In August 2020, Remi Cohen was named CEO of Domaine Carneros, the sparkling wine house founded by Champagne Taittinger in 1987. She steps into some big shoes: Eileen Crane spent 33 years as the founding winemaker and CEO, and has been an inspiration to many women in the industry.
Cohen is well-qualified, having spent 20 years in wine, most of it in Carneros. She holds a BS in molecular and cellular biology from U.C. Berkeley, a master's degree in viticulture from U.C. Davis and an MBA in finance from Golden Gate University. Her work in Carneros began 20 years ago at Saintsbury. She has also worked at Bouchaine and Merryvale and owned her own vineyard management company. Prior to Domaine Carneros, she was COO at Lede Family Wines.
But she questions whether she could have gotten so far without the helpful mentors who pushed her, support she believes many women in the industry don't get. It's something she's hoping to help change.
Cohen sat down with Wine Spectator senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec to discuss her career, her new challenges and her thoughts on being a mentor.
Wine Spectator: Let's start at the beginning. You grew up in New Jersey?
Remi Cohen: Right, I'm a Jersey girl. I grew up in East Brunswick. I was born in Manhattan, but my parents moved out of the city to raise a family.
WS: When you were growing up what did you want to be?
RC: You think it's so limited—there's a feeling that everybody has to choose from like five or six options like teacher, or a lawyer if you're argumentative, that kind of thing. I always thought I'd be a doctor. My mom would always say I'm good at science, so I'm going to be a doctor.
I moved out to California when I was 17 years old and I went to U.C. Berkeley. Because it was a faster track to declare a major, and it was basically one of the most common pre-med majors, I did molecular and cellular biology. I was so disenchanted with pre-med because the classes were so huge. It was really hard to create a direct connection with any professors. I was a really good student. But I didn't really connect with any professors and when I was looking at different opportunities to work in a lab there weren't many options because they were all so competitive.
I wound up working in a plant biology lab. By the time that I graduated, I had decided that I was most likely going to study plant biology. I called my mom and I said, “Guess what I'm going to do? I'm going to U.C. Davis to study viticulture and enology.” She asked what it was like and I told her vineyards and winemaking. She said, “Oh, maybe you'll meet a duke or a baron.”
WS: As a grad student, what were you thinking you would be doing with your education?
RC: I didn't really have much of a plan, but Michael Richardson was the enologist at Saintsbury winery and he came and did a tasting for the students. It was a vertical of 1990 to 1999 Reserve Carneros Pinot Noir. It was the first vertical I'd ever tasted, and I was completely floored and fascinated by the experience. I went up to him afterward and told him that was amazing. I loved to see the consistency across the vintages, but also the uniqueness of each vintage. He asked if I was interested in being the viticulture intern for harvest, so that was my first gig.
WS: What happened after your internship?
RC: I was told Bouchaine was hiring a vineyard manager, another Carneros producer right down the road. I got the job. I was, I think, 23 or 24 years old and got a job as a vineyard manager. I think they thought it would be interesting to have somebody who was straight out of school and a little bit more ambitious and eager.
WS: Was that a good decision on their part to hire you right out of school?
RC: I would like to think so. I hope that they feel that way. They went through a significant transition, including hiring a new general manager, Michael Richmond. I really credit him in a lot of ways for realizing that my skill set would be best used in more general management than just in viticulture. He always wanted to put me in front of people. When we had distributors come, he would say, “Get in the truck with Remi. She's going to show you the vineyards.” If they had a tasting to do in San Francisco, they would send me to do it, and they always included me in all the blending sessions. I always felt like I was kind of like an assistant general manager in a lot of ways even though I definitely didn't have that title.
Mike really helped cultivate my career. He is someone who really believes that every person who works for a winery is a salesperson and represents the brand. I think he really always encouraged me to take that approach.
WS: After Bouchaine you joined Merryvale, and then you ended up Cliff Lede. What did you take away from that job?
RC: I left Merryvale to start my own vineyard consulting company. When Cliff approached me about bringing the farming in-house, I told him I'm a consultant so I'm not going to join your team, but I can still get you an in-house farming team as a contractor and you'll be my biggest client. That was my relationship with him through 2012. In 2012 when the winemaker at the time left, he said what do you think about coming on as director of winemaking and vineyards? Is that enough of a of a job for you to leave your consulting business?
I told him I never made wine before, but he told me they were hiring a winemaker. I was to be a production general manager. He said he had all the confidence in the world that I could handle it.
WS: I think that kind of gets you to your current job at Domaine Carneros. Is it fair to call it a dream job?
RC: Oh yes. I felt like Cliff Lede was a dream job to in a lot of ways, to be fair. But when the [Domaine Carneros] recruiter first approached me, after the first conversation, I was like, “Oh my god, of course. This is the job. This is basically made for me in so many different ways.”
I think it's awesome too that that the Taittinger family have always put an emphasis on female leadership. Eileen Crane was selected all the way back in 1987 to lead Domaine Carneros. At Champagne Taittinger now, Vitalie Taittinger is the president. So I think it's really incredible that they have focused on that for so long, and to be able to continue in that legacy is pretty special.
One of the benefits of this crazy year for me was that I was not traveling during the fall, so I got to sit in with Eileen Crane [and her team] doing all of the base blends for the 2020 wines. It's just so fun to learn. They taste every single day to make the blends until they're done. I think we started on Sept. 14 and finished on Nov. 13. Every single day, we were tasting.
WS: What has your experience been like being a woman in this industry?
RC: I have been really fortunate to work with a lot of amazing men. Most of my mentors have been men. I feel really fortunate to have worked with men who have promoted me into positions and helped cultivate advancement in my career. But I do think that there are some situations where I might not have gotten a job that I applied for [because I was a woman].
I always thought that it was going to be hard to become a GM of a winery unless I already worked there and they knew my skill set. That is actually how it wound up happening for me. I had applied for GM jobs and didn't get them. They were like, “She seems lovely and so talented but needs more experience.” I remember thinking at the time I'm in my thirties; I'm not that young. I wonder if they would say the same thing to a male my age with my experience. Who knows? I have no idea. But it did turn out that the way I did get the GM job was by working my way up at Cliff Lede.
I also do think there's maybe some disparities in pay or title that happened throughout my career, but perhaps unintentional and not a big deal. I don't know if you saw the Wine Business Monthly salary survey. I think it was their first one where they did men versus women. For CEOs, they did pay by gender in 35 companies and only eight were female. That shows the ratio, which is actually better than I thought. But the average compensation for a female was $323,000 a year and a male was $630,000.
So that's interesting because in all the administrative roles—which is basically controller, VP of marketing, GM—that's the one that's the most disparate. When you get into the most senior position is where you see the most disparity, and that is something that I have felt throughout my career.
When I went to Davis, easily half the students were women. But all the research shows that once you get into the senior winemaking positions and the senior management positions, there's a huge disparity. So what happens? Is it women's lives and lifestyles are getting in the way, or companies aren't cultivating the ability for a woman to have a family? I don't have kids, so maybe that made it easier for me.
What can we do as an industry to make sure that women have more representation in the senior management positions and across the industry?
WS: What are some of the conclusions that you've come to?
RC: It definitely comes from the top. If you look at Domaine Carneros or at Cliff Lede, both have a lot of women in leadership roles, which I think is really important. You have to have an intention to have a diverse representation in management. I do think companies need to support men and women who have families so that they can continue their careers and be successful, especially if they are primary caregivers.
What can I do? A couple things. I recently joined a group called Chief. I'm going to be one of the founding members of the San Francisco chapter. It's a private network organization that's focused on connecting and supporting female leaders and driving more women into senior leadership positions.
We have this really great employee engagement program at Domaine Carneros and we definitely have focused on inclusivity training. The program is open to all—it's not specific to women or people of color or minorities—but it is geared at assisting a diverse group of individuals to advance their careers.
I didn't have a lot of women in front of me to look up to and to mentor me. I didn't expect it, but it would have been nice.
WS: How do you see your role as a mentor?
RC: I don't think it's necessarily gender specific. But if I see somebody who is ambitious and wants to develop in their career, I want to cultivate that. There's been a few women that I would say that I have mentored. What I want to do here at Domaine Carneros is actually institutionalize it a little bit more so that managers here are mentoring employees.
Luck is only a part of it, but I worked at places where I felt like I was that I was being mentored and that people were advocating for me. I always advise other people that if you want to grow in your career and you're working someplace and they keep telling you “no,” then you have got to go somewhere else. If you can't grow in your position, then it's time to leave.
I think we should all look out for each other. It had been my approach to let it happen naturally, and now I'm thinking I need to make more of an effort at being a mentor, in more of a programmatic or institutional way. Again, not specifically for women, but for a diverse group of individuals who want to advance their careers and show ambition and are going to put one step in front of the other to get there.
WS: Outside of these initiatives, tell me more about kind of what you see for the future of Domaine Carneros and some of the things that you want to achieve.
RC: First of all, I have to say that the foundation is amazing, and I think the wines are awesome and his business is really healthy. It's an incredible place filled with amazing people. Everything has even exceeded my expectations as far as the wines the people and the business. I love the open management.
I'm building upon the transparency within the management that we do here, which will play into the employee engagement. Building out this mentorship program, building out this employee engagement program, modernizing the open book management and making it accessible to everyone, especially virtually these days.
I was not aware when I first started interviewing that we have six estate vineyards. I also was not aware that Domaine Carneros was as progressive as it is in terms of the organizational structure with the transparency and leadership and employee engagement, nor was I aware that the business was super progressive with sustainability. For Eileen, that was a big focus from her from the beginning.
WS: It sounds like all of this operational work really kind of clicks with the way your brain works. What's one misconception that people have about you?
RC: I think sometimes people don't take me seriously because I can be fun and happy. I try to focus on the positive and I don't take myself too seriously.
It's something that I thought about back in my career and you know what? I don't want to act differently for a career goal. I want to be genuine, and I want to be who I am. I want to be that positive, uplifting fun spirit and still get to where I want to go.