Pop Stars: Paula Kornell

The Napa sparkling winemaker talks about growing up in the wine industry, learning the business as a young woman and now being a vintner and a mentor

Pop Stars: Paula Kornell
Paula Kornell grew up at a sparkling wine producer, then moved into sales before starting her own brand. (Courtesy Paula Kornell Wine Co.)
Feb 12, 2021

Paula Kornell spent her life surrounded by wine. She grew up playing at her family winery, Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars, which was founded by her father in 1958 when he purchased the former Larkmead Vineyard near St. Helena, Calif. For decades he made sparkling wine using the traditional méthode Champenoisemethod in Napa.

But the boutique winery couldn't compete with larger wineries, often financed by French Champagne houses, that started producing larger-volume bottlings with smaller price tags in California in the 1980s. He filed for bankruptcy and banks foreclosed on the winery in 1992.

Paula moved on to a successful career in sales and marketing for wineries in Napa and Sonoma, and then started her own consulting business, helping winery owners navigate the business aspects of wine. Kornell started her namesake brand with the 2017 vintage, carrying on her family legacy, including the "men of Canaan" symbol that graces her wine labels, as they did her father's.

She spoke with senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec about growing up in wine, navigating the sales side of the business as a woman, and about finding herself now a mentor to younger women entering the industry.

Wine Spectator: You grew up in Napa, right?
Paula Kornell: Yes. My mother's family homesteaded. She was Swiss-Italian. They homesteaded here in St. Helena. Their [main] home was in the Bay Area but they would come up for the weekends. And then when my parents met that's where they ended up moving.

WS: Looking back, was your childhood unusual by the fact that your family made sparkling wine?
PK: Yes. Home was home, but the winery was where we spent so much time. My father would babysit us. It was a playground for us. I kissed there for the first time. I smoked my first joint, my first cigarette there. We would play hide-and-go-seek. I'd catch bats. It was a great place to grow up.

My first job was selling peacock feathers, walnuts and prunes in front of the tasting room. I had to give the money back from the walnuts and the prunes to my grandmother, because it was her property. Of course I'd get the money back sooner or later, but it was the whole idea of learning the meaning of a dollar.

WS: Did you think about what you wanted to do when you got older at this point?
PK: I always thought it'd be in the wine business somewhere. As a kid I wanted to be a veterinarian, so I thought I'd make Champagne at night and be a veterinarian during the day. We always grew up with lots of animals.

It was a very different time in Napa Valley. There were such a small group of vintners. Everyone knew everybody. I've been going through photos. My parents would do New Year's Eve every year with Robert and Marjorie Mondavi. It was just a different environment. Not to say it was better, it's just it was different—a very small community and everyone really worked together.

WS: How would you describe your father's career, and his legacy?
PK: His family made sparkling wine in Germany. In 1938 he was [arrested and sent to] Dachau. After a few months, he was given 24 hours basically to get out of Germany with just a few dollars and—you can't make this stuff up—when he got on the boat to come to the United States, it was torpedoed. Somehow, he ended up in New York.

Then he was in St. Louis, working for Cooks, which was making Champagne that was totally different than the Cooks we know today. He had a plan that he wanted to come to California. My father started his winery in Sonoma and made wines from dry white wines like Chenin Blanc and French Colombard, basically what grew here. Then he bought the old Larkmead Winery, which is now Frank Family, in 1958.

He was the first méthode Champenoise producer in Napa Valley, but there were other, bigger sparkling houses at that time. He made a sparkling wine from Riesling and everyone thought automatically that it that was going to be sweet, and it was bone, bone dry. The winery soon was going very strong. The wine was served on first-class flights on United and TWA.

It's a great story of how you shouldn't put your eggs in one basket, because some of those contracts were lost with the influx of Chandon and Mumm [into Napa]. With all the French money that was coming in, he just couldn't compete any longer.

I thought the winery would be there for the rest of my life. It was just too far gone, and he was stubborn and did not want an influx of capital from someone else. In 1992, I chaired Auction Napa Valley and my father's winery was closing. In a matter of a month, I'm at Joseph Phelps as VP of marketing, and it's like, what the hell just happened?

WS: Did you want to be more involved in your family's winery?
PK: Yes, but I was on the road all the time. I think it's just a great example of how difficult family businesses are. My father was very proud of his kids. And you know, he had his ideas. I had my ideas, and unfortunately, I think for both of us the winery financially was already so far gone.

He didn't sell, he just disbanded the company. A bank took it over.

WS: Even though you grew up in Napa, once your family no longer owned a winery, did you feel like a bit of an outsider?
PK: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It was very, very difficult. I mean, I'm blessed that I have such a great group then as well as now. I have such a great support system in such great friends, but it was really, really difficult. I had a hard time for quite a while and especially those first couple of years being at Phelps. I didn't know if I was fish or fowl, you know. All of a sudden, I'm thrown into a Cabernet world. And I was a sparkling girl 100 percent. So it was a big, big change. It really wasn't until I went to work for Robert Mondavi that in my heart I felt like I had my sea legs again.

WS: Did you consider leaving the area and the wine industry?
PK: Not really. Joseph Phelps Winery was a great place for me to be for two years. Bob Mondavi told me, "You always have a home here." And Harvey Posert [former Robert Mondavi Winery public relations expert] called me and said they needed a GM, so I joined their Vichon Winery, but I was also immersed in the sales team.

It was great because nobody ever really knew what the hell I did. I was up at the winery, I was at the corporate offices. I eventually went into the national accounts team and that was probably my favorite position at Robert Mondavi because you know, I've always sold. I'd always sold my family's wines, I'd sold Phelps. I was selling on the road with Vichon, and it was then that I knew that I could sell from Woodbridge all the way to Opus, all by building great rapport with some key accounts. I had Hyatt National and the International. I had great hotels and I loved it. That was really wonderful.

WS: What did you like about sales, besides being good at it?
PK: I liked matching—figuring out what the customer needed. And maybe that didn't always mesh with what was supposed to be sold. Instead I was trying to match what the customers' needs were and building that relationship.

I realized—back to my father—it was all about the people and that everyone was important. You never knew who was going to be your best customer and how important it is to treat everyone equally and with respect.

WS: How did you start your own consulting business?
PK: Nancy Duckhorn kept saying to me, ‘You need to walk off that porch and start something yourself.’ It was scary to do that. I'd always had something that I knew was, you know, a permanent gig. But doing something on my own was exactly what I needed.

Right away I had such great clients and some old friends, but also making new friends. One of my first clients was Ed Wallis at Wallis Family Estate on Diamond Mountain. I had known Ed for ages, and it was just so wonderful to go start spending time on that side of the mountain. Then it just kept growing from there.

WS: Do your consulting services vary from client to client?
PK: Yes. It starts with marketing and sales. I work on getting distribution for everyone. But I also found out over the years that so many people need just general winery business advice because there's so much to learn and there's so many things that are changing constantly. I know where the bodies are buried. Even families that have been doing it for a long time may have lost sight of the bigger picture of what the landscape looks like and how it's changed.

[The] thing that you have to do is really love the people. I mean I have to really like the people that I'm working with, and of course it's a given that they're going to make great wines. But I also find myself much happier when I'm with wineries where our goals are simpatico. There are so many wineries that I've worked with and so many brands that have been really nice people, but, you know, selling $300 bottles of Cabernet is just not very realistic.

WS: So when did your own brand start coming into focus?
PK: [Co-founder] Dick Ward from Saintsbury would always kick me in the butt and say, 'When are you going to do your own brand? I will give you Chardonnay.' In the back of my head, I thought maybe some day I'll do something.

One day Pat Roney [CEO of Vintage Wine Estates] says that Vintage has no sparkling in their portfolio. And would I be interested in doing something as a 50/50 partner? I immediately said yes because I knew that they had a great sales team and I knew Pat has always made good wine.

It was a whirlwind. I mean we are having lunch and then all of a sudden I'm trying to figure out where do I get grapes? I was more worried about who was going to be the winemaker.

And it just so happened that I was at an event and I met Robin Akhurst, [winemaker at Swanson], and he and I start talking about what our flavor profiles were. What were our Champagne loves? It had to have great acidity, great balance, but it needed to have backbone.

Meanwhile Pat led me down to Mitsuko's Vineyard in Carneros and my mother and Mitsuko [Shrem, co-founder of Clos Pegase Winery] were really good friends. It felt full circle. I had to get Pinot and Chardonnay from Mitsuko's.

All of a sudden Robin and I are making our first vintage, the 2017. Michael Vanderbyl, label designer, and I were going down the whole path of historical names. We agreed on Paula Kornell. Then we wondered what about the two men, the men of Canaan, that were on your parents' label?

At first I didn't want to do that. Then I was rummaging through all this material and found an old Hans Kornell newsletter and it told the history of the men on his label. In the Bible, the men are sent [by Moses] over the mountain to make sure that the land was fertile on the other side. And they came back with huge clusters of grapes.

In this newsletter, it said that Hans felt that Napa Valley was his land of plenty, and in the middle of all the immigration things that was going on. I went damn it, that is exactly what we're putting on the label. That's your family history.

WS: After all these years, I'm sure you understand the importance of the name and the label, and how you're going to have to hear yourself explain it thousands of times.
PK: That's what I tell all my clients, that a label has to be an honest, unique story. Maybe it's not unique but it has to be your story. So that's why I decided all I can do is be me. My family always had great dinners and that there was always Champagne on the table. I'll just be honest about it because that's the way I live my life now. I feel very proud of it.

WS: How did you decide on your two cuvees?
PK: So the [premium] Napa bottling is easy to produce. But I also knew when I entered this business with Vintage Wine Estates that they wanted something they could sell in direct competition with Chandon and Mumm at a popular price point. So we sat down and had to figure out where the fruit would come from. We found great fruit from cool growing regions around California.

Paula Kornell
As a kid, Paula Kornell wanted to be a veterinarian by day, sparkling wine producer by night. (Courtesy Paula Kornell Wine Co.)

WS: Was it hard to make the adjustment from selling other people's wines and telling other people's stories to telling your own?
PK: It is really strange, really strange. A year ago the first wines were released, and it was just so odd at first to pick up those bottles. I felt like my father's old stories when he would fill his station wagon with wine and his German Shepherds and go to Nob Hill and deliver his bubbles. The day I went over to Sonoma to the warehouse and picked up the first cases that were labeled and I had my bulldog in the car, I went, Oh my God, this has gone full circle.

WS: How similar or different are your father's sparklers to your sparklers?
PK: There's probably more weight, a little bit more brioche, more yeasty characteristics to the Napa Valley. There are a lot more similarities in the California bottling—It's very fresh. I'd say they're very fresh really, but it definitely has the heart and soul of what he would have had in his bottle.

WS: What does the future look like for Paula Kornell, the brand?
PK: I think the California bottling will grow. We sold out of the first 5,000 cases that were released less than a year ago. The Napa Valley is 500 cases. It will be that for a while. I have some Blanc de Blancs that's going on the yeast for Napa Valley. That'll be 100 percent Chardonnay and that'll be 2020 vintage. I think I probably will have a Brut Rosé—there seems to be an interest for that right now.

Like all of us, I've spent a lot of time working with all the distributors, even if it's on Zoom. In October and November, I was on the road. I just couldn't sit home any longer.

WS: Even though many of your mentors were men, did you feel the lack of women in the wine industry?
PK: My father had me out there as soon as I could drive. I remember doing sales meetings and standing up in front of a sea of smoke and of men, and they were not young men. They were all basically old liquor guys that were suddenly selling wine. Everybody was very respectful. But that's what was out there. Maybe you'd see a couple women but really it was all men.

WS: Were there other women on the sales side?
PK: There were always some great women. But you know, I think some of those women are still out there working hard in the business. But it oftentimes is not easy.

Look at management. Still to this day there are a handful of women. There's not as much as there should be. It's a pleasure to be and see so many women winemakers. And I know that everybody hates that term, "women winemakers" because so it's so pejorative.

WS: Do you feel that you've evolved into the role of mentor to other women?
PK: Yes, but also it's very funny you say that because I still think of myself as like this kid in the business. And I'm not the kid in the business, which is really scary. Friends of mine have children that now have marketing companies, and I'm very happy and proud to be on some of their boards. I just think, Oh my goodness. These are little kids that now are these thriving, smart as hell, young women that are running things.

It makes me very, very happy because there needs to be that new blood continually coming in.

WS: Have you found women have challenged you in your roles?
PK: Yes, I think some of the women have been much more difficult than some of the men. I don't necessarily understand why. I don't know them well enough to know what their background really is. But I think we have to be helpful to all. We should stick together and have some kind of camaraderie.

When you're hiring somebody, you want to hire somebody that's smarter than you because otherwise what good is it? You want them to bring something great to the table. You want to be challenged.

WS: Your father's legacy was the first boutique méthode Champenoise house in Napa. What might your legacy be?
PK: Well, there are not many women that have their own name on the label.

WS: Good point.

PK: I am going to make the best product I can possibly make and love it. We've all sold things that we didn't necessarily love.

Sparkling wine in general is so different today than what it was in the Hanns Kornell day. Then it was a celebratory product. People drank sparkling wine or Champagne when it was a birthday, Christmas, wedding or divorce. My father used to say for a divorce he could sell two cases versus one case for a wedding.

Now it's so great because people enjoy sparkling wine everywhere and it's not just for a special occasion. It's for the fact that you made it through today, or maybe you're going to start your day with it. So it makes me very happy. I'm very happy that I did go with the family crest and that I kept my name on it.

WS: Have you had the experience yet where you walk into a wine shop or a restaurant and see someone holding a bottle or drinking from a bottle that has your name on it?
PK: Yes. I do exactly what my father would have done. I never thought I'd do this, but I walk up and say, "Thank you very much for having my bubbles."

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