Bits and BobsAssumptions about who will succeed and who will fail in the face of challenging circumstances can be wildly inaccurate. Those with the highest barriers to climb may actually have an advantage.

The gift of adversity

Two young migrant workers had the audacity to wonder: Why can't we make wine?
Two young migrant workers had the audacity to wonder: Why can't we make wine? Photo Credit: Gettyimages/Stohler

There is a press release I get on a regular basis that goes something like this:

"Joe/Jill Blow had it all. S/he had a successful career on Wall St./at McKinsey & Co./as a high-powered attorney. But despite living a life that all others would envy, s/he gave it all up after a profound experience while on a yoga retreat in India/sitting in a shark cage in South Africa/hunting wild truffles in Italy. S/he would start a company that would change the way people travel. Forever."

The pitch would then go on to describe a new booking tool, a travel research website, a tour operation or a book about how travel can change one's life.

These press releases are usually the first and last time I ever hear about Jill or Joe and their revolutionary approach to travel.

I'm not pointing this out to suggest that rich, successful people can't have great ideas and the resources to create something special. But I do think that, even when successful, these origin stories pale in comparison to ones that couple creativity with need, drive and desire. Entrepreneurs who overcome adversity are inherently more inspirational.

I learnt about two such companies while in Napa Valley last year. Perhaps, given the location, it won't surprise you that both of these enterprises are wineries.

Amelia Ceja, CEO, Ceja Vineyards
Amelia Ceja, CEO, Ceja Vineyards Photo Credit: Ceja Vineyards

The first, Ceja Vineyards, was started by Amelia Moran Ceja and her husband, Pedro. Both were farm workers born in Mexico who met while picking grapes in Napa vineyards at age 12.

They had the audacity to wonder, why can't we make wine?

Pedro's brother, Armando, was particularly interested in viticulture and even produced a barrel of cabernet sauvignon at age 18. He studied oenology and viticulture at the University of California, Davis.

In 1983, Amelia and Pedro partnered with Pedro's brother and parents, Pablo and Juanita, to scrape together enough to buy 13 acres of fruit orchards and cow pastures in Carneros, 40 miles north of San Francisco. They planted grapevines.

Initially, they sold their harvest to established labels but in 1998 began to produce their own wines. A year later, they were judged at a major festival as being the best new winery of the year.

Amelia, CEO and president, said that she went to her mentor at the time — "a very, very famous vintner" — and told him she had a marketing plan that centered initially on the 40 million-strong Hispanic-American community. "We're being ignored," she told him.

He discouraged her. "Hispanics don't have discretionary income," he replied. "So, I said, 'OK, you ignore them. I'll get all of them to drink our wine.'"

No discretionary income? Ceja wines sell from $30 to $135 a bottle. They now produce on 113 acres, selecting which grapes they will keep under their own label before selling the majority, 85%, to other producers, including Rombauer, Beringer, Mumm and Domaine Chandon.

A cook as well as businesswoman, Amelia has a recipe page on the vineyard's website that reveals, among other things, which of their wines pair well with specific Mexican dishes.

Coral Brown, director of winemaking, Brown Estate Vineyards
Coral Brown, director of winemaking, Brown Estate Vineyards Photo Credit: Brown Estate Vineyards

I also met Coral Brown, director of winemaking at Brown Estate Vineyards, who has an equally fascinating backstory. She's the daughter of Jamaican and Panamanian immigrants who wanted to teach their children lessons they believed only farming could teach, lessons about hard work and being a good steward of the land.

They bought an abandoned ranch in Napa Valley; it contained a dilapidated barn built in 1859 and a Queen Anne Victorian house that, based upon the depth of droppings, was estimated to be home to 250,000 bats.

Everyone advised her parents to tear the house down, but they wanted to restore it. Employing catch-and-release techniques -- the bats were a protected species — it took 10 years to de-critter the house.

Brown's early frustrations transformed into love. "At first, we had no idea we were in this hallowed ground of Napa Valley," she said. They began planting grapes in 1985, initially selling to other vineyards.

But "it was anticlimactic to see a truck come and haul everything away," she said. In 1995, she and her siblings decided to make their own wine, and by 1997, Wine Spectator had given 91 points to their zinfandel.

Today, Brown Estates is the only Black-owned winery in Napa Valley, and its wines sell from $28 (Betelgueuse sauvignon blanc) to $125 (Brown Recluse) and are also served in Delta's first-class cabins.

In good times, it's easy to believe your own press releases about how you're going to change the way people travel. Forever.

But we all got a healthy dose of adversity over the past 19 months. As Amelia Ceja, Coral Brown and their families have shown, sometimes challenges, coupled with a desire to succeed, hard work and perseverance, result in inspiring stories that uproot assumptions and provide narratives worth sharing. Adversity can be a gift; there's no greater satisfaction than succeeding against the odds.

Source: Travel Weekly

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