“I’ve had about zillion jobs,” joked Bonnie Zimmermann. To name a few: runway model, magician’s assistant, actor, entertainment industry and special events producer and, most recently, “wine person.”
Her current position is tasting room and retail services manager at Rutherford Grove Winery & Vineyards.
“I’m really happy here,” Zimmermann said. “I like the vibe, the wines are fabulous, and I couldn’t work for a nicer group of people.”
What was your first job?
At 17 years old, I worked as a runway model at a high-end tea room in downtown Milwaukee for an evening-gown designer.
What’s the worst job you ever had?
Magician’s assistant. It’s the worst job in the world. Not only was the act terrible (but) I also had to perform a dance accompanied by the magician playing the musical saw. I was so embarrassed that I wore a wig to hide my identity.
How did you get into this business?
After 18 years in Los Angeles as a producer in the entertainment industry, I came to Napa in 1994 to consult on a project and never went back. To me, learning a new business is like learning a new language, so I did every winery job I could, including tasting room, cellar work, brand manager and sales. I eventually managed a small family winery, and worked at some of the best wineries in Rutherford. I was blessed to find a home with Rutherford Grove and the Pestoni family.
With whom did you work in Los Angeles?
Carlos Santana, Crosby, Stills & Nash. I worked with the Who. Steven Seagal. Different Nobel laureates.
What’s something people might be surprised to know about you?
I’ve been working with parrots in the wild since 2002, in both the Peruvian Amazon and Eastern Indonesia. As director of eco-tourism for the Indonesian Parrot Project, I have led six eco-expeditions to the Molucca Islands and West Papua. These trips are definitely “extreme travel” but directly benefit the local economy in many small villages across the archipelago.
Currently, we are conducting field research on the rarest cockatoo in the world, the Abbott’s cockatoo on Masakambing Island. There are only 10 individuals left in the world. We are planning to lead a trip to the island in fall 2013.
What is the biggest challenge your business has faced?
Although wineries are driven by sales and scores, it is easy to devalue the experience by couponing and Grouponing. In my experience, two-for-one cards, complimentary tastings and special e-deals do not bring in the serious wine consumer. Rutherford Grove Winery has made the decision to elevate the customer experience and bring them into the family. If guests purchase a certain amount of wine we waive the tasting fees. As a small family-owned estate winery, we have worked hard to reinforce our brand strategy focusing on five generations of farming in Napa Valley, artisanal winemaking and sustainability.
If you had to write the story of your life, what would you name the book?
“Nunnery of the Avant-Garde.” I grew up in a very strict household. Once I left, I went pretty wild.
What’s your advice to someone who wants to get into your industry?
Be patient. Listen. Try and learn all aspects of the wine business, because then when you talk about it people can feel your passion. And by all means, be kind to people.
Where do you go from here?
What I would really like to do at this winery is help them make money but also create a really special experience here. This is a diamond in the rough.
Which other business person(s) would you like to see featured in “10 Questions for…”
Richard Hurwitz, retail services manager, Chimney Rock Winery.
Christina Julian, freelance wine writer.
Robert Battaile, media producer and wine educator.
More from Zimmermann
What is it that you like about wine?
I like the fact that it’s alive and it’s a tool that brings people together.
What’s new at your business?
All of the family history — photos to 1882 and maps and paraphernalia from the wine business — (is now displayed in) the tasting room and throughout the property. The Pestoni family has been in the valley since 1882.
What’s on your to-do list?
Create a strong, multicultural, generational theater arts program in Napa.
Return to France and Italy to visit the wine country.
If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?
Whom do you most admire in the business world?
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
What is one thing you hope to accomplish in your lifetime that you haven’t yet?
Completing the small office on the back of my home. It’s taking so long it’s embarrassing.
What was your childhood ambition?
To be an archaeologist.
If you could be anywhere right now, where would you be?
Rappelling down from our 160-foot rainforest canopy platform at dusk on the island of Seram while surrounded by hundreds of thousands of fireflies. It’s life-changing.
Which three people would you most like to have dinner with ?
Jane Goodall, Aung San Suu Kyi and T.E. Lawrence.
What job would you like to try/not like to try?
Try: Airline pilot.
Not try: President of the United States.
If you could change one thing about your business, what would it be?
Better communication between owners, upper management and winery personnel. We need to respect and empower all employees to do the best job that they can. That can only be achieved by open dialogues, education, incentives and making each member of the team feel proud of the winery and the wines. The tasting room is the face of the winery and the employees should not be undervalued. They provide the first impression a visitor has when they visit the Napa Valley and are the people who do generate sales, wine clubs and repeat customers. Realistically, the bottom line in the wine business is to sell wine; however, since we offer world-class wines, we need to provide world-class service.
Reach Zimmermann at firstname.lastname@example.org or 963-0544.