Q&A with Beth Novak Milliken, President & CEO of Spottswoode
When thinking of renowned wine regions, California’s Napa Valley is one that instantly springs to mind. Napa Valley is famous for its hundreds of hillside vineyards, wine tours and Michelin star restaurants — and nestled amongst these esteemed wineries is Spottswoode. A family wine estate christened by Mrs. Albert Spotts in 1910 and later acquired by Mary and Jack Novak in 1972, Spottswoode churns out some of the best varietals in the valley. Mary released Spottswoode’s first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1982, exactly one hundred years after the estate’s founding, and it’s now widely recognized as one of the finest Cabernet Sauvignons in the world. Today, Mary’s daughter Beth Novak Milliken manages the winery and we had the pleasure of sitting down with her to discuss the family business and how the wine industry has changed over the years.
Tell us a little about Spottswoode. How did your family initially enter into the wine making business?
On a family trip to Napa Valley, my mother and father fell in love with the rural beauty and relaxed pace of St. Helena. There, they discovered Spottswoode, an idyllic property with exquisite gardens and a long-established pre-Prohibition vineyard. In 1972, we sold my father’s medical practice and moved to Spottswoode. Soon after, my parents acquired an adjacent 15-acres and began to replant the vineyard, which had been established in 1882. Sadly, on November 14, 1977 at the age of 44, my father Jack suffered a major heart attack and passed away.
With the encouragement of her winegrowing neighbors, my mother Mary took over the Estate’s management and completed her first harvest. Ten years later, after building Spottswoode’s reputation as a source for highly sought grapes in the valley, she hired Winemaker Tony Soter and founded Spottswoode Winery, releasing their first and most popular wine, their Cabernet Sauvignon.
What has been your favorite Spottswoode vintage and why?
1982, as it was our first vintage here at Spottswoode.
How has the wine business changed since you became the CEO of the company?
It has become even more competitive, with more wineries and brands not just here in Napa Valley, but from all around the world, which means that retaining relevance and being out in the marketplace is crucial.
What do you do differently now to market your wine versus when you first started?
Technology has been a great asset to our efforts in selling our wine direct-to-consumer. More states have opened up to direct shipping, which has allowed us to sell more broadly. In addition, export has become approximately 12% of our sales by volume.
Can you tell us about the environmental issues you’re passionate about and how they tie back to Spottswoode?
We have been deeply passionate about the environment since we started farming organically in 1985 (the first in Napa Valley to do so). We are very concerned about the climate crisis and the state of our natural environment, and so we have put significant effort into being good stewards of our land, community and planet.
For someone interested in starting a wine collection, what tips would you give? Any great vintages or bottles they should start with?
I would find a wine personality – a buyer in a store or restaurant, for example – whom you trust, and ask them to help focus your efforts toward what you value. I would visit wine regions, get educated in what interests you about wines, and join a tasting group. Then, I would start collecting.
What are your thoughts on aging wine? Is it ever too much of a good thing in terms of how long you should keep wine in a cellar?
This is very subjective – some enjoy their wines with a lot of youth and up-front fruit, others like them with a greater sense of maturity. I think the sweet spot for Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon is 12-25 years. The wines hold beyond this time frame, yet in a much more tertiary state.
What are the most interesting aspects of the fine wine industry that you’ve experienced?
You get to meet very interesting people in this business, and to experience a great many things – dining in fine restaurants, visiting wine regions, and more. It is an endlessly fascinating industry.
Is there a Holy Grail bottle of wine that you’d kill to get your hands on?
Possibly anything from 1961, as this is my birth year, but I don’t think I would actually kill for it.
What’s the thing you love most about your job and why?
It is ever-changing and there are always new things to be working on. Helping to build and now running a business that I intend to move into future generations is very gratifying.