The Path A College Grad Took To a Career in Wine

This is part of a continuing series of Q&As with members of the American wine community from across the United States. Vintner Magazine will share business and personal insights from winery owners, vintners, marketing managers, sales directors, QCQA staff and others to help you get to know each other better in the industry and learn more to better develop your own brand.

Cole Stauffenegger, a team member at Balletto Vineyards in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley AVA, was recently promoted to Assistant Tasting Room and Shipping Manager.

Stauffenegger, who holds a degree in Wine Business from Sonoma State University, spoke with Vintner Magazine about how he got his start in wine, why promoting from within is valuable, why he loves the Russian River Valley AVA, and why getting a wine-specific education is worthwhile.

VINTNER: You’ve graduated with a degree in Wine Business, so it’s clear that you’ve chosen the wine industry as a career path. What are your career goals?
STAUFFENEGGER: As of now my goal is to stick with Balletto because I love working here and this year marks Balletto’s 20th anniversary. The people are great, the wine is great, and the culture the Balletto’s have been able to establish is hard to find and fun to be around. My more long-term goal is to eventually go and work for my family who started a French wine importing and distributing company. 

VINTNER: What led you to decide to pursue a degree in Wine Business? What was the curriculum like and what special core classes and electives did you take en route to a degree?
STAUFFENEGGER: With my dad being a sommelier from France, and having started a French wine importing and distributing company, and my mom graduating from the Cordon Bleu in Paris, I was always surrounded by wine. Growing up, I was lucky enough to see different facets of the industry, from visiting wineries with my family to seeing how my parents company operated on a day-to-day basis. So, when it came time to decide what I wanted to pursue, I knew wine was my passion and saw that Sonoma State University was now offering a Wine Business Degree which was exactly what I was looking for. So, it was an easy decision to attend SSU, and I am very happy I did because I learned so much from the curriculum. Once I became an upper classman, I got to take classes like intro to wine business, wine marketing, production, operations, and distribution of wine and of course the internship in wine business which led me to Balletto. In these classes I not only got to learn all about the different aspects of the industry, I even got to taste wine in class with extremely knowledgeable teachers and learn how to dissect wines when tasting them. This was a one-of-a-kind experience, that I will remember and hold on to for the rest of my life. 

VINTNER: Balletto clearly promotes from within, which is definitely something we like to see. What sort of support/training did they give you when you started, and how have they helped you advance your career
STAUFFENEGGER: Well, when I started, I came on as an intern, so I worked closely with Jacqueline Balletto, who was the Tasting Room Manager at the time. Each day I came in she would have some sort of project for me to do, like run various reports, make calls to customers, or help with shipping, and she would train me on how to do each one or have another experienced employee show me. This is where I really got to learn the ins and outs of Balletto and meet the tasting room team. Everybody was very supportive and fun to work with so it made coming in to do my hours fun for me and helped me understand how everything operates. From there, I started to pick up more and more each day I came in and enjoyed everything I did. So once I had completed the hours needed for my internship, I asked Jacqueline if I could continue working at Balletto, and she said we’d be happy to have you. It wasn’t long after that she offered me a full-time job as a Tasting Room lead. This would be my first full-time job, and I got it coming right out of college so I was pretty excited about it! I can’t thank the Balletto’s enough for the opportunity they gave me.

VINTNER: What are some examples of routine problems that present themselves in a tasting room that need solving? When these problems have popped up, how have you solved them?
STAUFFENEGGER: Well during COVID times, the routine problems have changed a bit. For example, now we have a reservation system for tastings, where before we did not require reservations for people to come and taste. So almost every day we have someone come to the winery and ask if they can do a tasting without having made a reservation. Now we don’t like to turn anybody away at Balletto, so in order to solve this I will always check to see if we have any tables available for tastings, and if we do then I will promptly get the table ready for the tasting and then seat the group. If we do not have any available tables for tasting because it’s too busy, then I offer doing wine by the glass or wine by the bottle, and we always reserve a couple areas for that just in case. This has proven to work more often than not and people always appreciate being accommodated. 

Another issue that arises often has to do with our inventory. At Balletto, we do everything in house, so there is a lot of wine on the property to keep track of. And at the end of every day, we count what we have to make sure it is accurate compared to the wine we sold that day. Naturally nobody is perfect, so whether it be a miscount, or a loose bottle hanging around, discrepancies arise but we always work as a team to solve it and make sure our inventory is accurate at the end of each day. 

VINTNER: What is it you like most about Russian River Valley wines
STAUFFENEGGER: I think what I like most about Russian River Valley wines is how good the quality is at such reasonable prices. There are so many great wineries in this appellation that make award winning wines, but as a recent college graduate I am not trying to break the bank for a couple bottles of decent wine, so it’s awesome being in a place where you can get really great wines at affordable prices. And with Balletto making 100% Estate Grown & Bottled wines, we truly are a prime example of that and that is another reason why I love working here.

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