Cultivating Connection

Marta Rich

Posted on March 30, 2020

Amid a health crisis that asks us to distance ourselves from other people, there has perhaps never been a better time to cherish human connection. Doing so is nothing new to Marta Rich, who has made personal connection the centerpiece of her career. Marta, along with husband and winemaker Scott Rich, oversees Talisman Wine in Sonoma County with conscious attention on the people whose glasses they fill.

“Emotional intelligence is one of the most valuable concepts that anyone can apply. It … helps us navigate our interactions and derive a mutually beneficial outcome for anything and everything that we do.”

With her fate set from an early age, Marta grew up watching her father make wine in the basement of her childhood home in Minnesota. She soon wandered West—first to Colorado, then to Napa Valley, where she spent 18 years working up the ladder at Robert Mondavi Winery. There, she gradually moved to head of the Northern California sales team. Her next stint was as director of global sales for the pioneering producer of Pinot Noir, Calera Wine Company.  Marta founded Talisman Wine with Scott Rich in 1993, and these days, happily dedicates her career to spreading the gospel of Pinot Noir.

A Talisman is a good luck charm—and luck, frankly, is something we all need lately. To sip Talisman Wine is to partake of something special—to invoke a sense of ritual, love, and good juju that can’t be faked.

Tell us who you are and what you do.

My name is Marta Rich, and I love people. I’m drawn to everyone around me and love to strike up conversations with anyone and everyone, and see where those conversations go. I’m absolutely fascinated with what makes people tick—why they do the things they do, why they say the things they say. Everyone has a zillion interesting things to chat about—their past, present, future, their dreams, ideas, regrets, jokes, anything, I love it all.

“What I do”? I try to elicit smiles from everyone I see. I love smiling at people, and they usually smile back.

Oh do you mean what do I do for work? Currently, I am fortunate to spend all of my time working for Talisman, our wonderful little winery here in Sonoma that my husband and I started in 1993.

I oversee the winery’s sales & marketing, which can mean any number of things. I am lucky to have an incredible manager overseeing the tasting room and club, who gives me lots of input and assistance on our overall direct-to-consumer business. I hired her in 2012 when we opened the tasting room, and she is a superstar. My role is more about business development, marketing, all wholesale, out-of-state business, human resources, “take this show on the road” events, strategies, and bigger-picture stuff.

ou grew up watching your dad make wine in the basement of your childhood home. Tell us more about that: Did you help? What varietals did he make? What did you learn from it all?

When my parents were first married, they lived in France while my Dad was a field service engineer working with the Air Force. They developed a huge love for wine, and my Mom learned a lot of French cooking. Shortly thereafter, they moved back to Minnesota, and I was born. Two years later, we moved to Sweden for three years. Later, while I was growing up in suburban Minneapolis, my father indeed made wine in our basement, and I indeed was expected to help.

It was fascinating! I remember sitting on a small wooden stool with a corking gizmo and a bobby pin, which we perched on the side of the bottle neck to let the air out when we shoved the cork into the bottle. Dad kept detailed records and an organized inventory. Mom made the labels by cutting and pasting pieces from all sorts of labels from wines they’d enjoyed. The wine was first called “Tailleur” (after my maiden name, Taylor) then called “Chateau Vallée D’Or” (after the town I grew up in, Golden Valley). He made several different varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Merlot, Malbec, Shiraz, Chardonnay, and even a Gooseberry “Champagne”.

Most of the wines were quite yummy! Some, well, not so much. At the dinner table, my sister and I were always served a small glass of wine, always accompanied by the words “You don’t have to like it, you just have to try it”.  By the time I left for college, I was a big fan and loved reading all manner of wine books. My passion was shared by a close friend, and together we explored many tasting events and “studied” a lot of wines on our own.

Your studies were in psychology. What were your early career aspirations? Do you feel psychology comes into play in your work today?

Yes. After numerous changes in my major, my father tapped his finger on the table and said, “Um, you can graduate anytime now…”  I had more psychology credits than anything else, and enough math credits for a minor. But seriously, this should have been the path all along (not engineering, which I had no business starting in as my first major!).

I just simply love people, as I mentioned earlier. In my sophomore year, my friend Rusty and I used to have a contest to see which of us knew more people on our way to class walking across campus. The other people had to initiate the conversation in order to count for the contest. You can see where this would go… I’d then be late for class and often decide it didn’t make sense to go at that point since I’d be late. I did, however manage to graduate!

Psychology absolutely helps in any/every life situation, every day. Emotional intelligence is one of the most valuable concepts that anyone can apply.  It involves empathy and endeavoring to understand and respect other people’s situations, challenges, needs, motivations and how things look and feel from their point of view. This helps us navigate our interactions and derive a mutually beneficial outcome for anything and everything that we do.

"Emotional intelligence is one of the most valuable concepts that anyone can apply."

When I met you ten years ago, you were traveling nonstop, leading small-scale tastings with acquaintances in their homes. You were one of the first people I met who spoke to this “roadshow” model of wine sales. Lately, others seem to be catching on. Can you speak to this highly personal approach, and why it works for Talisman?

Ten years ago life was a blurrr! I was handling all the sales for Talisman, still small at that time but growing steadily. At the same time,  I was the global sales manager for Calera, the highly acclaimed Pinot Noir winery founded by iconic winemaker Josh Jensen, with a production of 40,000 cases, sold in 45 states and 23 countries. I loved that job and met sooooo many wonderful people.

The “roadshow” model is something we started with early Talisman fans that wanted to share their Pinot Noir winery discovery with their friends. These events are a bit like the Tupperware parties of old. It works for Talisman because we don’t have a wide national public presence; we aren’t sold in any chains or grocery stores and are not advertised in wine magazines, although we are distributed in restaurants in a handful of states. So the way wine fans learn about us is mostly through their friends and colleagues.

One early home event we did that was particularly fun and successful was in Anchorage for a friend in the oil and gas industry. Alaska is full of serious wine enthusiasts with limited access to small, boutique specialty wines like Talisman. We had such a great response, and virtually everyone joined the club and are still members all these years later. Our club members are one of our most favorite and extremely valuable team of ambassadors, and we treasure them tremendously.

In this time of uncertainty, many businesses are forced to adapt quickly to a changing world. Can you tell us about a time in your career or life when you had to pivot in order to keep going?

While in college in Colorado, I had a very cool part time job with a computer company, back when computers were just taking off. They moved the company to Los Angeles and invited me to move there and work full time after I graduated. It was great …. for about eight weeks. Then a new owner embezzled all the money and left town, and I was left wondering what I should do.

I spent some time pondering my next move, until my father abruptly sat me down and pointed out that I loved wine. He suggested I make a few phone calls to folks in the wine biz and ask for their guidance. I met with a local distributor, called several (still) prominent folks in the industry here in California, and concluded, with their encouragement, that I should simply up and move to Napa Valley.

So I did! I am still astounded and grateful for my good fortune landing at Robert Mondavi during such a golden time when Robert was at the helm and the industry was so vibrant, and to spend 18 years there. It was a whirlwind and I’ve never looked back.

"I am still astounded and grateful for my good fortune landing at Robert Mondavi during such a golden time when Robert was at the helm and the industry was so vibrant, and to spend 18 years there. It was a whirlwind and I’ve never looked back."

As a small business owner, what is your best advice for working through challenging times?

Be open. Be nimble. Be creative. Be aware. Value all your relationships greatly. And ask a lot of questions.

Mentally try on different scenarios all the time in your mind; plans B, C and D, if you will. So many factors are out of our control—the weather, the economy, and good grief, who would ever have thought we’d have a pandemic that crippled the world and tanked the market in a matter of weeks?!

We each have the power and responsibility to decide how we will react to everything that comes at us and keep moving forward. Wine is such a fascinating and unique entity; there are very few other luxury products that you can only make once a year! Think of it…

What is your desert island—um, or should I say, quarantine—wine?

What I can say without hesitation is that I would want an enormous supply of Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. Those who know me well, know that I really love to have both a glass of red and a glass of white with my dinner. Seems like I should be hunkered down in the Loire, eh?