Beth Novak Milliken
Beth Novak Milliken is the President and CEO of her family’s historic and deeply respected Spottswoode winery in Napa Valley. Beth moved to the St. Helena property with her parents and four siblings in 1972, growing up and attending high school there. After earning a degree in economics from UCLA in 1983, Beth joined a San Francisco-based wine brokerage representing clients like Caymus, Joseph Phelps and Pine Ridge. In 1987, she joined the winery founded in 1982 by her mother, the late Mary Novak, one of the first women to run a winery in Napa Valley, following the untimely death of Beth’s father Jack, in 1977. Since that time, Beth has overseen the vineyard’s pioneering CCOF organic certification in 1992, and the building of the Spottswoode Estate Winery in 1999. She was elected in 1998 as the youngest president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association and the first woman to hold that position, and she remains on the board of directors today. Earlier this year she was named one of the Wine Industry Advisor’s Most Inspiring People for 2020.
Learn More about Beth from her Written Interview below:
Karen MacNeil: In 1985, way ahead of her time, your mother began to farm your vineyards organically. Then under your stewardship, Spottswoode became only the second estate vineyard in Napa Valley to earn CCOF organic certification. Today, many wineries farm organically unofficially—why was it important to you to seek certification?
Beth Novak Milliken: Certification means that we have an outside entity confirming that we are adhering to its standards, which to us is extremely important. It is easy to say that one farms organically, yet it is harder to actually farm organically. CCOF certification illustrates our commitment to farming well and to opening ourselves to outside verification.
KM: Spottswoode received the 2017 Green Medal Environment Award which honors California wineries committed to sustainability. Do wineries have an obligation to protect the environment?
BNM: I believe that we all have an obligation to protect our natural environment, on whose health we all rely. As humans, we take from Mother Nature, yet we overall give little back. I like the analogy of a bank account – when one withdraws money, one must make corresponding deposits in order to keep one’s account healthy. If we withdraw more than we contribute, it is not sustainable. This is where I feel we are in terms of the state of our planet, and it is imperative that we all start giving back, treating Mother Earth with the respect and care she deserves.
KM: You became the youngest president of, and first woman elected to, the Napa Valley Vintners Association. How did you handle embodying those “firsts?”
BNM: As I have always done, while I accepted this and I felt good about these “firsts,” I just kept my head down and did my best job in this role that I could. It was a year of great evolution for me. Linda Reiff [President and CEO of the Napa Valley Vintners] and I grew together in many ways.
KM: Linda gives you credit for spearheading the 2000 lawsuit brought by the Napa Vintners against Bronco Wine Co. The lawsuit was over Bronco’s labeling a wine with the term “Napa,” even though the wine contained no Napa grapes. The lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Napa Vintners prevailed. Tell us about that effort.
BNM: I think that Linda gives me too much credit here – I really do. It is she, and the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV), that spearheaded this important effort, and it was just the beginning of efforts to protect the Napa name. We have carried this forward since, and the NVV has done an amazing job in protecting the integrity of the Napa Valley name. As you can imagine, many wish to use this name as it has great value, and so we must be vigilant.
““[My most memorable wine tasting experience] was with my mom, Mary Novak, with whom I was able to work in building our family business for 28 years. (She passed away in the fall of 2016.) She was and is my North Star.”
KM: If you could have a glass of wine sitting in a restaurant in any city in the world right now, what city would it be and what would you be drinking?
BNM: I would be in Getaria, on the coast of Northern Spain’s Basque Region, with my husband, John. We would be enjoying the local Basque wine, Txakoli, with grilled fish that is freshly and sustainably caught daily.
KM: Describe your most memorable wine tasting experience.
BNM: It was with my mom, Mary Novak, with whom I was able to work in building our family business for 28 years. (She passed away in the fall of 2016.) She was and is my North Star. We were on a panel at The Wine Summit at the Post Hotel in Lake Louise [Alberta, Canada], tasting through a vertical of Spottswoode Cabernet. At the end of it, Anthony Gismondes, the moderator, asked my mom which of the vintages had been her favorite. The audience just fell apart in laughter when she said that she much preferred our Sauvignon Blanc to any Cabernet Sauvignon. She was nothing if not honest – and I mean that in the very best way!
KM: You now have college-age children. How did you teach them about wine?
BNM: Sean and Liam have been immersed in wine basically since birth, as we live right across the street from Spottswoode. I have devoted my professional career to our family estate vineyard and winery, about which I care deeply. Spottswoode is a part of them, as it is to me. Aside from nightly dinners where wine is served and talked about, we have traveled a great deal with Sean and Liam, often to wine regions. They have also been a part of many wine dinners, and each now has a love of wine.
KM: In addition to wine, what is your other favorite beverage?
BNM: Though I rarely drink them – I drink almost no hard alcohol, to be honest – a well-made Margarita can be absolutely amazing. Fresh squeezed lime, with good tequila and ice, in a glass with a salted rim.
KM: Is there a type of wine or a style that you really DON’T like?
BNM: I do not enjoy wines that are too ripe or too oaky. They seem plodding and monolithic to me. Rather, I prefer wines with beauty, with a sense of place, and with great energy and freshness. Wines that offer intellectual intrigue, as well as great enjoyment.
KM: Is wine good for a society?
BNM: I believe it absolutely is. Wine brings people together, and it is a beverage that is enjoyed with a meal, with others, where conversation can happen and understandings can be reached. It allows for dinners to be both leisurely and enjoyable, and it serves as a catalyst for great meals. I honestly cannot imagine a dinner without wine.