By Paul Vigna
Identifying the inspiration for Beth Novak Milliken’s long and successful career took no more than a moment.
Her mother and father bought the property that’s now home to Spottswoode Estate Vineyard and Winery, located a few blocks from downtown St. Helena, Calif., in 1972. Five years later, Beth’s father died and her mother, Mary Novak, considered the family’s options. In the end, she chose to stick it out, turning the grape-supplier-turned-wine-producer into what one national writer called “one of Napa’s most prestigious wineries.” Added the Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker, “If Château Margaux were in Napa Valley, it would be Spottswoode.”
Beth referred to her mother’s “tenacity and her ability to be pragmatic and move forward after her husband died, that she has five children and kept us all here, and kept Spottswoode, which was honestly not easy to do. There was death and there were other things on it, and there was no guarantee she would be able to hang on to it. But she persevered, made it happen. So I would call her my primary inspiration to be sure.”
Mary’s daughter, now president and CEO, has developed her own group of admirers in not only putting Spottswoode on the map but helping assert its priority as a good corporate citizen, both to the Napa wine community and to the area at large. Today, she serves as a role model for many, leading to her nomination and selection as one of the Wine Industry Advisor’s Most Inspiring People for 2020.
“Beth has an unwavering commitment to the ideals and causes that she believes in,” says Erica Wallenbrock, the winery’s director of marketing who has been there 12 years. “Whether it is her commitment to championing our environment, creating a stronger and more unified Napa Valley wine community, or stewarding this historic estate and vineyard site for future generations, she has been a pioneer throughout her career.”
To think it all started as a chance to help a little at the winery after studying abroad in Europe, earning a degree in economics from UCLA and joining a San Francisco-based wine brokerage representing clients like Caymus, Joseph Phelps, and Pine Ridge.
“Two things became immediately obvious to me: this was a full-time position, and I absolutely loved being a part of the winery,” she says in her winery bio.
From there, that full-time job became a career that saw her influence grow, beginning with making the decision to acquire the historic adjacent Kraft property that would expand the estate and establish a barrel room and offices in those buildings. During her tenure, she has overseen the replanting of the estate in response to phylloxera, the vineyard’s pioneering CCOF organic certification in 1992, and the building of the Spottswoode Estate Winery in 1999.
She has continued the direction that Tony Soter, the original winemaker, established when he convinced her mother to adopt organic farming “way before his time. Nobody was talking organics in the ‘80s,” Beth says. “He had researched it, brought it to my mom. She really trusted him and felt like it was a good idea, something she was willing to try. We never looked back.”
All that, while continuing to raise the quality of wines such as their Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, tapping into the talents of four consecutive female winemakers before promoting the current winemaker, Aron Weinkauf, into that role.
Says Wallenbrock, “I am surrounded by beautifully restored historic buildings and a vineyard that has not been touched by chemicals for over 30 years. I am part of a close-knit team that is diverse and empowered. Together, we strive to make some of the finest wines in the world, while contributing to our community and protecting our environment. This is the culture that Beth has created and promoted at Spottswoode.”
Milliken’s voice has been heard loud and clear within one of the world’s most important wine communities, elected in 1998 as the youngest president of the Napa Valley Vintners and the first woman to hold that position. Today, she sits on the board of directors, serving as treasurer and secretary for an organization of around 550 wineries that promotes the industry and makes decisions that will enhance it for the future.
Its current president and CEO is Linda Reiff, whose history with Milliken goes back 25 years, through a number of thorny issues. “She stood up to a big-name wine producer from the Central Valley who was misleading consumers trying to sell a wine labeled as Napa Valley when it was not,” Reiff remembers. “We took that fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.
“She is very passionate and eloquent in expressing her beliefs, and she is that remarkable person who is also willing to put in a lot of time and energy to make what she believes in a reality. She cares a lot about what’s right.”
Reiff’s sentiments echo those from Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards, whose family history goes back to the 1970s and ‘80s when his parents were buying Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Spottswoode.
Shafer calls Milliken unique, “one of the most driven people I ever met in my life. When she gets on a project, just get out of the way” and allow her use her energy, fortitude and perseverance to complete it.
“She’s very pragmatic, very practical,” he says. “She doesn’t really speak unless she has her ducks lined up, and she usually does. She has strong opinions. She will let you know how she feels about something. But, also, very open-minded. She will listen.”
Those beliefs lean heavily toward doing things to preserve the future, whether it’s being a steward of the winery or addressing more regional or global topics such as education and climate. On her property, she pushed for the restoration of Spring Creek, which acts as the southern boundary of the vineyard’s southern boundary. In 2007, Spottswoode joined 1% for the Planet, donating 1% of its gross revenues each year to environmental causes. Three years later, Beth and her mother were honorary chairs of Auction Napa Valley, which raised more than $8,5M for causes such as children’s education and health care.
“We’re right here,” Milliken says of the winery’s proximity to St. Helena. “So we always viewed ourselves as neighbors and a part of this community and we’ve gone to the public schools here. We’re about optimizing profit rather than maximizing. So the distinction there, which is very real is that we want to take care of our place, obviously, but also our people, which means our employees, my coworkers, and then also our community.
“To me, it’s a moral obligation that we all have, and with climate change and all that, where we are and what’s going on. We feel that deeply and, so we’re doing everything [we can]. It’s absolutely part of our core.”
Spottswoode Estate House – photo by Thomas Heinser