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Sharon Harris – A Journey From Tech to Winemaker to Online Learning Entrpreneur

“Always start with champagne, end of story.” – Sharon Harris 

Sharon Kazan Harris’ path has taken her from the tech world to starting and running a wine company and now to launching an online learning product, Business-Uncorked, to provide young people the soft skills and etiquette abilities needed to get, maintain, and excel in the job market and life.

I (Chrissie) sat down with Sharon to discuss her path and how wine and connection have been the interwoven facets of her life. She also shares with us her Fab5 ideas on ‘how to use the power of wine’. 

 

Tell Me About Your New Venture, Business-Uncorked.

Business-Uncorked is an online platform geared towards helping young people thrive in business (and life) by teaching them the soft skills companies are looking for. Our whole focus is to help millions of young people become successful in business by teaching them the soft skills of business around etiquette, entertaining, communication, and emotional intelligence.

These skills are critically important for young people. 90% of people hiring managers are looking at soft skills to make hiring decisions. 63% of companies are going to put into play etiquette lessons for their employees. So these are really important skills.

In today’s world, where people change jobs and there is no longer lifetime job security the most powerful skill you can develop as a young professional is learning how to network. It means a bigger paycheck, more opportunities, and more job promotions. If you’re not networking, you really don’t get to design your destiny because you’re not the first person to know about opportunities. Business-Uncorked is designed to help young people get the skills they need to do this.

Everyone has a different definition of soft skills. Companies are looking for things like critical thinking, problem-solving, or teamwork. Before learning these skills, a young person needs to have confidence walking into the door, holding eye contact, and knowing the basic and core soft skills first.

Tell me a bit about your path to becoming a winemaker.

I think if I had to summarize my life, my path is shaped by saying yes. It’s about lucky opportunities. It’s about influences that you never imagined. You may start on one path, but when you say yes and you’re open to the world, you just never know where you’re going to end up. I think that’s probably the best description of how I became a winemaker.

I was obsessed with French at a really young age.  But I wasn’t French, and I grew up in the Bay Area, where there were very few French people! But I had this deep obsession with wanting to speak French. I ended up going to UCLA as an economics major and was supposed to be a lawyer or a banker or something…you know, a classic safe job. I spent a junior year abroad in France and literally fell in love with wine. Instead of graduating and taking a banking job, I moved back to France to work for free for a two-star chef.  I eventually ran out of money, so I had to come back and get a real job, but my time there changed the path and direction of my life… going overseas, getting involved in something I loved, and then just really following a passion.

I found a job,  went to grad school in international marketing, and then started work at an  international tech publishing company. I was hired to start a division of this company in direct mail, but I had never heard of direct mail and did not know what mailing lists were! I remember sitting in a cubicle located outside the office bathroom and being told to start this division.  I had no idea what I was doing, yet I ended up figuring it out. I also ended up knowing everyone in the company because everyone had to go to the bathroom at least once or twice a day and it turned out that when they did, they would stop at my cubicle and talk with me! Through that I had access to knowledge and to what was going on at the company – meeting people made all the difference!  It is tougher today for young professionals working remotely who don’t have that water cooler talk or know how to network anymore.

It was the early days of the internet and I got introduced to the founders of a search engine start-up I was offered the opportunity to work for this startup called Inktomi. I think I was the 13th employee and most of the guys who were working there at the time weren’t even legally able to drink. And yet by saying yes, that was an opportunity that absolutely changed my life. That company went from zero to $34 billion. After it went public, we invested and bought the majority share of a winery, bought some property in Napa, and started towards our move into the wine industry.

About 5 years later, in 2004, I picked up the family and moved to Bordeaux where I studied winemaking at the Universitie of Bordeaux. I received a Diploma Aptitude de Degustation, graduating with honors and a degree that makes me a super taster.

 

And then you started your own wine label RARECAT?

Instead of moving back to the Bay Area after studying in Bordeaux, I ended up moving directly to Napa and I started my wine brand RARECAT. I remember thinking ‘How am I going to make it in the wine industry’? No one needs another wine. No one needs another winery. There are already 10,000 wine brands in the US. And in a blind tasting, there are not very many people in the world who can tell the difference between this wine and that wine. And so I started thinking about what it was about wine that really mattered to me and what I could do with wine that was different, that was unique to who I was, and would get me out of bed in the morning because I had such a passion for it.

I realized that what I loved about wine was the people, the connections, the conversations, the dinner parties, and the coming together. I see wine as the most powerful calling card in the world. It’s a powerful connector. I was interested in trying to figure out how I could take my wine and impact positive change, and that became RARECAT’s mission.  RARECAT today is a successful boutique producer of fine wines.  Our wines are sold direct from the winery and we know everyone who buys our wines.

 

Tell us about ‘Don’t Give Up the Wine List’ and how you empower women through wine.

I developed a seminar called ‘Don’t Give Up the Wine List’, which became pretty famous. I’ve worked with thousands of women and hundreds of companies with this program. We talk about how you use wine to find your voice and control a table, and how you get that power at the table through wine. Don’t give up the wine list to others (ahem…men), or you are giving up your power and control. The program teaches women how to retain this control through the knowledge of wine, and wine lists.

 

And how did ‘Don’t Give Up the Wine List ‘ transition into your new venture, Business- Uncorked?  

Young people would consistently ask how they could take this class about not giving up power via a knowledge of wine, as often it was a corporation that would hire me and the classes weren’t open to the public. And then it started to dawn on me, well, why can’t I make this type of learning available to a younger and broader audience now that there’s the technology to do so? And so that was the start of Business-Uncorked.

 

Are You Splitting Your Time Between Both Rarecat Wine and Business-Uncorked?

Yes. RARECAT is my heart and my passion. Wine … well I just love it. RARECAT will always be core to what I do and who I am. It’s just part of me.

Young people aren’t drinking as much wine, so part of Business-Uncorked started with asking how do I reach these extraordinary young people to educate them and create an experience that helps bring this love of wine to a younger audience, and through it teach them these other needed skills as well. As long as business is still multi-generational, which it is right now, wine is a very important element of this cultural and business currency. Wine is part of the world today in the corporate aspect, so they need to know about it. So in that respect, the businesses can be intertwined.

 

What’s Made the Difference in Your Path to Success?

Some of the things I’ve achieved wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t take the risk. I think sometimes we get stuck in our ways or stuck in our lanes or stuck in something, and we’re not willing to see things from a different perspective or to step outside of that perspective. And I think people who are successful today think outside of the box, think from a different perspective, or are willing to take a look at things from a different vantage point. I think that I was pretty lucky too!

 

Below, Sharon provides her Fab5 list of how to use wine as a powerful tool.

Wine is a powerful tool. It’s not just a beverage you enjoy on a Saturday night. And there are some things that you can do to use wine as a really powerful tool.

Use wine to tell a story

  • Very often when people choose a wine in a business setting they open a bottle of wine and talk about the wine’s components. And I would like to wipe that conversation off the face of the earth. Instead, people should choose a wine that tells a story. Wines are storytellers. For instance, let’s say someone did their internship in Italy and they want to share that experience with someone who is considering them as a candidate when they are out for dinner. Well, why not either bring or order a bottle of wine that reflects that part of your history or your story? Or let’s say you care deeply about supporting women-owned companies. Then bring or order a bottle of wine that’s produced by a woman. Use the wine as a way to tell your story, or support their story, and to connect and network.
  • If you are going to a dinner party, bring a bottle of wine that has some special story or connection for you. It takes the ‘vintage/price’ out of the equation and instead it replaces it with the story of why you brought it. For instance, “I brought this wine for you because I knew you went to Italy and had a great trip and this is from the area you visited.”. Or ‘I just was in Paso Robles and brought you this bottle of wine from there because I just couldn’t get over how great this experience was.”

Always start with champagne, end of story. 

The one rule I learned in France, when I was really young, is that every dinner party starts with a champagne. Champagne is prestigious, it’s recognized as one of the greatest gifts on the planet, and it says ‘You are my guest and I’m welcoming you’.  When we open champagne, the first thing we think is, what are we celebrating? It allows you to define that moment of time as something positive and fabulous. I love that. It’s a great way to start a dinner party. And if someone asks, ‘What are we celebrating?’, you get to define what it is! All parties should have a great reason, and the reason could be just getting together with people who you love. You can use champagne to highlight what that is. It sets the mood, it sets the experience. It says that you care about the people who are there. So start with champagne.

When in doubt, stick to world-class regions when ordering wine.

In a world class region, you have pedigree, you have history.  Napa is world class for cabernet sauvignon. There’s just no bad Napa cab. Russian River for pinot noir. If you’re unsure about what’s on the list or don’t know the brand, stick to those world-class regions, and you’ll always get a good bottle of wine and won’t feel like you haven’t made the right choice.

At a restaurant, we taste to see whether a wine is correct or not, not to see if you like the taste.

When you are brought a bottle of wine you’ve ordered, you sniff and smell the wine. You’re not looking to see whether you like the wine when you do this. You’re looking to see whether or not the wine is correct or not. You are checking for if it smells like vinegar, like wet cardboard or like wet dog/horsiness. Those are three bacterias of infections, or defaults in wines and those smells would be justification to tell the server you think something may be wrong with this wine and could they take it back and try it. Not because you don’t like the taste.

Guide the sommelier when asking for recommendations.

If you are in a situation where you are uncomfortable ordering on your own and it’s a higher-end restaurant with a ‘som’, who is the master of their wine list, you want to bring that som over. They’re fabulous and they know what they’re talking about. You want to ask them for suggestions, but you also want to guide them in that conversation. First, say you’d like a <red or white> wine that pairs well <x,y,z that you’re eating>, but in this, <and you point> price range. You never let a som order a wine without giving them a price range. And by pointing, the table doesn’t have to know your range. For instance  “What’s tasting well right now that pairs well with the ribeye, that’s in this price range? Could you please give some recommendations?” It’s just like when you go into Nordstrom you don’t go to the shoe store and say, just give me a pair of black shoes. Tennis shoes or Jimmy Choo’s? You give directions and parameters.

We welcome you to learn more about RARECAT and Business-Uncorked.

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Chrissie and Joanne love discovering, curating and creating. They developed FabList as a place to share their favorite finds with you.

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