“The Work We Do” is an interview series that asks those with daydream-worthy jobs how they got where they are—and what it’s like to live a day in their shoes. Today, I’m happy to feature Rebecca Gingrass and Ruben Moreno who left their jobs to launch Soil & Vine, a California-based online wine boutique where they import and distribute organic, sustainably-grown wine that they’re passionate about.
When Rebecca and I first spoke, she mentioned that she and Ruben—who had once been sommelier and captain at The French Laundry—had quit their jobs and cashed in their savings to buy an old Peugeot and spend six months camping around Europe, searching for their wines. I had to know more. No matter what sort of business one aspires to start, it usually take an act of similar courage to take that first step. How does one do it? I found their story inspiring and I think, reading the interview, that you will as well. I hope so.
As wine importers and distributors, I imagine there’s a lot to love about what you do. What’s the best part, in your opinion?
Ruben: My favorite part is finding wines that tell stories of different places in the world. For example, if a wine is from Alsace or Champagne, I can taste that minerality. I can taste those specific characteristics that draw me to those regions. That’s one of the really special things about wine. It’s what excites me most; it’s what I’m passionate about.
Rebecca: The best part is sharing our wines with other people and getting them to be as excited about them as we are. I love the whole experience of that, because I feel confident in everything that we offer. I believe in it.
You’re the owners of a distribution company and online shop called Soil & Vine, which specializes in organic, biodynamic, and traditionally made wines. How did you get your start? Or maybe a better question is, how did you meet?
Rebecca: I grew up in San Francisco, and both my parents are chefs. I’d always known I’d work in some capacity in the restaurant world, and when I moved to Napa later on, I applied for a job at The French Laundry. When I came in to the restaurant for the first time, the first person I spoke to was Ruben, who was a Captain and Sommelier there. It turns out he brought my resume to his manager and asked him to hire me and put me on his schedule.
Shortly after, the two of you made quite a bold move — you quit your jobs, bought a Peugeot and traveled around Europe for six months, camping and tasting wines. Tell us about that. Was that a nerve-wracking thing to do?
Ruben: I had planned it for some time. I was renting out rooms in my house; I’d saved money for about two years at that point. So by the time the trip happened, I was ready to go. I wasn’t scared — I was excited. I was ready to leave and to explore.
Rebecca: Ruben had been planning the trip for a while. He’s always set goals for himself, and this trip was meant to be a sort of inspirational thing. When I decided to go with him, it was just exciting — there was nowhere to be, no one to report to. We did it on a budget, but I always felt secure. We met people we knew along the way, and we still stay in touch with the ones we met there.
When did you first have a conversation about starting your own business?
Ruben: Before the trip, I’d decided I was going to work with a colleague of mine as an importer — I was very excited about it, but it didn’t work out. One night, we were having dinner with Rebecca’s mom and her friend, and I brought it up.
Rebecca: My mom’s friend said, “Why don’t you just start your own company then?” That’s where the conversation started. Of course, it got much more complicated after that, but in general, it happened pretty organically.
Perks and pleasures aside, what would say is the hardest part of working in this industry?
Rebecca: Doing everything ourselves. Since we have to learn how to do everything from scratch, things take a long time. We had to learn how to run a website. My husband had to pick up Photoshop. There’s a learning curve involved in all of that. Of course, that’s not unique to our particular job — that’s just what comes with starting any business on your own.
Ruben: The biggest challenge for me is finding those wines that are expressive, interesting, farmed with care. I find that with most organic and biodynamic farmers, their wines tend to exhibit the kind of minerality and uniqueness and duplicity I’m looking for. But finding that — that’s a real challenge. The other is helping others relate. Many people here in the US are enamored of Napa Valley — which I love, as well — but those wines have a very intense, food-forward flavor. The wines I look for are more delicate, and take a little time to understand. They’re not quite as approachable. So it can be a process, finding that customer, relating these wines to them. But it’s just fun, overall — I love being a part of showcasing unique wine traditions.
What’s a typical day like for you these days?
Rebecca: After I get up, I’ll check email, feed the baby. I try to get some computer work done before the day really gets going — there’s a surprising amount of that to do. Running an online shop is a full-time job in itself. Then, if we have an appointment with a restaurant, I’ll help Ruben get ready. Generally, we try to work Monday through Friday, but for the past couple months, it’s been seven days a week. It’s a big adjustment, going from a full-time job to working for yourself. You have to be disciplined, so it helps to have some kind of routine.
Ruben: I don’t really have a typical day. But there are a couple things I always have to do. Our baby usually wakes us up around 5. I get up, check emails. That’s the boring part. Then I get ready for meetings: I pack my wines, do research on the restaurants I’m visiting. I look at their wine lists and their menus, and I think, are they a seasonal restaurant? Are they farm-to-table? Then, depending on that, I try to determine what might suit them best.
What do you think people would be surprised to learn about working in the wine industry? Is it as glamorous or romantic as it sounds?
Rebecca: No. There are romantic aspects to it — we get to travel and taste wines. It’s really a lifestyle. We have a lot of flexibility and our work allows us to stay at home with the baby most of the time. But there are also a lot of challenges, too. There are so many wines out there and so many restaurants — it can be difficult to get out there.
Ruben: It might surprise people to know how early I start tasting. It’s about 10 in the morning. Of course, I’m not really drinking — only tasting. Also, this sounds a little cuckoo, but when you’re dealing with organic or biodynamic wines that aren’t made with preservatives or stabilizers, there are times of year when they’re more expressive. If I taste one at any given time that’s just beautiful, I try to show that right away, when it’s at its best.
What advice would you offer to others who are interested in wine distribution?
Rebecca: Diversify. Test out a lot of different kinds of wine to see which ones people respond to and which ones they don’t. Sometimes it’s not what you think. Sometimes you will get it right, though — it’s just a process that takes some time. Start slow, start small, and build momentum from there.
How do you see the business growing in the next few years?
Ruben: In five years, I think we’ll have a couple of retail outlets — at least two. They’ll be a combination of wine bar and small shop, with prepared foods and small bites. We want you to be able to come in, sit down, have some wine, enjoy the company of your friends. We’ll make it a whole experience — we’ll have pictures, books, things that connect you to the places these wines come from. We want you to really feel their stories.
Lastly, what would you say is your fondest memory since starting Soil & Vine?
Rebecca: I think it’s the first time we had an online sale from someone we didn’t know. That was pretty cool. It’s really exciting when people try our wines in a restaurant and enjoy them enough to look up the website and seek us out.
Ruben: For me, it was the night we decided to start the business. I never thought in my mind that I’d be a wine importer. When Rebecca’s mom’s friend mentioned that we should start our own company, I thought, wow, why not? It was a big moment, to think that whatever you want to do, you can go out and just do. Things aren’t always as easy as you think— but then again, they’re not as difficult as you think, either.
P.S. See all the previous entries in The Work We Do.