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Taking a Stand with Wine as a Conduit for Change: a Q&A with Jill Osur at Teneral Cellars

Today, customers expect brands to stand up and tell them what they stand for. In fact, 70% of consumers insist brands take a stand for issues they care about (SproutSocial).

In our recent spotlight, we had the pleasure of meeting with Jill Osur, CEO and President of Teneral Cellars, to discuss her journey in the wine industry and philosophy behind this brand.

Jill prioritizes taking a stand and isn’t afraid to disrupt. Teneral Cellars aims to fulfill her personal mission of harnessing the power of business for good by using wine as a conduit for change. Jill is on a mission to reshape the wine industry to reflect its largest customer segment: women.

What did your journey into the wine industry look like?

In college, I played softball at the University of California Berkeley. When I went up to Berkeley, it was the first time I was really close to Napa. Napa and wine always seemed to be a big part of conversations during my time there.

Following my days as a competitive athlete, I got involved in politics. There was wine at every event. I loved how wine was the connector that opened up important conversations and led to positive outcomes.

Soon after, I got involved with the Special Olympics board where I met two winery owners from the Carmel area. As experienced wine drinkers, they guided me on how to create an amazing wine journey for myself. Instead of just going with what the ratings were, they helped me discover and distinguish my palate.

Then I started my venture with Ellen Tauscher, who also loved wine. Owning a winery had always been on my vision board.

I also got involved with a partner who took the largest nut company in the world public in the UK. He understood finance and law and I understood marketing and sales. When the economy crashed in 2008, he saw an opportunity in the wine distribution space to create something for small sized companies. Only 3% of wineries make over 50,000 cases a year, leaving a huge gap between the other 97% of small wineries. We were creating great results for our customers, but after we grew them from 200 to 10,000 cases, they would decide to partner with larger companies. We realized this wasn’t an issue we could control.

We bought our first winery in 2015. Then, we looked at every region in California, and El Dorado County just kept screaming at us for a multitude of reasons: there are no production or water restrictions, the dirt is equally as good as Napa, and the cost of land and labor are less. So, we decided to make it our home. We have multiple tasting rooms in this area: Myka Estates, 1850 Wine Cellars, and Mediterranean Vineyards.

Even though we were the fastest growing wine company in El Dorado County, following the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, I found myself stuck in my home office asking myself, “What am I doing as a leader in the wine industry to be part of the solutions that I want to see?”. So, I started doing research on women in the wine industry. I found that only ten percent of winemakers are female, only 0.1% winemakers are black men and women, and many female sommeliers are still only making 70 cents on the male dollar. Yes– there are women in tasting rooms, but when you look at the industry as a whole there are very few women in leadership positions, and even fewer women of color. The industry doesn’t reflect its largest customer with almost 70% of wine being purchased by women.

. . . when you look at the industry as a whole there are very few women in leadership positions, and even fewer women of color. The industry doesn’t reflect its largest customer with almost 70% of wine being purchased by women.

Growing up in a Jewish family, we were taught “Tikkun Olam”– repair the world, but before you repair the world you have to repair your community, and before you repair your community you have to repair your family. I know I was put on this earth to use my voice. So, I realized how tamed I had become in an industry that’s steeped in the tradition of being dominated by men. On most days, I was leaving the best part of myself at the door. I realized I wanted to harness the power of business for good and use wine as a conduit for change, so I left my previous company to start Teneral Cellars.

After giving myself permission, Teneral Cellars came pouring out of me. Our dragonfly logo represents the transformation of equity and equality I want to see in the wine industry and the world.

“Teneral” is when a dragonfly comes out of its cast. During this time the dragonfly can’t fly, its wings are colorless, and it’s in its most vulnerable state. Within a few days, its wings develop their full colors, and the dragonfly spreads its wings and takes off with amazing power, grit, and grace. That process symbolizes all women to me. We all have that same power, grit, and grace within us. As women, we have to claim that power, spread our wings, take off, and fly.

I was that vulnerable dragonfly. I was an owner of a wine company where I left the best part of myself at the door on most days. At Teneral, we are a certified women owned company and we are committed to using wine as a conduit for change. All of our wines are sustainably farmed and produced and we give back 10% of profits to charities that empower women and fight for gender and racial justice. My hope is that when you open the box of Teneral Cellars wine, we educate you, give you conversation starters, and give you tangible actions to take. Taking tangible actions towards change everyday will create a cumulative effect, a “dragonfly effect”, that will create that transformation that needs to happen.

When women gather, wine flows. Teneral Cellars is the best of bringing my personal and professional mission together to elevate women and inspire change by using wine as a connector because there is more disconnect in this country than ever. I feel that wine can be the conduit for the positive change that we need to see in the world.

What sets Teneral Cellars apart from others?

We take very bold stances. When I was involved in the Special Olympics, I specialized in cause related marketing. I executed the second national cause marketing campaign behind Feed the Children. Still to this day, 70% of consumers expect companies to take a stand on the issues they care about because they don’t have faith that the government is going to address those issues.

We take strong stances with our releases to make a difference by fighting for equality. Our current release, The Ruthless Collection, advocates for women’s fundamental rights– voting rights, reproductive rights, and teaching people to vote with their dollars. We give people the facts and remove politics from the dialogue so people can come together to have healthy discussions.

We support organizations such as Supermajority, which focuses on voting rights and getting women into power. When women are elected they tend to care about all of the important social issues in the world. We also support the National Network of Abortion Funds. Again, taking a very strong stance.

In wholesale we will use our dragonfly logo, but on our club releases we have different art on every label that’s designed by women. We pull in different female sommeliers. Supporting women feels right to me. I don’t mind doing something on the edge, being bold, and being ruthless. That’s what this industry needs right now.

Our entire team is female. One of the other differentiators is that all of our vendors and suppliers are women or minority owned businesses. There’s a study we highlighted in one of our recent releases, 208 Disrupt Now. “208” came from the Global Economic Forum study that says even though we have never been more motivated to fight for equality, if we don’t do things disruptively differently, then it will still take 208 years in this country to reach full equality. Add equity in there, and I’m sure that number is bigger. Add what happened with overturning Roe v. Wade, and I’m sure that number is bigger. I don’t want to have 50% of my vendors be woman owned because that won’t move the needle at all. For me, disruption is hiring 100% women or minority owned businesses. The people we work with are amazing, and that is a huge differentiator that I am really proud of.

What is the hardest thing about your role?

I understand my palate, but as a marketer I know that my palate isn’t everyone’s palate. When I started Teneral Cellars, I wanted to remove the pretentiousness around wine. While I love my wine journey, I remember vividly going to Napa and feeling incredibly intimidated at first. I don’t want people to be intimidated and guided by a wine score. My palate isn’t necessarily Robert Parker’s palate, and as a woman who’s almost 55 years old and in my menopausal years I don’t need a 15% alcohol wine. To us, it’s important to create wines to fit the unique palates of our majority women audience. Tastry certainly helps us with that. The more data we have, the more we’re changing the direction we go in wine. It’s important that we listen to feedback and create wines that taste great, are sustainably farmed and produced, and also fit the needs of our community.

To us, it’s important to create wines to fit the unique palates of our majority women audience. Tastry certainly helps us with that. The more data we have, the more we’re changing the direction we go in wine. It’s important that we listen to feedback and create wines that taste great, are sustainably farmed and produced, and also fit the needs of our community.

What is the most rewarding part of your career?

Teneral Cellars allows me to merge my personal and professional mission of elevating and empowering women by using wine as a conduit for change. I love hosting our wine experiences because a lot of them are held around our quarterly releases which generates a lot of engaging conversations. We do a diversity, equity, and inclusion wine experience with one of our team members that is trained in DEI. Watching corporations and teams open up, become closer, and understand their conscious and unconscious biases gets me on such a high knowing that we are building a great business while doing good in the world.

When I wake up in the morning, I want to know how I’m going to make the world a better place, and I have been able to create this brand to help me do that. What I’m most excited about in the future is making an impact on the wine industry and showing how conscious and intentional change in the industry can be made.

One thing people cannot stop us from doing is voting with our dollars. When I ask someone to join our wine club, The Swarm, and they say they are already involved in too many wine clubs, I say “Well, how many of them are women owned and run, sustainably farmed, produce award winning wine, and give 10% back to charities that empower women and fight for gender and racial justice?” When women are conscious and intentional about where their money goes as the majority in this country, we can shift millions of dollars in an instant in the economy.

Nobody can take voting with our dollar away from us. They can try to take everything else away from us, but they can’t take our wallet. If women across this country all collectively decide to only purchase products from women owned companies, that would be billions of dollars going through the economy contributing to the success of women. When women do better, everyone does better.

How have you incorporated modern technology into your company? If so, what results have you seen?

We started in COVID during October 2020 as a digitally native vertical brand, so we immediately were embracing technology in the fullest capacity. During the first 8 weeks of COVID, there was more growth in online wine sales than there had been in the previous 8 years. We fully embraced being a fully direct to consumer company that could deliver great wine and produce content that would create a better community and world. We love technology. Being able to deliver wines and tools to have an amazing gathering while using wine as a conduit for change has been great.

The other thing we have incorporated has been bringing Tastry onboard. Understanding the unique palates of our audience allows us to deliver the best wines to the broadest group of our community.

Understanding the unique palates of our audience allows us to deliver the best wines to the broadest group of our community.

I find it amusing when I tell other winemakers about Tastry, they think they know it all. They don’t. Because your palate is your palate. It’s important to understand that everyone’s palates are different. Using Tastry data helps plan the future wines that you’re producing. Which I love, because data and knowledge are power. We can use that data and knowledge for good to build our community. The more successful we are at Teneral Cellars, the more we give back, and the more impact we make.

It’s important to understand that everyone's palates are different. Using Tastry data helps plan the future wines that you’re producing. Which I love, because data and knowledge are power. We can use that data and knowledge for good to build our community.

What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from being in the wine industry?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned on my journey is that I need to listen to my head, heart, and gut. When I do, I am in full alignment with my highest self. When you’re in full alignment, no matter how hard decisions are, you know you are on the right track.

Earlier, I was saying that I was leaving the best part of myself at the door on most days in my previous company because I was constantly trying to please others and fit into a system that wasn’t as collaborative as I was used to. Playing team sports, I’m all about collaborating, cocreating, and teamwork. During this time, I was in a chain of command environment which maybe worked 30 years ago, but it’s not very conducive to good working environments these days. I’ve learned that there are great people out there and you need to find them. Surround yourself with like minded people where you can show up as your authentic self.

I’ve also learned that as women in the industry we need to speak up and speak out, because we represent the largest consumer segment for wine. It’s not enough for women to get c-suite positions or seats on boards if they’re not going to show up as their authentic selves. At the end of the day, it’s about making sure that wherever you are in the industry you are showing up as you. We’ll be a better industry, a more representative industry when more women can show up and be their true selves everyday.

What is one piece of advice you would pass onto newer winemakers or wineries just entering the field?

Trust your gut and trust your instinct. There are a lot of egos in this industry and a lot of people that will make you feel like less than with that ego. You will take the punches and the hits, but don’t ever lose sight of what you’re feeling when you’re checking in with your head, heart, and gut. They talk about women’s intuition, not men’s intuition. It’s important not to lose yourself.

Find environments that are conducive to you growing and expressing yourself. Don’t lose sight of that. When you lose you, it’s not worth it. All of the beautiful things of the industry tend to go away when you lose sight of what you are doing.

Are there any questions that you have on your mind about today’s wine consumer that you haven’t answered yet?

I think we as consumers need to be more conscious and intentional about consumption, especially as women. We need to make sure we are in a position where we can start to demand that companies make things that are intentional for us. Not just intentionally made by men for women, but supporting other women owned wineries so that we see more representation on the shelf. Because I guarantee you right now there aren’t 70% of wines on the shelf made by women when 70% of women are buying wine.

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