By Heather Wood Rudulph
Delia Viader has been making some of the world’s top-rated wine for more than 30 years. She broke barriers as one of the first women winemakers and owners in the Napa Valley, overcame near-bankruptcy and managed to reinvent her business—all while raising four children on her own. Viader’s independent spirit and never-quit attitude have made her a well-respected icon in the small, insular Napa community. But 12 years ago, she nearly lost it all.
Viader Vineyards & Winery is a little piece of paradise perched atop Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley. To get there, you drive past some of the most iconic wineries in California—Mondavi, Beaulieu, Beringer—with their acres upon acres of vineyards, stoic stone entryways and tasting rooms buzzing with tourists.
Viader does not boast of its presence with giant arches of vines, towering statues or even a sign. In fact, if you’re not paying close attention as you wind up the steep incline of Deer Park Road, you might just miss it.
The entire property consists of a small office, a tasting room and Viader’s private residence. The buildings are connected by gravel paths lined with manzanitas and moss-covered rocks, which in the summer are teeming with rattlesnakes. The winemaker’s Dalmatian, Lady, roams the land, greeting guests with soft nuzzles. Viader Vineyards looks more like a quaint B&B than the site that produces some of the best-ranked cabernet blends in the world. It’s fitting, though, since Viader has spent her career growing success from unconvention.
In the early 1980s, she came to the U.S. as a postgraduate student (she holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Sorbonne) to study advanced business at MIT, UC Davis and UC Berkeley. During her time in Northern California she fell in love with the Napa Valley and decided to settle her family here. Today the wine industry is brimming with talented, successful female entrepreneurs who consistently produce award-winning vintages. But in 1986, the year she founded her winery with a loan from her father, an Argentinian diplomat, Viader—who was just 25 and had four young children—stuck out like a sore thumb.
“People didn’t know where to put me. And there were certainly not a lot of women who owned their own wineries,” Viader says. “I would go to grape-growers’ meetings and hear people saying, What is she doing up on that hill?”
Viader sits with excellent posture, folding her hands on her lap. She speaks softly and pauses often to consider just the right words, her subtle accent hinting at her multilingualism.
“In the beginning everybody said, ‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ And of course I didn’t,” says Viader, who admits that her father expressed disappointment that his only daughter wanted to apply her advanced education to a career he equated to “farming.” “But I fell in love with this beautiful community. As a single mom, the most important part was that my children would be with me 24/7, and I would be able to provide for them, particularly for my oldest son, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. Everything else I knew I could figure out.”
Viader’s confidence, particularly in the face of skepticism, has been her greatest asset in a career that spans more than three decades. Viader raised eyebrows as soon as she started planting her vineyards. Inspired by the European wine regions of her childhood, Viader insisted on planting her grapes up and down the side of the mountain. This technique, which betrays the American standard of cutting terraces into the land, actually creates the ideal environment for cabernet grapes. The volcanic soil provides nutrients and retains heat, essentially creating an incubator for the low-lying vines. The west-facing sun exposure protects the bunches, while allowing for the longest daytime exposure because the incline of the mountain follows the sun’s path.
“Again, they thought I was crazy. But first they criticize you, then they copy you,” says Viader with a wink, referencing the many mimics who have duplicated her pioneering technique. “That’s the best form of a compliment.”
By 1999, Viader was exporting her wines to more than 23 countries worldwide. She had just purchased a small vineyard in the Bulgari region of Tuscany, envisioning her retirement in a small European village, and handing the Viader estate over to her children. In 2000, Wine Spectator named Viader’s 1997 vintage blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc—only her ninth in production—as the second-best wine in the world. In 2001, Viader’s 1998 vintage was named number three, and Viader was the only California winery to make it to the Top 100. The blend, nicknamed “Liquid Cashmere,” then retailed for $65. Today one bottle costs $160.
Viader was at the top of her game, and her children were happily away at college or just beginning their own careers. Her dream, it seems, had come to fruition. A freak disaster changed everything.
On October 12, 2005, an arsonist set ablaze the storage facility in Vallejo that housed Viader’s entire 2003 vintage. All 84,000 bottles, valued at around $4.5 million, were destroyed. The whole drama was turned into the gripping New York Times bestselling book, Tangled Vines, written by Berkeley author Frances Dinkelspiel.
Viader had already sold most of the vintage to restaurants around the world. Before she could even think about an insurance payout—and due to a loophole in her policy she was only covered for up to $500,000—she had to figure out how to pay her clients back.
When Viader heard about the fire she was on her way to a dinner with the president of a bank. Wasting not a second to worry or wallow, she pulled the banker aside and asked for a $1 million bridge loan.
“Everything that we had was up in smoke from that vintage. You can’t replicate the season in 2003, or any season,” Viader says. “I can’t go to restaurants, which were awaiting my wine, and say, Please hold my place for next year. It cannot happen. Building those relationships one account at a time took 20 years. It all went down the tubes.”
The process of making wine is slow. It can take up to seven years for a vineyard to turn a profit. To produce even one vintage, it takes a year to grow and harvest the grapes, months more to process them, and then the wine has to age—anywhere from four to 30 years. Viader’s only option was to completely transform her business strategy. Abandoning the international network she had cultivated over two decades, Viader switched to a direct-to-consumer model, which allowed for an immediate revenue stream.
“I went right to work because that’s my temperament,” she recalls. “I had to go into fast, furious mode, thinking ‘worst-case scenario.’ I still needed to put food on the table. I was still supporting my children, paying for college, and it was very heavy on me that my employees depended on me.”
She sold her property in Tuscany and asked a close friend for a personal loan to supplement the bridge loan. “I am not the type of person to ask for help unless I’m practically dying,” says Viader, who still has trouble talking about this time almost 12 years later. “It was very hard for me. But I knew there wasn’t any other way.”
In 2005, selling wine online was fraught with many roadblocks. Technology hadn’t figured out how to safely ensure that only legal adults could purchase the alcohol. So Viader started reaching out to friends and clients personally. She leaned heavily on her son, Alan, who had been honing his craft as a winemaker since 2002, and recruited her daughter, Janet, fresh out of college, to head up marketing and sales, and to help spread the story of their family business. Viader turned her guest house into a tasting room that offers exclusive, appointment-only tastings, and started advertising unique experiences like tours of the caves carved into the hillside beneath her property where all of her wine is now stored and manufactured. (No more storage facilities.) In a year, she was able to pay back her friend’s personal loan, but Viader says it took a decade to recover completely.
“I wasn’t going to give up so easily,” she says. “I couldn’t let the voices in the back of my head conquer. I knew I had to stick to my vision and trust my gut. Failing was not an option.”
When asked how she managed to stay so positive in the face of life-altering tragedy, Viader grows quiet and tears up a little. She has a friend to thank. “Margrit Mondavi was my mentor and best friend,” she says. “Her truthful advice was always, ‘Have something to look forward to.’ She was a huge influence on me in terms of just loving life.”
As visitors mill about the tasting room, Viader takes a moment to admire the swelling vines. “This little piece of heaven is for my children, who I hope will love and embrace it as I have,” she muses. “Maybe my granddaughter will take over someday, putting her mark on our legacy.”