Santa Margherita’s Jennifer Engel stresses the importance of forging relationships

May 31, 2018

This story is part of our “Women in Wine” series — an ongoing effort to highlight the women shaping today’s evolving global wine industry. From winemakers to sustainability specialists to executives, these are the women among the vines to watch in 2018.

Some people in the alcohol beverage industry find their passion in the craft. Jennifer Engel found hers in the people.

The Vice President of Sales for Santa Margherita boasts an impressive title, but she isn’t really the type to broadcast it. Instead, Engel’s keen to stress the importance of making connections with the people around you.

That is, after all, what drew her to the wine industry. Engel credits her start to “the people she met along the way.”

“I had such a strong emotional connection to the people and the places [in the industry] that I was sucked in,” she said.

From private proprietors to big name vineyards, Engel realized early on the wine industry is not only a lifestyle but a family.

“All of us are in this together, enjoying this world and being passionate about the people in it,” Engel said. “I don’t know how else you could survive and be successful.”

Although Engel first worked in a brewery, she caught the “wine bug” while working at Walt Disney World. After earning her introductory wine certificate, Engel went to Disney to learn more about the food and beverage realm with other people who shared her interest.

It was at the “happiest place on earth” where Engel found her sense of place among the people she was with.

“Everything about the romance of wine drew me in and I truly became so passionate about it,” Engel said. “I said, ‘I have to do this. I have to be a part of this.’”

For a self-professed science geek, that sense of romance doesn’t go unnoticed. Engel earned degrees in food sciences and business, and she initially began her career in a hospital laboratory studying inborn errors of metabolism. But she always knew she wanted more.

“I realized early on I wouldn’t survive in a lab,” said Engel. “That wasn’t what I was built for.”

What Engel is built for, however, is forming relationships and making sure they stay intact.

As a vice president of a company that entered the mix only four years ago, Engel has plenty of things to keep her in her office. But she’s the type of person who thrives in the field and she’s always willing to go back to her roots.

“Believe me, there are plenty of things to do on the business side, but you’ve got to find the reason or the purpose,” Engel said. “For me, it’s about going back to the passion of why I started in the first place, which is to be connected and understand the current events and situations.”

Engel took a rare break from her vice president responsibilities to talk to us about how the industry has evolved, the connections she’s made and what’s she learned along the way.

How does the combination of your business and food sciences degrees affect your perspective on the industry? Does that give you a unique edge?

I think in the end it really does. Early on in my career, I've realized that I could have a very in-depth and technical conversation with the wine makers. At the same time, I can have an intelligent conversation with our distributors or the people I reported to, asking lots of questions about, "Well, how did we get to that price?" Or, "Is this price profitable?" Putting those two pieces together, taking that passion of what the wine makers had on the technical side, and marrying that with the business side simultaneously is what really helped me be successful moving forward.

How has your job in the beverage industry evolved throughout the years? Have there been changes?

At the end of the day, the industry is still small. Many of the same players are still in the mix, but I think the one thing that's changed is the way in which we communicate.

The relationships long ago were about trying to maintain those relationships without necessarily a consistent pattern. Today, the pattern is much more consistent because you have social media and digital. There are lots of different ways to communicate. Even in the retail world or the on-premise world, it's about wanting to partner with somebody.

These days, the term “partner” has many different formats. So, am I partnering with you by promoting an event on social media? Am I partnering with you by highlighting a particular brand this day on the internet?

There are lots of different ways in which the digital age and social age has affected our relationships but at the end of the day, it's still about showing up, being relevant and making sure that you're fostering the relationship with the customer, with the distributor and your own team.

Are there any important life lessons that you've taken with you?

It sounds so trite, but you really have to make sure you follow up because people don't forget. In this industry, as small as it is, it's critical to make sure that that happens.

And then honestly being true to yourself and not trying to morph into something that you think other people want is really important.

Can you reflect on the atmosphere of the industry? Are there any changes that need to be made?

As I look at it, the career for women in the industry has certainly been challenging. Mine is no exception. I think you have to know your business. You have to contribute and be involved. But for women, it is more than that. It is about that preparation and knowing your business inside and out because we historically have been challenged much more so than perhaps some of our counterparts have been. 

I think if I could change or look to do something different, it would be to have more forward thinking and more forward acting companies, such as Santa Margherita USA, who put women in a position to lead. There are lots of distributors, suppliers and retailers talking about having women in leadership positions. But I think when you look at, especially on the sales side, in providing real opportunities for women to lead, we have a very long way to go.

What can the industry to do help make those changes?

I think it's important for companies to help and recognize their team members at large. The more that we, as an industry, can bring people forward and help women — and everyone — understand what's driving our businesses, I think the more successful presentations we will have in the field.

I think that companies and the people within those companies asking those questions and pushing that envelope to learn more, to be curious, are the ones who are ultimately going to be the most successful.

Our brands are luxury brands. We pride ourselves on luxury, selling the story and the emotional connection, which obviously makes sense from my perspective. I think it's imperative, though, that we give all of our team members the opportunity to understand how that comes to pass.


Images courtesy of Santa Margherita's Facebook page

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