Mary Cervantes

Mary Cervantes is a columnist for the Napa Valley Register.

She may feel like a minnow in a sea of wine producers, but Susan McNerney has a big heart when it comes to charities for children. It was a children’s charity in Alabama that changed the trajectory of Susan and Bob McNerney’s wine business.

In 1999, Bob and Susan McNerney purchased two acres of land east of Napa in the Coombsville appellation. Being food and wine enthusiasts, they planted an acre of Cabernet Sauvignon vines in 2002 with the intent to grow and sell their grapes.

After harvesting one and a half ton of grapes in 2005, there was a glut of grapes on the market that year and no one was buying excess fruit.

Consequently, Bob and Susan decided to make wine. They enrolled in the Napa Valley College Viticulture program and learned all they could from Dr. Stephen Krebs, head of the Viticulture program at the time. Thus Le Chanceux was born.

Working in their vineyard every weekend and making wine became a labor of love for Bob and Susan.

They shared a dream of one day having a little niche business for when Bob retired. But the dream took a turn when in January of 2010, Bob was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and passed away six months later. Though the dream had changed, Susan knew she had to go forward. Not having any business background, Susan decided to attend NxLevel Entrepreneur Training through the Napa Sonoma Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Napa Valley College.

“Without NxLevel I don’t think I would have known how to go forward. I was not a business woman. I’m like a minnow in a sea of wine producers. When Bob died I had 200 cases of 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages,” said Susan. “Let’s take that dream and make it work another way. The class helped define how you have to do business.”

Susan’s business plan focused on starting a wine club, but she soon realized you have to become known in order for people to want to buy your wine.

Through friends, Susan was invited to pour Le Chanceux at a fundraising n event for a private school for children with autism in Birmingham, Alabama. She sold seven cases of Le Chanceux that evening. Another charitable event led to another until Susan realized maybe this is what she was supposed to do.

“There was a live auction and they paired three nights stay in my guest house, two bottles of Le Chanceux, a barrel tasting and lunch. It went for $8,000. I gave a little piece of something and it helped in a much bigger way,” said Susan.

The minnow found her niche in a sea of wine producers! To read more about Susan’s journey and her Wine and Vine clubs, go to le-chanceux.com

If you want to know more about the NxLevel, the Napa-Sonoma SBDC is offering free NxLeveL Orientations on Sept.10 and 17. To reserve your seat, call 707-256-7250 or go to napasonomasbdc.org

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Mary Cervantes is the business services director for Napa Valley College Napa-Sonoma Small Business Development Center. Reach her at 256-7253 or mcervantes@napavalley.edu