's. But after two years -- and two Manhattan winters -- she missed the West Coast.
Sotheby's San Francisco office had an opening, so she moved back to California in 1994. But the emphasis there was on generating clients, rather than cultivating thorough knowledge of the objects. After four years, she left the auction house.
At first, the prospect of a job with Ristow seemed too close to home. But it turned out to be an easy fit because she had practically grown up on the property, along the Silverado Trail, just south of the Stags Leap District. The Ristows had purchased the land in 1983, and de Quesada had spent weekends and summers there, following every step of the vineyard development. With soil riddled by tons of bedrock, it was an expensive, arduous process; Brunno, a native of Brazil, named it Quinta de Pedras, "place of stones" in Portuguese.
Despite her history with the property, new-job nerves made the start a bit rocky. But after overcoming the initial stage fright, she threw herself into the role. "I needed to play catch-up. I thought, 'This is something I really like,' and knew there was a lot to learn," she says.
She started studying, independently and in class, taking a tasting course at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena and a three-week marketing seminar at UC, Davis. Consultant John Skupny, who owns Lang & Reed Wine Co. in Napa, also contributed advice. On-the-job confidence grew as de Quesada recognized a synergy between the the evaluation of wine and art. "It's tied together, the idea of working from sensory facts to form an opinion," she says.
Of course, the Ristow wines themselves simplified her work. Made by consultant Pam Starr, the Cabernet blend consistently delivers outstanding intensity and balance. Top vintages include the 1997 (94 points, $50) and the current release 1999 (92, $60).
De Quesada is responsible for all of the venture's business operations. That includes overseeing finances, creating promotional materials and managing the direct-sales program, which accounts for about 12 percent of sales. Quinta de Pedras is in 22 states, and she expects to spend two months on the road this year visiting accounts.
Ristow's reasonable prices -- especially by Napa Cabernet standards -- have helped make the difference. Many of the California producers that grabbed for whatever the market would bear in the stronger economy of the late '90s now have bloated inventories and need to slash prices. But Ristow Estate rests on firmer ground. And after only five years in the business, having seen both the boom times and today's relative bust, de Quesada has the perspective of a seasoned veteran.
Production from the 24-acre vineyard should reach about 4,000 cases in five years; de Quesada expects her love of the job will still be strong. "This is what many people dream of doing, having a project that's very personal," she says. "I recognize how lucky I am."
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