One was a hip-hop artist who saw his music career falter, then found a new calling as a wine expert. Another was a telecommunications executive who turned his lifelong obsession—making pickles—into a business. The people profiled on the following pages all made a switch in their careers to follow their love for wine and food—with remarkable success. Read on to find out what inspired these life-changing decisions, and how the bold moves paid off.
Ask Michael Polenske, 45, why he decided to give up an extraordinarily successful career in finance to start Blackbird Vineyards, his Napa Valley winery, and he’ll say wryly, "Why take a vow of poverty, you mean?"
Ask him again—because it takes some work to get past that wry manner—and you get a little closer to the truth: "It was driven by personal choice. You can’t really connect deeply with people through the financial stuff."
Blackbird produces a succulent and complex, Merlot-based wine from a 10-acre vineyard south of Yountville, California, in Napa Valley’s cool Oak Knoll district. After only two vintages, the wine has garnered substantial acclaim, along with a waiting list of eager buyers. Polenske, for years a San Francisco resident, now spends much of his time in Napa Valley. "Literally, you walk out of my house’s master bedroom and you’re in the vines in 20 steps," he says. "I carve out time every day to spend in the vineyard; if I’ve got a stack of reading to do, I’ll take it to a table out there."
Polenske’s former career included stints as a high-level executive at JPMorgan and, more recently, as a managing director of the private investment firm Quellos. He juggled his careers in finance and wine for a few years after purchasing the Blackbird property in 2003, but he realized the wine world was much more compelling: "I’d go to a party, and people who had tens of millions of dollars invested with me would be asking all about the wine, not what I was doing with their money."
Polenske reflects for a moment. "It’s funny that I’m actually putting in more hours at work now than I have in years. But qualitatively, it’s definitely time well spent." —Ray Isle
Blackbird Vineyards; 707-252-4444 or www.blackbirdvineyards.com.
Lisa Schwartz kept her hands in her pockets when she bought her first goat five years ago. She was embarrassed about her smooth city-slicker hands. "It was the last time I had manicured nails," she says with a laugh.
Now she has working hands. Twice a day, they milk the dozen goats she keeps at Rainbeau Ridge, her 35-acre farm in Bedford Hills, New York, 50 miles north of Manhattan, where she crafts fresh farmstead goat cheese that’s sought by such top local chefs as Dan Barber, who uses it at the café of Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Before making this life change, the 51-year-old Schwartz spent 10 years as a management consultant and another 10 raising her children and working with nonprofit organizations. Then she and her husband, Mark, who is in finance, moved to Tokyo for four years in the late 1990s. Having only a tiny refrigerator meant daily trips to the market, which opened Schwartz’s eyes to even subtle changes in seasonal eating. She turned to food as a means of exploring Asia, visiting markets and learning from chefs and home cooks.
When her family returned to the United States, Schwartz started buying the land adjacent to her Bedford Hills farmhouse to parcel back together what was originally a gentleman’s farm and bring it back to life. After deciding to raise goats and make cheese, she spent two weeks studying cheesemaking in Châteauroux, France.
With the help of four employees, Schwartz also sells honey, eggs and organic vegetables to 50 local families that take part in a community-supported agriculture program. In addition, she holds cooking classes and gardening workshops as well as children’s programs. "Some people might question my sanity," she says. "My kids are grown and I’ve saddled myself with this? But it’s incredibly satisfying." —Elizabeth Johnson
Rainbeau Ridge; 914-234-2197 or www.rainbeauridge.com.
"When I was a kid, I’d eat a couple of pounds of pickles in one sitting," says Dave Ehreth, 57, who founded Alexander Valley Gourmet, his Sonoma, California, pickle company, two years ago. Though he grew up near San Francisco, Ehreth became addicted to the garlicky, half-sour pickles his father, a native New Yorker, introduced him to. Even as Ehreth, an engineer, worked in telecommunications and eventually started his own company, Westwave Communications, he experimented with making his own New York-style pickles. "It got my mind off the stress at work," he says.
Ehreth studied food scientist Harold McGee’s seminal book, On Food and Cooking, in addition to Russian and Jewish cookbooks to perfect his pickles, meticulously keeping notes on each batch in spreadsheets. "Look, I’m an engineer," he says with a laugh. When Ehreth sold the rights to his company’s software in 2003—"I sold it to a really big corporation, and there wasn’t a lot of personal satisfaction anymore"—he decided to turn to his lifelong passion: pickles. He and his wife, Lisa, rented a small production facility in Healdsburg, California, and built a temperature-controlled fermentation room to make two styles—a sweet-spicy bread-and-butter type, spiked with serrano chile and cumin, and a New York-style version. Today, Ehreth’s pickles are carried by many Bay Area shops as well as by Whole Foods Markets in Northern California. This spring, the line will expand to include pickled mushrooms and peppers along with sauerkraut. Ehreth probably won’t be selling this company anytime soon. —Ratha Tep
Alexander Valley Gourmet; $6.50 for 24 oz from Sonoma Chef; 707-544-2337 or www.sonomachef.com.
The trajectory from hip-hop artist to sommelier may be an unusual one, but for 40-year-old Chris Blanchard, the progression is clear. "Whether I’m selling wine or scratching records, I’ve always been an entertainer," says Blanchard, the wine director at Redd in Yountville, one of the best restaurants in California’s Napa Valley.
When rap music started moving into the mainstream, Blanchard had a moment in the spotlight. Under the name DJ Vitamix, he recorded a hit, "That’s the Way Girls Are," which made it to No. 13 on the dance charts in England in 1987. Blanchard signed with CBS Columbia, but it all came crashing down when some genius at the record company decided there was no future in rap and Blanchard’s contract was terminated.
Angry about his sudden change in fortune, Blanchard enrolled in law school with the intention of becoming a contract lawyer. To help pay his tuition, he took a job as a salesman for E & J Gallo, which gave him his first experience in the wine business. But his real epiphany came in 1996 at a barrel tasting at the Richebourg grand cru vineyard in Burgundy. "That was magic," Blanchard says. "To stand in the vineyards, meet the winemakers and taste the wine, I knew then that there would be no turning back for me."
He went on to work as a sommelier at several Bay Area and Napa Valley restaurants, including Auberge du Soleil, before winding up at Redd. He now gets the most animated when talking about wine pairings. When food and wine come together just right, "it’s like superpower twins putting their fists together," Blanchard says, referring to the Wonder Twins in the old Super Friends cartoon. "Lightning bolts fly, and the two form an entirely new, even more powerful entity all their own. I’ve experienced this exactly four times in my life, and I’m always waiting for it to happen again." —Jan Newberry
Redd, 6480 Washington St., Yountville, California; 707-944-2222 or www.reddnapavalley.com.