In becoming one of Argentina’s leading wine producers, Patricia Ortiz has taken what could generously be considered a circuitous route. Today she owns two different wineries in two emblematic regions of the country, Mendoza and Patagonia. These wineries are led by some of the industry’s top wine experts who employ the latest technology to make sure every wine is of the highest quality.
The proof lies in the fact that Ortiz’s Zolo and Tapiz brands are two of the top selling and most critically-acclaimed Argentine brands in the U.S. and each includes Top 100 Wines of the Year.
So it may come as a bit of a surprise when one discovers that Ortiz came to wine-producing quite accidentally. She left her Buenos Aires home after study medicine to do residencies in New York and Miami where she studied counselling in alcohol and drug addiction.
After establishing further expertise in social psychology, Ortiz and her husband were travelling in Argentina when they came upon vineyards in the Mendoza region. They fell in love with the area and decided to buy a vineyard. Then about a year later when one of the local wineries was up for sale, buying it seemed like the next logical step.
From there Ortiz has grown the business to where they own nine vineyards and two wineries. All while maintaining her role as wife and mother to five children. She also serves on a wine-producers lobbying organization.
Recently Women in Family Business sat down with Patricia Ortiz to discuss her early days in medicine, her transition to the wine industry and the challenge of balancing career and family.
Patricia, your journey is quite unlikely many others who enter the wine business. It would be wonderful if you could tell us a little more about your early career trajectory.
I got my start when I graduated medical school and became a medical doctor. I practised in Argentina and then we moved to the United States where I had a medical residency in New York and Miami. I decided to go to the University of Miami and study alcohol and drug addiction counselling. When I came back, I felt something was missing in my educational background so I started to study social psychology because I felt I needed to have a greater understanding of the issue. So after that, I started working as a social psychologist working in shantytowns helping with drug prevention and self-esteem issues with young women.
You had a well-established medical career at that time. How did that then lead into the wine industry?
My husband and I are wine-lovers and we were travelling around the world, visiting vineyards and when we saw Mendoza, we fell in love with the place. We fell in love with the vineyards so we bought our first vineyard. We bought a summer house, and our five children all came along. After a year, everything was fine but we couldn’t assess the quality of what we were doing because we were selling all the grapes. So we decided to go a step further and bought a winery in Mendoza as well. We opened up a brand new winery with a lot of technology. That was a good thing to start with because we weren’t starting from scratch, but with something that was already operational at that time. I was in charge of that, my husband always says somebody has to work so he can have fun. He always tells he would love to do my job because he says you go to Mendoza and you just drink wine at the winery and he thinks that’s my job. That’s a romantic view of the business.
So you leap right into this business with medicine being the dominant field of your educational background. How did you handle this transition?
I went to business school because, as you noted, although I had an extensive educational background, none of it involved business or finance. So I did a one-year business administration program for owners of middle-sized businesses. It touched on everything from banking to human resources to marketing and everything in between. I did that for one year while Manuel was running the winery. That helped us formulate a strategic plan for the first 10 years. Today we have nine vineyards, one in the very north of Argentina, seven in Mendoza, and one in Patagonia. We built a second winery because we had so many vineyards we decided to have two brands, one from each valley. We have the only winery on the Atlantic coast in Patagonia. I’m also the Vice-President of a corporate group that represents of all the wineries in Argentina. Wines of Argentina Bodegas de Argentina is a wineries association and together, we address common problems, talk to the government and things like that. For the past two years, I’ve been running the winery relations program in responsible drinking (Wine in Moderation).
You’ve had a lot transitions in your life. When you think back to those pivotal moments when you moved into something new, what were the main challenges that you faced? And how would you deal with that?
When I started, the winery was an hour and a half by plane so it’s not close to my house. At that time, the children were still at school so it was difficult to leave every week and having everything prepared. So I never travel Mondays because Monday is the day that I organize my house. I make a menu for the whole week. I buy the groceries for the menu so I know when I leave, my house is running as it should. I have a healthy menu for every day. So vegetables and pasta and fish and meat so it’s a balanced meal for them. My husband has been really helpful. My kids were easy kids, I have four boys and one girl, and they were not a problem in school. My husband is a lawyer and he has a busy social life but if I’m not home, he’ll be home to have dinner with the kids. It was difficult for me to leave though because I’m the mother but I’m not doing the traditional stay-at-home-mom things. But it was not a problem for them, things are running good and we would have a good time in summer and on weekends together.
So Patricia, when we see women like you navigate these things, it seems being organized and disciplined is very important to you. Whenever you have a new objective or goal in mind, how would you go about that? How would you drive towards that? Did you have doubts where you would ask yourself, ‘What am I doing’ or did you just drive through that and you always knew that you were on the right track?
Of course, I had doubts all the time. But I’m very organized and I like to plan everything. If you have a dream, you have to plan to make it come true. I believe if you work well and constantly, you will achieve everything. It might take longer or shorter but in the end, you will get to the same place. You always need to look at the final point where you want to arrive. Things can become discouraging, I know that. We had a big fire in the winery and we lost all of our inventory. That was a big challenge for the whole team and myself. So I went to my team and I said, OK what are we going to do? They all said we’ll start again. We all knew it would require a huge effort but we started again from scratch and we overcame it.
Do you feel that some of the issues you faced were more challenging for you because you are a woman? Is it very unusual for women to be a part of leadership position in the wine industry?
When I started, it was even worse because I was a woman who was not coming from the wine business. So for some people, that was a little bit strange – a female medical doctor coming from Buenos Aires going into wine producing. And for the employees, they had to adjust to the fact that a prior international corporation (Kendall Jackson) had now a woman with no experience in charge. My background in social psychology definitely helped me. I could understand a lot of what they may have been feeling and today many of the same people are still working with me. Also, Mendoza is a small province and women still don’t work a lot there. Even when we have board meetings, it’s all men and me. So it’s still very much the macho society.
When did you come to the point where you identified what kind of a leader you wanted to be? What made you say, OK this is the way I will be successful leading these people in the business?
I knew when I started that I didn’t know anything about wine-making. So I had to rely on my people because they were the ones who knew the process. I always say I stand behind them and guide them but they are the ones who are creating the force to go forward. I show them where I want to go but I know that I rely on them to get us there. Everyone is so important and they believe that the business belongs to them. I really love that.
Could you tell us more about the challenges or the opportunities that you’re facing in the wine business in Argentina?
The challenge in Argentina is that the wineries are dealing with a very bad harvest, there is a lack of grapes. So the challenge today is simply to make wine. At the same time, we’re dealing with huge inflation so we have to look at the price of everything so we don’t end up selling below our costs. Our dollar is still very low and we need regulations. but The government is trying slowly, but still doesn’t want that, so we are struggling with the margins. You have to be really very, very careful in doing business this year in Argentina that your costs don’t skyrocket.
Are any of your children going to get involved at the winery or are they working with you?
They’re not working there full-time but they’re helping me with some things. We have different companies coming to invest here so I told one of my sons, ‘OK, you’re in charge of this. He is a lawyer who also has an MBA so I put him in charge of this effort alongside his other work. All of them like the wine business so I think they will come to the business eventually. When we started, they already had other careers in mind. It’s not a situation where when they were small, they were running after their grandfather with scissors in the vineyard. That’s not their story.
A lot of entrepreneurs are driven by a fear of failure. Was there a moment where you thought you failed? Was it one big thing or was it a bunch of little things?
I can’t think of any big one. There are a lot of small ones where I said ‘OK that’s not working, go back and start again’. Yes, I’ve had many instances like that and it made me study harder and understand something better. But it never made me feel like I failed. Instead, it made me feel like I learned.
What is your main piece of advice for women when they are trying to define their own definition of success?
I think success for women can’t be confined to just business, it affects many other aspects of your life too. For men, I think it’s easier. For women, if you’re very successful in your business but not with your family or with your kids, I don’t think you will be happy. So women have to look at many more facets of their lives than a man does. And if you have children, that could very well be the most important success you have. So I think you need to look at everything and try to be very balanced. I always tell my daughter that the most important thing in her life is her kids. Let them run independently, be free but also be emotionally supportive. As a woman, that’s what you need to do. But always be aware that you have many more flags than a man to look for.