Anne Belec, 45, quickly established herself as a rising star in Ford Motor Company after she earned an MBA from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Along with heading the company's North American sales, planning and distribution division, she's held several other high-level auto-industry positions, such as VP of sales operations for the Volvo Car Corporation in Sweden. Today, as head of Volvo Cars of North America, Belec is one of the few women ever to serve as CEO of a major auto company. All through her professional accomplishments, however, Belec has always made time for wine. Belec developed a taste for it during her youth in Quebec, but back then Canadian wines didn't have much of a reputation. What struck Belec most, however, was the sense of community that always existed around wine, as well as its rooted place in culture alongside food and music. Today Belec continues to try new and different wines wherever her job takes her, but found—much to her surprise—that some of the wines she now enjoys most are being made right where she took her first sip, in Canada.
Wine Spectator: Since you grew up in Quebec, as a French Canadian, which was around more often, French wine or Canadian wine?
Anne Belec: I would say a little bit of both. Growing up in a French Canadian family, wine was definitely always part of our culture. We had wine with meals even [when I was] as a small child. I was accustomed to trying different wines and drinking it as part of the meal. But my dad made wine with the neighbors. We had a lot of immigrants in our small community. We had a guy from France across the street, and a Portuguese man on the other side and some Italians and so on, so there was always a lot of talk about it. My dad would get together with these neighbors and make their own wine.
WS: Was that wine any good?
AB: They claim it was excellent! [Laughs.] Let's just say I've had much better since.
WS: Which of the two have you grown more interested in over the years, French or Canadian wine?
AB: I would say more international wines [in general]. I started working in the automotive business back in 1985, and very quickly I got to a point where I had global responsibilities and traveled all around the world. Part of the global experience was getting to know different cultures and different people, and a big part of that is the local food, music and wines. So I love to experiment and go visit as many wineries as I can while on these different trips. Canadian wines, it's interesting because I've rediscovered them. I lived just outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake, in a suburb of Toronto, and…we'd do the little winery tours around there. Other than the ice wines, which Canada is very well known for, I didn't particularly like Canadian wines at that point in time. As I'm going around the world — I'm in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, and I'm discovering all these local wines—the last place I expected to find a wine that was a surprise and experience was in my own back yard. Last year, on a particular trip with a Swedish delegation of businesspeople, and also the king and queen of Sweden were with us, we went to Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, and at all these official dinners they served Canadian wine. And I was shocked and excited because the wines were so good. They've become very good over the years, and I think they definitely compete with a lot of excellent wines I've had from here and all over the world.
WS: What are some of your favorite wine regions you've visited, and what wines have you enjoyed most?
AB: New Zealand I really like for their Sauvignon Blancs, which I think are really crisp and fresh. I always think about my wine experiences as part of a memorable takeaway from my trips, and that has a lot to do with the food we're eating and the people I'm with. New Zealand was great. Argentina had fantastic Cabernets. And of course France, because I've traveled there quite a bit. I did one trip in Burgundy on a barge that had capacity for about 12 passengers. Every day was a culinary experience and a wine-pairing experience. We'd stop along the way, and the chef on board would go to the local market and buy all the local cheeses and local ingredients, and we'd always taste two to three different wines with the meals. Everything was fresh and flavorful. That's one of the best trips I would associate with wine.
WS: People probably associate CEOs with drinking expensive Burgundy with lunch and big, robust, expensive Cabernets with dinner. How would you compare yourself with the stereotype?
AB: Not at all! [Laughs.] In fact, there's nothing that gets me as excited and passionate as finding a great bargain—even a $15 bottle of wine that's just great. I don't shop around looking for the big names or high-dollar values. When I shop for wines I try to find one that I tried myself, during my travels, or on a hunch just try a different type of wine.
WS: Lee Iacocca has a vineyard in Italy. Do you harbor any dreams or ambitions of owning a winery or vineyard some day?
AB: I dream of it! I was just up in Napa last weekend for a wedding, and I spent a few extra days driving around and visiting very small wineries—Fleury and Shifflett are two small ones that are operated by guys who had other careers before being winemakers. It gives me hope that it's possible to do it. Obviously, winemaking is a labor of love, and you have to work hard at it for many years before it comes to fruition, so yes, I think it would be a neat way to retire … going to have to sell a lot of Volvos first, though!