People

3 Wine Professionals Share Their Career Shifts

Catching up with Philana Bouvier, James Sligh, and David Keck, MS about their recent job transitions

From left to right: James Sligh (photo courtesy of Kypo Karamas), Philana Bouvier (photo courtesy of Philana Bouvier), and David Keck, MS (photo courtesy of David Keck, MS).

Many beverage professionals have found new and unexpected job opportunities amidst recent industry shake-ups, setting them on previously unforeseen professional trajectories. From cross-country moves to cross-industry shifts, many have harnessed the business and service skills they honed in previous roles to embrace new challenges. 

In this issue, SevenFifty Daily spoke with Philana Bouvier, James Sligh, and David Keck, MS, about how their career trajectories have changed over the past year, and what challenges and benefits they’ve experienced in their new roles.

Photo courtesy of Philana Bouvier.

Philana Bouvier

From vice president of fine wine, supplier business development at Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC) to president of Demeine Estates in Napa Valley

“My role now is the conductor—it’s about other people shining. I want our people and our wineries to be in the spotlight.”

Behind the Move

After working her way up distributor ranks to become the first non-family woman executive for a major alcohol distributor, Bouvier has become a vocal advocate for putting women in beverage wholesale leadership roles. But her work as the cofounder of Be The Change job fair caused her to reflect on her role: “It made me take a step back and say, ‘What more can I do?’”

She connected with Carlton McCoy Jr., MS—the managing partner of Lawrence Family Estates, for which Demeine Estates is the sales and marketing arm—and was inspired by his leadership values and the prospect of building something from the ground up. “On [the supplier] side I have an opportunity to embrace, hire, inspire, innovate, to do all the things I tried to do [in my previous role]—but you can’t do it with one person,” says Bouvier. “I have an extraordinary opportunity to lead something. I had to take the role.” McCoy offered her the job as president on March 8—International Women’s Day, coincidentally—and she started on April 1.

Biggest Challenge

Bouvier doesn’t believe in challenges—only opportunities—but she jokes that sleep and patience are “areas of opportunity” as she takes on such a huge project. She’s always focused on executing the legacies of McCoy, the Lawrence family, and Demeine’s producers. “It is not easy by any means, as I am now stepping into another chapter of my leadership career,” she says. “To be given support and confidence, and now to execute this vision, is inspiring.”

Translatable Skills

Because Bouvier is building Demeine Estates from the ground up, her experience with structured business operations and processes from RNDC has been essential. “You have to have standards in place, and you have to be able to build a best-in-class system,” she says, pointing to the 10-person sales team that Demeine has put into place as an example. Bouvier’s background also facilitates strong relationships with Demeine’s wholesale partners. “I understand the wholesaler, and our sales teams will be collaborating with our wholesale partners to be effective in the marketplace,” she says. “We want to be the best partner to our distributors and to continuously add value to every level.”

Biggest Positive

“Being in this seat is humbling,” says Bouvier, who notes that she has an opportunity to really change culture “through kindness and compassion” in this leadership role. There’s still a long way to go to get more women in executive wholesale roles, too; Bouvier says that since she’s become the president of Demeine Estates, all of the national sales team members who have visited the estate properties have been men. “There’s still much more work we all have to do to continue to recruit, hire, and mentor the next generation of leaders. I will always voice my opinion when our partners visit us and I don’t see one woman in the room.”

What’s Ahead?

Bouvier has “only begun” at Demeine, and she plans to help the company grow into “one of the greatest fine wine houses” for the next decade and beyond. But she’s even more excited to grow her team’s careers than she is her own. “My role now is the conductor—it’s about other people shining,” she says. “I want our people and our wineries to be in the spotlight.”

James Sligh. Photo by Kypo Karamas.

James Sligh

From sommelier and education coordinator at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York City to founder of wine education firm Children’s Atlas of Wine

“The curiosity and desire for context I’ve encountered among drinkers feels like a good reason to keep going for as long as I possibly can.”

Behind the Move

During his tenure at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, Sligh began to ink hand-drawn maps of the wine regions he was teaching in the wine bar’s Wine Bootcamp classes, jokingly dubbing them “Children’s Atlas of Wine.” When restaurants shuttered last year, “pure survival” had Sligh contemplating how to turn his wine education skills and watercolor maps into a business. 

“It was the longest time in my professional life I’d had without services to work, and it gave me space to reflect on everything I’d been almost accidentally building up until that point,” says Sligh, who launched Children’s Atlas of Wine in September 2020. He now hosts remote public and private wine tastings, largely focusing on underrepresented regions and producers, and sells his wine maps online; he is also the cofounder (with Jirka Jireh) of Industry Sessions, which offers free wine education to BIPOC industry members.

Biggest Challenge

In addition to managing all business logistics himself, Sligh’s biggest challenge has been transitioning from a structured work environment to self-employment. “The boundaries between your professional and personal life are even more porous,” he says. “You have to answer questions like, ‘What is the relationship between the amount of time I spent working on something and the amount of revenue I generate?’ or ‘Can I afford to stop working for a moment and just take a walk?’”

Translatable Skills

As an educator, Sligh has carried over his experience listening to guests and trying to understand what they are really asking for when they order or describe a particular wine. “You learn an awful lot about how to translate, fill in the blanks, and meet people where they’re at,” he says.

Biggest Positive

After years of working in restaurants, Sligh’s new role has allowed him to prioritize his physical and mental health, from getting to bed at a reasonable hour to having dinner at home with his partner. He’s also been able to connect with a wider range of consumers, both geographically and in terms of access. “There are a lot of people interested in tasting and learning about wine who aren’t comfortable or able to in a fine-dining setting,” he notes.

What’s Ahead?

Though many have asked Sligh whether he’ll return to the floor now that things are “back to normal,” he is committed to seeing how Children’s Atlas of Wine can evolve. “The curiosity and desire for context I’ve encountered among drinkers feels like a good reason to keep going for as long as I possibly can,” he says.

Photo courtesy of David Keck, MS.

David Keck, MS

From partner in Houston’s Goodnight Hospitality to owner and winemaker of Stella14 Wines in Vermont

“I’ve learned more about wine production in this past year than in 20 years in the industry.”

Behind the Move

After 12 years owning and operating restaurants in Houston, Keck moved back to his home state of Vermont in March 2020, inspired by the sommelier community he encountered while teaching an introductory course there for the Court of Master Sommeliers two months earlier. “Stepping out of hospitality completely was not 100 percent the goal, but 2020 made that decision an important one—and an easy one in a new state that was shut down,” he says. 

Keck unexpectedly shifted into winemaking when one of the oldest vineyards in the state, in Cambridge, Vermont, came up for lease at the end of May 2020. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” he says, and he dove straight into vineyard work, completing Stella14’s first harvest last fall. Keck is also the wine director for a small distributor, VT Wine Shepherd.

Biggest Challenge

Though Keck notes that Vermont has a supportive community, the lack of in-person communication and supply chain disruptions complicated his career and geographic move. “Equipment was difficult to find (and expensive), businesses weren’t responding to requests, and Vermonters screen calls if they come from a Houston number!” says Keck.

Translatable Skills

While the sales and marketing savvy that comes from restaurant ownership has easily translated to Stella14, the sheer fortitude required to carry out service night after night has been essential to Keck’s winemaking pursuits. “The never-say-die, push-to-the-end mentality is crucial during harvest—and when you just can’t get a piece of machinery to work!” he says.

Biggest Positive

Despite receiving his Master Sommelier title in 2016, “I’ve learned more about wine production in this past year than in 20 years in the industry,” says Keck. The Vermont vineyard lifestyle has also turned out to be a positive, and he enjoys spending plenty of time outside with his partner and dog.

What’s Ahead?

Though Keck doesn’t think he’ll ever go back to restaurants entirely, he hopes to create a hospitality setting that could tie into his vineyard project. “It’s hard to get that out of your blood,” he says.

Courtney Schiessl Magrini is a Brooklyn-based wine journalist, educator, and consultant who has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir. She is currently the senior editor for SevenFifty Daily, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, GuildSomm, Forbes.com, VinePair, EatingWell Magazine, and more. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her Champagne-fueled adventures on Instagram at @takeittocourt.

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