Katie Griesbeck '96: Love at First Sip

"I think my time in France, which is what I credit for my love of wines, ties back to taking French classes at Hutchison,” Katie Griesbeck ’96 said. “We started French in junior kindergarten and took classes until about sixth grade. I elected to pick it back up when I was in high school, and it set me up to be a Francophile for life. I loved the language, and that’s what inspired me to go to the Burgundy region of France when I was in college."
Griesbeck related this story in one of the sleek tasting rooms at Cakebread Cellars, where she offered a glass of the brand’s cabernet. The winery is situated in Rutherford, California, the geographic heart of Napa Valley, and she serves as the company’s vice president of sales and marketing. Cakebread’s architecturally gorgeous visitor center is a mixture of rustic modernity and a touch of sci-fi—the center is clad primarily in reclaimed redwood wine tank staves that emanate calmness, while futuristic-looking concrete eggs filled with wine lurk in the fermentation halls and can be seen from the tasting rooms.

But back to her semester abroad in France more than 20 years ago. “I studied in a little town called Dijon, and I lived with a French family there. I won the lottery of French host families because my host father was a wine aficionado. They had the cave or wine cellar down in the basement of the house. Each night we would walk the steps down to the cellar and discuss, en français, what wine to pair with dinner. He was also a professor at the Université de Bourgogne where I was taking my classes. He taught economics classes, which I had little interest in at the time, and he would do a special class just for our Wake Forest group of students. One night a week we had an econ class, all in French. The next night he led a wine class. He drove me back to the house at night, and he said I was a lot more talkative after wine class than I was after econ class."

“I think that was a telltale sign of where my passions were and what my profession should be. It was kind of love at first sip.”

The Road to Wine Country
Griesbeck’s path wasn’t straight from France to Napa Valley, though. After graduating Wake Forest University in 2000, Griesbeck moved to Washington, D.C., and worked in public relations and corporate communications in the technology industry for about seven years, most notably at AOL.

“The passion for wine was still there,” she admitted. “On weekends, I would go out to the Virginia wineries for tastings and participate however I could. There was one winery that hired volunteers to help harvest the grapes each year, and I would always volunteer early in the morning to go do that. It is hard work harvesting grapes. It gives me great respect for all of our teams out in the vineyards here at Napa.”

She said she took wine courses to build her knowledge, and then started teaching wine classes to groups like the Junior League of Washington and others. She served on a steering committee of a non-profit organization in D.C. dedicated to wine education. She even did some freelance marketing work for a champagne importer. “All signs pointed to that being my passion, and I had to make it happen,” she said.

Griesbeck then decided to return to school for an MBA at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “I wrote my application for UVA saying that upon graduation I wanted to get into the wine business.” She kept true to her promise. She interned with E. & J. Gallo Winery, the largest family-owned winery in the United States, founded by brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo. After graduating UVA, she joined Gallo full time in Modesto, California, and worked there almost seven years as a marketing and brand manager for several different brands. While there, she helped launch the popular Apothic wine brand.

After Gallo, she moved north to San Francisco to work at Constellation Brands, a beer, wine, and spirits company. She admitted, though, that she had always had a soft spot in her heart for Cakebread Cellars. “I made my first trip to Napa as a tourist in the early 2000s. I was still living in D.C. and came with a group of friends. The first winery I ever visited was Cakebread.”

She later ran into Jack Cakebread, the winery’s founder, during business school when she attended a program called Cakebread University, which was intended for MBA students who were curious about the wine business. Her meeting must have left an impression, because when she was working at Constellation Brands, she received a call about the opportunity to lead the sales and marketing at Cakebread.

“I said, ‘I’m in.’ I am a firm believer that all things happen for a reason if you put yourself out there and allow it to happen. It’s just being open to those opportunities when they come 
your way.”

Griesbeck is now part of the winery’s executive team, which includes the CEO, CFO, the vice president of operations, a winemaker, a vineyard director, and her role.

A Thirst … for Knowledge
Griesbeck said one of the more valuable things she has learned as she goes further in her career is to listen and observe to find the right answers.

She calls it a thirst for knowledge. “Understanding how to listen and surround yourself with people from whom you can learn is important. The other part is finding what subject draws you in and will continue to inspire and motivate you. It boils down to having the passion for what you’re working in. If your heart’s not in it, you won’t be successful.

“The intoxicating part of wine is the fact that you will never know it all,” she admitted. “It’s a lifelong quest for knowledge, and that is what I think inspires a lot of us to keep with it. You learn something every day, you learn something in every glass, but you still have an infinite world to discover.”

It is a good thing Griesbeck has a passion for her work, because the wine and alcohol industry is saturated with competition and a variety of new categories, such as hard seltzer. While Cakebread was early on the scene in California—it was founded in 1972 and is the 38th bonded winery in Napa—these days, there are approximately 1,500 wineries in the region. That makes Griesbeck’s job challenging, to say the least, but she relishes the challenge.

“When I am wearing my marketing hat, I’m thinking about two things: one is how to drive visitors here to the winery itself. For a lot of folks, their relationship with the Cakebread brand begins by visiting us on location. As much as I want that, I also have to think about those people who never will come to the winery. How do I build the brand, create that awareness, and foster that connection to our wines out in the marketplace?”

An additional challenge, she said, is that baby boomers, who drove the success of the wine business in previous years, are starting to drink less. “It’s now finding a voice and starting to resonate with younger generations.”

One of the ways she accomplishes that is by being focused on digital platforms. “That’s something that’s near and dear to my heart, since I worked in tech before and at AOL,” she said. “The first brand that I managed for Gallo was Barefoot Wine. It is a different proposition than Cakebread wine, but I was able to really dig into the digital space, and Barefoot was kind of a pioneer for wine brands getting into that. Technology and the digital revolution have been a great thing for wine, and, in a way, it’s helped me bridge the two sides of my career.”

Staying Connected to Hutchison
Living in California makes it difficult to stay connected to Hutchison, but for Griesbeck, it’s not for a lack of trying. She has been active on the National Alumnae Board (NAB) for years, and just this summer volunteered to mentor senior Maya Risch. Because of the pandemic, the mentorship took place virtually.

“There’s the obvious reason of wanting to give back to a community that gave so much to me,” she said about staying connected to Hutchison. “I went to Hutchison for 14 years. My childhood is synonymous with Hutchison. If I can do any part of being able to help a new generation of Hutchison students in any way, I am happy to do so,” she said. “It also helps me keep in touch with a community that has meant so much to me. Additionally, I am just wowed by what Hutchison has evolved into today—the facilities, the curriculum, the areas to explore. It’s nothing short of amazing.”

She gives credit for who she is to Hutchison. “There was an opportunity to learn and grow in an environment that encourages you to find your voice. There is something to be said for this all-girls environment where your confidence is built up and you are able to find subject matters that inspire you. My education at Hutchison set me up for thinking more independently and being confident in expressing my voice. I don’t know that I would have had that same experience somewhere else.”

She admits that she does not feel challenged being a woman in the business world. “l am not blind to the world that we live in, but growing up in an environment like Hutchison is very empowering. Each professional challenge I have faced, I haven’t thought at all about my gender. I’ve thought more about: do I have what it takes to be the best I can possibly be, or to be the best candidate for the job, or to make the best decision, or to challenge other points of view? I grew up in this mindset that it doesn’t necessarily matter if I’m male or female, it’s just do I have the will within me?”

She said she often tells her parents how thankful she is for the gift of her education, and how important it is to create a mindset that learning is important and a joy.

“If I said I had my career planned out, I would be lying. I feel like I have to keep the door open to see where it is going to lead me. I do think that ultimately an end-all goal is to be the CEO of a winery like Cakebread. It’s the business side that I find fascinating, and in navigating some of those challenges out in the marketplace today.”

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