You are instantly transported into an older world as you enter the wine country.

There couldn’t be a more beautiful day to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. I waited until rush hour traffic had subsided and breezed across under a cloudless, fogless sky.  I had decided not to call Matt on Friday, not to call human resources, and definitely not to speak with Bryson Keller. I was going to let this one blow over, so I spent Friday afternoon reviewing client expectations with all my account supervisors by phone, letting them know I’d be headed to Napa first thing Monday. Maybe time would make the whole thing disappear.

The Bay was calling me. I had to pull over on the Marin side and take in this pristine view. Looking back across the bridge, I remembered how just three days ago a man had jumped, taken his life in one instantaneous decision that he could not rewind. On that same day, I took a leap that I can’t take back. I haven’t heard from Bryson since Friday – no apology after he sobered up, but then again, I haven’t been fired either.

I was proud of the leap I took to get out of that car, to create a clear boundary and make my own intentions clear. Then within the space of a few hours, I let fear steal my resolve. Now I’ve let the space of half a business day and a whole weekend get between me and a very necessary confrontation. It’s too late now. Forward, the Light Brigade.  I got back in my car and resumed the trip to Napa, completely forgetting that in the end of Tennyson’s story they were marching into the Valley of Death.

From Highway 101, you would hardly know this area was ravaged by wildfires just a few years ago. Most of the buildings destroyed in 2017 are just starting to be rebuilt, but many of them are out of sight to the tourist. Highway 29 transported me from Bay Area traffic to an older world. Just minutes off the freeway and past the outlet mall, I’m transported into rows of grapevines and the appearance of historic chateaus, most of which are faux replicas of something in France or Tuscany. Driving through downtown Napa, the damage from the fire is imperceptible. Funny how industry drives natural disaster recovery.

By the end of 2018, California will have crushed 3.8 million tons of grapes. Even though the sale of premium wines has gone down steadily since 2015, the industry is still cranking out over a hundred million dollars in sales at an average retail price of $28 per bottle. With a rising interest in imports, the valley is very interested in maintaining tourism.

I remember the drive out here to make our pitch. They had narrowed the RFP selection down to three agencies, one of which was the agency that represents all the big producers. We won based on our unique proposal, but mostly on our status as a boutique agency. The Noble family didn’t care much about the way things have always been done. They wanted a fresh approach. That’s definitely something our team could deliver. We were a scrappy crew that day – just giddy to get out of the city and inhale the luxurious aroma of a vineyard. Juxtaposed with Hubbard & Knollwood, we were like first graders getting off the bus at Disneyland. The H&K people were all pressed in black and white and polished with their iPads, lined up like FBI agents when we walked past them for our presentation…in jeans.

They had come for the kill using the big guns, the same guns they used to win Mondavi and Domaine Chandon. They acted like God’s gift to wine, as if Noble Vineyards could really play in the grown-up sandbox as an H&K client. I watched Jack Noble’s face, mildly hiding the disgust over their arrogance, especially the haughty gaze of H&K’s senior VP, Ridley Yarborough. I don’t spend words like this very casually, but he’s a classic horse’s ass. No, I can’t disparage horses that way. I can’t think of an animal I disrespect as much as Ridley Yarborough. When we won the bid, that was sweet justice.

As I turned in the driveway at Noble Vineyards, it all flooded back to me – the moment of victory when Jack Noble and his dad walked out of the vineyard in jeans to receive our presentations. The H&K team wasn’t sure how to stand in a vineyard with their Jimmy Choo shoes. Don’t get me wrong, I have a fabulous pair of Jimmy Choos, but I know when to wear them. The H&K folks were oblivious. Our team in our jeans and Muck Duck boots made the greatest impression before we even opened our mouths.

That was it! There is no way the Noble family will ditch us for H&K. The whole style of that agency is contrary to their brand, their values, their culture…they would rather do their own PR than hire H&K. The third firm in the bid didn’t have the muscle for the work. We’re not at risk as much I feared. We have this bird in the hand as long as I don’t break its neck.

As my car rounded the southwest corner of the vineyard, the hacienda came into view. The sprawling stone ranch style house could cover half a football field. Naturally, half of it houses the winery. I wondered what it’s like to wake up and walk 50 feet to your office. I’m not sure I’d like that, but there are a lot of things I’m not sure about. How will I craft an award-winning campaign in seven days?

I stopped my car in the circle and opened the door to put my boots on. The ground was muck after the recent rains. This was standard attire. As I pulled the boot straps, a friendly face came out the double doors. Juanita lives at the winery, keeps house, manages the kitchen and has a beautiful way of talking smack with Jack Noble when he needs to be kept in check.

“Welcome, Ms. Jones,” she chimed as a teenage guy who could pass as her son grabbed my bags from the trunk of the car. “Let me show you to your room. I’ll give you a few minutes to unpack and ask you to meet me on the patio to wait for Mr.Noble. I just brewed a fresh pot of coffee.” At the sound of the word coffee, I followed dutifully.

The room was tastefully elegant. The hacienda is only for guests of the vineyard – consultants like me and visiting winemakers, suppliers and the occasion high-end customer. The décor was simple, with one beautiful oil painting of women crushing wine the old-fashioned way… with their feet.

I unloaded my suitcase quickly. I hadn’t brought many nicer things because I knew we’d be living in jeans and boots. I headed to the patio through the sliding glass door.

“More coffee, Ms. Taylor?” Juanita surprised me in my reverie and I nearly dropped the cup. “Lo siento mucho. I’m so sorry,” she chuckled. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Mr. Noble asked me to make you comfortable and apologizes for the delay.”

“Not your fault at all. I was just lost in the moment, and yes, I’d love more of your coffee. I can’t figure out how coffee can taste so good. You have a gift.” That was a completely honest answer. I’m a coffee snob and I can’t believe how good this is. She smiled and refilled my cup, noticing my little pitcher of half and half was empty. “We’ll get you more cream.”

“Thank you!” I flipped open my laptop and started punching in my password when I heard the sound of another creamer pitcher hitting the table, but I didn’t see Juanita. I lowered the lid on my laptop to see a pair of blue eyes peering through blonde curls. The vision stopped my heart for a second. I wonder if my daughter has curls.

“I like the picture on your computer,” said the little cherub. I had a sticker on the lid of my laptop showing an interesting artist’s rendition of the difference between the left brain and the right brain. The left-brain side full of complicated math equations and the right-brain side a rainbow of color and creativity. It’s definitely a conversation starter, but rarely with one so small.

“Thank you! I’m fascinated with how the brain works.” I closed the laptop altogether and added the cream to my coffee. “And yours seems to be working quite well. You’re very quick with the cream, which is very important to a coffee drinker. Have you worked here long?” I estimated from her height she was about eight, or a very mature six.

“I own the place,” she straightened a bit. The seriousness of her manner reminded me of a movie my mom always watched at Christmas about a feisty little girl named Eloise who lived in The Plaza Hotel in New York and bossed everybody around, from the front desk to the General Manager. She carried herself like she really paid the checks around here.

“Quite an accomplishment at your age,” I replied. “How long have you owned this winery?” I worked hard to suppress a smile.

“All my life.” She straightened.

“That’s a very notable accomplishment, I must say. When I was your age I couldn’t even tie my shoes,” I smirked. “My name’s Nora.” I held out my hand.

“My name’s Syrah. Pleased to meet you,” she extended her hand with great professional acumen and shook firmly.

“Nice to meet you, Sarah.” I wasn’t certain I’d heard her properly.

“Syrah, actually. Seer-ah.” This voice came from behind me. Jack. “I call her my Petite Syrah.” He sat opposite me and pulled her onto his lap. “And now you know why I got a kick out of your press release.”

Relief flooded my solar plexus. Our foiled press release and the reason why I’m here all came into focus. “Didn’t you used to grow Syrah in Washington Valley?”

A distant look overcame Jack’s face. “Yes, that’s where I met Syrah’s mother.” A cloud was approaching our conversation, Jack’s face tightened. “And this,” he started laughing and tickling Syrah, “is my prize for doing time in Washington. Pun intended.”

Syrah wiggled out of his arms and reached up to touch his face, “Daddy, can I work with you today? I can help!” Jack’s eyes sparkle when he looks at his daughter.

“This time I need you to run the hacienda,” he told her. As if on cue, Juanita appeared from inside and called out, “Miss Syrah, we have a problem in the kitchen we need you to solve. Could I interrupt your time with our guest to ask for help?” She worked hard to contain a grin.

A serious gaze fell over Syrah’s face. “What would they do without me? I swear, this place would fall apart if I weren’t here.” She held out a hand to me, “Pleasure to meet you.” I accepted the handshake. “I must tend to employee business. I look forward to seeing you again.” She withdrew her hand and joined Juanita inside the hacienda and didn’t miss a beat as they strode inside together, “Give me the sitch, Juanita…”

I stole a priceless gaze on Jack’s face as he watched her disappear inside. How could I find the right words to break this reverie? “She has this place quite under control, doesn’t she?” I laughed as the words came out.

“More than you know.” Jack turned and shook off the reverie. “She ‘helps’ me on occasion in the vineyard, but today we need to focus.” His gaze turned to meet mine. “Are you ready for to tour the vines?”

“At your service,” I straightened and stood.

His eyes hit the floor, looking directly at my boots. “You came ready to work, as usual!” He turned toward a row of rubber boots against the wall of the house. “Most of our visitors come unprepared, as you can see.” He turned back to face me. “Those Manolo Blahnik’s you wore to lunch last week had me worried, but you’ve won my trust again.”

“I’m impressed with your shoe knowledge.” I stood to face him eye to eye. “And I’m grateful for your trust. I’m here to make sure you can trust me with more than shoes.”

His hands went into the pockets of his jeans. “Well, I have some big shoes to fill myself. Shall we get moving?” He motioned down the patio steps. And with that I knew that I was not going to find out today why Syrah’s mother was not on the scene.

 

DISCUSS

Where have you been that transported you to a world that seems far from your normal life?

Have you ever had to work with someone as despicable as Ridley Yarbrough?

Have you ever shown up for a pitch or business development wearing the wrong clothes for the culture?

Tell of a time you met someone who reminded you of a person or an experience? Did you talk about it or let it go?