Matriarchs have been a force since biblical times, but these days, they do more than head families and lead tribes. They’re creative thinkers and innovators who face challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that come their way to build successful businesses. Their worldview includes family, friends and relationships as well as the bottom line. And in the North Bay, they’re resourceful women who are racking up some impressive accomplishments.
The effervescence of sparkling wine and a cache of wonderful memories inspired Sharon Cohn, Rebecca Faust and Cynthia Faust to launch Breathless Wines, the award-winning producer of sparkling wines in Healdsburg. “My sisters and I love bubbly,” says Sharon, but establishing the winery had deeper meaning. The name is a tribute to their mother Martha Faust, who passed away from a rare genetic lung disease, Alpha-1, in 2008 and left her daughters with a deep appreciation for life that made them want to find a special way to honor her. “It’s about how she inspired us,” says Sharon. Our mother understood the importance of living life to the fullest, she explains, and sparkling wine is a way for people to celebrate and remember the moments that leave them breathless.
“Our mother indelibly etched into us the belief that compassion, caring and a strong work ethic need not be strangers,” adds Cynthia. “[Mom] was a business owner long before we were inspired to chase our own adventures. She operated the Carmel Corn Store in Coddingtown as well as the Wash Tub Laundromat in Santa Rosa, where both Sharon and Rebecca worked.”
The sisters embarked on their new venture with lessons from their mother and business skills they’d acquired in their own careers. Early on, Sharon served in the U.S. Air Force and later became a dental hygienist, a profession she still practices today. In 1984, Bruce Cohn opened B.R. Cohn Winery with Sharon by his side. In the early ’90s, Bruce and Sharon decided to crush one of the first California boutique olive oils from the estate trees. Sharon managed the Olive Oil Company expanding it nationwide. By 2005, Sharon and Bruce parted ways and she went on to start two Massage Envy franchises, (Santa Rosa in 2007 and Sonoma in 2011), while managing 80 employees.
Rebecca began her career working in public accounting, and then moved to the wine industry as the lead financial officer at Piper Sonoma. After several years, she moved to a similar role at Lambert Bridge, where she remained for nearly a decade. Finally, the allure of being an entrepreneur proved too strong and in 2007 she co-founded Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services with her business partner, Bruce Lundquist, a business now employing more than 80 employees and processing more than 1 million cases of wine a year.
Cynthia Faust, the youngest of the three, has extensive accounting and financial investment experience. Like her sisters, she had been a business owner for many years, operating a restaurant, bar and lounge in Tahoe with her former spouse, as well as a catering company, specializing in wine and food pairings. That made her a perfect choice in the early years of Rack & Riddle, where she joined her sister Rebecca, first to assist with the many financial reporting demands of the young company, and then ascending to her current role working with client-entrepreneurs as the manager of business development.
Rounding out the team is Penny Gadd-Coster, a highly-regarded sparkling winemaker with more than 25 years of experience, who also serves as executive director of winemaking at Rack & Riddle. With Penny’s award-winning sparkling blends, Breathless opened its first tasting room in Alexander Valley in 2014, then moved to Healdsburg in 2016, next door to Rack & Riddle. “Luckily, we had Penny and her team at Rack & Riddle to lead the way,” says Sharon.
Breathless Wines began operations in 2011. It had its first release of Blanc de Noirs in 2013 and entered it in that year’s Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition. “I’ll never forget dropping it off,” says Sharon. Breathless was a newcomer with only one wine to enter. “It was taking the leap into the ring of all the established and fabulous wineries we were in awe of,” she says. Sharon saw wines from all over Sonoma County, and when she went back to check the winners’ list, she didn’t find Breathless. She and Cynthia attended the awards dinner nonetheless. They were pouring wine when they heard the announcement that they’d won the sweepstakes for specialty wine. “I was totally in shock,” she recalls. “I don’t think I said anything. It was a surreal moment.”
Today, each sister has a distinct role in the business. Cohn is responsible for outreach to hotels and wineries and building brand recognition. “I’m always looking for ways to get us out there,” she says. She also promotes the wine club, which lets members decide which wines they want and when they want them.
Cynthia and Rebecca both work in the tasting room and are the underpinnings of the many business details such as production coordination and logistics, managing the wine club and all the accounting that a small business demands. Says Rebecca, “We all have day jobs, so it’s whatever we can do to make this venture we call Breathless Wines a success.
At the heart of their business is sisterly love and the joy of working together on something meaningful. “We all want it to be successful,” says Sharon. “We all love each other and our families. It means a lot.”
Terri Balletto, of Balletto Vineyards in Santa Rosa, never expected to own a winery. ”I always wanted to be a large-animal vet. I never thought I would be in farming,” she says. That changed after she met and married John Balletto, who had started growing produce in 1977 with the help of his late mother, Hazel.
She became the farm’s bookkeeper after walking into the office one day and spotting a box of papers on the floor. “Every bit of paper went in there. I asked, ‘Is that your bookkeeping?’” she recalls, and John admitted it was, explaining that working on the farm all day and delivering produce to the city at night didn’t leave time for administrative tasks. She stepped in to create a bookkeeping program, and as the company grew, she also managed the payroll. With more than 100 employees, it was a big job, and she did it by hand until she and a friend in a similar position heard about personal computers and decided to check them out. Although it was expensive, she got one of the first computers and introduced office technology to the farm. She also pitched in to do whatever else was necessary. “I packed zucchini,” she says, and even moved irrigation pipes, which, she reveals, was the one job she truly disliked.
Eventually, the Ballettos purchased property to build a house and extend their farming into the winter. The fields on the lower Santa Rosa plains terrain were prone to flooding though, so eventually, the Ballettos purchased hillside property to build a house and extend their farming into the winter. There was not enough water to grow vegetables on the hillside property, so they planted wine grapes, starting with 20 acres, and got a contract to supply a local winery. Meanwhile, they continued to grow vegetables and took advantage of a window of opportunity in October, when the price of zucchini and greens went up. “That’s when we made our money,” says Balletto.
In 1998, spring storms wiped out several crops, and the Ballettos were feeling the results of NAFTA, the North America Free Trade Agreement, which had gone into effect in 1994 and included the United States, Canada and Mexico. “We used to have a niche market,” says Balletto, but then Mexican farmers began providing produce year-round, wiping out their October profits. They had to decide whether John should farm in Mexico for half the year or if they should switch crops completely, and they opted for change. “Our kids were little. We decided to take the big jump so we could all stay together,” says Balletto.
The estate vineyards, in the southernmost Russian River Valley, grew from 60 acres to 600, and at first the Ballettos sold all the grapes to one client. Following an economic downturn in the wine business in 2001, however, they suspected their client might put the winery up for sale, and rather than depending on that contract, they decided to go into winemaking themselves. They converted part of the building for packing vegetables into a winemaking facility and did both side by side for two years as they phased out the produce operations. Today, they still provide other wineries with grapes, but they keep a fraction for themselves and produce 20,000 to 25,000 cases of several varietals a year. Keeping pace with growth, they have a new office building and barrel storage, and “We do a lot of custom crush,” says Balletto, who still does some bookkeeping, but also has an accountant. In addition, they’ve adopted sustainable farming practices. “The land is your greatest asset. If you don’t take care of your land, it won’t take care of you,” she observes. Making the transition from vegetables to grapes and adding the winery took a lot of tenacity, she says. The outcome, however, was both satisfying and successful.
The business now boasts three generations of women, as Terri and John Balletto’s daughters follow in the footsteps of their mother and grandmother. Jacqueline Balletto, 24, graduated from Fresno State in 2014, and is now manager of the tasting room, after working in other areas of the wine industry and then returning as assistant viticulturist. And their youngest daughter Caterina, 22, graduated from the University of Santa Clara in 2016, and will return to the family business this spring after spending the ski season working in Lake Tahoe. “We’re going to have her do payroll and more sales,” says Balletto, who is proud of her daughters’ willingness to learn from the bottom. “Hopefully, they’ll take over some day,” she says.
A gentle prod from friends, along with a book to show her the way, put Elaine Petrocelli—owner of Book Passage—on a journey to building one of the most successful independent bookstores in the country. Previously an educator, Petrocelli didn’t know anything about business, but she read a book about opening a bookstore and couldn’t get it out of her mind. “I believe in women working and having careers,” she says. But she had four children and 40 years ago, jobs where women could pay attention to their careers as well as their families were rare. Opening her own business was an opportunity to do both, and with the encouragement of her book club friends, she opened her first store in downtown Larkspur in November 1976.
In 1982, after reading a book by Roger Horchow on how to make a million dollars in the mail order business, Petrocelli also started a travel catalog. Based in San Francisco, it attracted customers from all over the world, and the founders of the Lonely Planet Guide Books also visited, wearing backpacks and sandals. Four years later, a friend suggested combining the two operations. In 1986, Petrocelli opened a new store in Corte Madera with both businesses under one roof (and space to grow), setting the stage for Book Passage to become a literary destination.
Book Passage U, a program of writing classes, took off when Petrocelli invited Anne Lamott, then a young writer working as a waitress, to teach a writing class. “We put a tiny little squib in the paper,” says Petrocelli, and the class filled up quickly, with so much interest she couldn’t accommodate everyone. Mystery writing and editing classes followed, and then customers asked for language classes, so French, Spanish, Italian and German joined the mix.
Book Passage was thriving, but Petrocelli missed the workshops she’d attended as an educator, and with encouragement from her husband, Bill Petrocelli, an attorney, she adopted that kind of format, with travel as the focus. The Travel Writers & Photographers Conference debuted in 1991. “It’s four days of writing, working with editors, agents, people who have made it,” she says. “Some of the greatest things happen on the patio at lunch.” Next came a mystery writers’ conference and another for children’s books, making conferences a major part of the business, which the Petrocelli’s daughter, Katherine, manages.
Books are primary, and Book Passage usually has at least one author’s event a day. “We get to meet some incredible authors,” says Petrocelli. Some are already famous like Isabel Allende, who has filled in and worked behind the counter. And some, like Michael Chabon, are unknown, but go on to become famous. “I could have him here at four in the morning, and we’d have a sellout crowd,” she says. Others are on the brink of fame. Once at a fundraising luncheon for 10,000 Degrees, then-Senator Barak Obama spoke about his book, The Audacity of Hope. A couple weeks later, he announced his run for president. The event included 200 students from local middle and high schools. “[Obama] spoke to every single student personally,” she recalls. “We’ve had some pretty wild and wonderful experiences.”
The bookstore’s programs for children are among Petrocelli’s favorites. Participants in INK, a free program for readers from eight to 12, wrote their own book, Dragon Mist, in 2015. Book Passage published it, and the young authors held a launch party. In 2016, Book Passage celebrated the publication of INK’s second book, Dragon Fire. “This is one of my favorite programs,” says Petrocelli, observing that the children went from being in awe of writing to doing it.
She opened a second store at the Ferry Building in San Francisco in 2003, and in early February this year, a third store opened on the Sausalito waterfront. “We’re thrilled to have a bookstore in Sausalito because they didn’t have one,” says Petrocelli, who believes strongly in supporting local businesses. “The quality of life is interacting with our neighbors and local merchants,” she says.
When asked about Book Passage’s secret to success, she points out that women who raise children are accustomed to multi-tasking and have the ability to focus. “It’s having eyes all over the place and seeing who needs help.” she says, and it’s something she does instinctively, as she interacts with customers and makes them feel welcome. “It’s such a privilege to have a job, when every day you come into work, you see wonderful colleagues, and you can’t wait to see what will happen next.”
It’s the kind of satisfaction that comes with success, and it’s the result of vision, drive, hard work, willingness to learn and an appreciation for others. Those qualities allow women to make their family businesses successful, but they also help make a matriarch. It’s an enduring tradition—albeit with a new look—and it’s here to stay.
Designing a label for Breathless Wines was a challenge. “We came up with the name first,” says Cynthia Faust, but finding an image was another story. She and her sisters wanted something fun and adventurous that captured their mother’s spirit, so it had to be special. While doing research on Methode Champenoise production, a woman on a cork (reminiscent of a 1920s poster) popped up on the side of an article on Wikipedia. She contacted the owner of the artwork, who lives in London, and they made an agreement. “It’s a nice symbiotic relationship,” she says.
Terri Balletto is a director and secretary of 4-H Foundation of Sonoma County and was the recipient of the Sonoma County 4-H Alumni Recognition Award in 2016. “It’s an amazing youth leadership program,” she says, explaining that participants can be 8 to 18 and aren’t separated by age. They work together, learn how to speak in public, acquire bookkeeping skills, and participate in community service activities. “My oldest daughter learned to fly a plane in 4-H. Whatever you can think of, they have it. It’s pretty amazing,” she says. As a 4-H member, she raised horses, dairy cows and pigs when she was young. “My parents said it was like Old McDonald’s Farm.”
Elaine Petrocelli, proprietor of Book Passage, offers book talks, where she speaks about her favorite new releases to raise funds for organizations in the community. The Belvedere Tiburon Library Foundation hosts a yearly Petrocelli Luncheon, which has become a tradition. “This year will be the 28th annual,” says Donna Bero, executive director of the foundation. According to Bero, the last luncheon netted $30,000 for the library, giving them the opportunity to move beyond the budget and participate in One Book One Marin, create a new website and more.
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