Monday, March 3, 2014

Profiles in Vigilante Living: Sexy Tennyson-quoting Wine Passionista Renee Kuo

ReneeKuo_Vigilante ProfileIf there is one thing that Vigilante Living is about, it’s listening to that little voice in your head. And then taking action. This is the story of Renee Kuo, a young, accomplished, female Managing Director in Bonds at several premier Wall Street banks (Banc of America Securities, Citadel Securities) who seemed to have it all professionally — the business school degree, the rolodex of happy clients, a fast track trajectory in a highly competitive field, glamorous evenings out in New York’s best restaurants. All seemed ironed-out, but for the little voice in her head that whispered….. “I love wine.”

When she first began her career in finance, Renee Kuo knew nothing about wine; her boss insisted that she study-up on basic wine literacy : “Renee,” she’d say, “if you order the Two Buck Chuck with a client, I’ll kill you.” Soon enough, however, she could confidently navigate the wine list, and made friends with several notable New York City and LA sommeliers. Meanwhile, this high-powered finance expert (her specialty was bond sales) got promoted further and further up the corporate ladder, eventually becoming the Managing Director of the newly formed Citadel Securities. Happily, she referred to herself as bonafide “Bond Girl”. In her spare time, however, Renee dove into the world of wine, making it her hobby. She enrolled in a course after work at the local farmer’s market where she would take a series of Wine & Cheese classes, which she credits for training her palate and educating her about the different wine-growing regions of the world. Which led her to France: she travelled with a group of wine enthusiasts to the Bordeaux region in France for a holiday. And as Renee describes it, it was a life-changing trip in terms of solidifying her passion for viticulture, but ended up concluding that it was not sensible to leave her career in finance to follow her passion for wine as a profession. It just seemed too far a leap. As Renee wryly describes it, in her blog From Wall Street to Wine, she just dove deeper into collecting wine to consume : “Carrie Bradshaw had a closet full of shoes. I had a closet full of wine.”


Wine Internship

But this tenacious Stanford grad found herself looking for more depth to her hobby, and in Vigilante fashion, took things a step further by enrolling in the UC Davis certificate in Viticulture.  So, while still rocking her finance gig all day long, Renee would retreat to her wine studies at night, and pick grapes with friends in Santa Barbara on weekends for fun. She’d been so natural in her successes in banking, and it seemed the most logical path. But when she looked honestly at herself, she noted that “it was really that I just didn’t find banking fulfilling anymore. I realized I had very little to lose if I left, as I wasn’t in the same situation as 99.9% of my colleagues (male) who had wives who didn’t work and children all ready for college. I knew if I didn’t take the chance, I’d be living a life of regret.” Renee puts it eloquently: “The saying usually goes Life is too Short but for me, life was WAY too long to do something I didn’t want to do!”  In a tale that reads like a screenplay, fate then sent Renee directly toward her new career, step-by-serendipitous-step. She experienced a series of miraculous & fateful encounters: a run-in with one of Bordeaux’s most famous wine-makers, Christian Moueix, while both were in New York; a chance wine-bar dinner where she ended up seated next to Don Ross, a prominent Napa Valley vintner and wine collector, and lastly, while hiking in Santa Barbara, literally bumping into Garon and Shari Staglinwho HAPPEN to own Staglin Family Vineyards in Napa Valley — where she landed her first internship in Napa. At each of these junctures, Renee made it known that she wanted to work in the wine industry – and of course being charming, smart and hot did not hurt either. But that was all it took.

Once she landed in Napa, it was all over: in a three-year period, Renee went from scrubbing the interior of wine tanks as an intern, working 12 hour days doing gritty behind-the-scenes work to landing a wine sales job (obtained probationally) — and of course KILLING IT by calling up her old Wall Street contacts with wine cellars –to the present: Renee now has her dream job as General Manager of Seven Stones Winery in Napa. “It’s soup to nuts” she says; “There is just one person responsible for Seven Stone’s overall business strategy… and then just one person washing glasses after the tastings. Me!” This is Vigilante Living people. Living your passion every day and not being afraid to change course when your inner voice speaks.

Renee says that this whole experience from Wall Street to Napa reminded her of the Tennyson poem, Ulysses (which is available in its entirety at the bottom of this post.) For, if it were not for Wall Street, Renee surmises, she may not have encountered her passion for wine. “I am a part of all that I have met,” writes Tennyson. “I will drink life to the lees,” he says — a sentiment that Renee has made her professional and personal mantra. Of course, explains Renee, there is the 99.9% pay cut to consider, despite living without regret in a career of her dreams. Renee sums the trade-off best: “As two of my colleagues on Wall Street said, ‘Part of us thinks you’re crazy, and the other part is really jealous.’  “Here’s to crazy!” says Renee. We could not be more in agreement, darling: with both Tennyson and you. 

Check in regularly for our Profiles in Vigilante Living series which will be posted every other week.

Wall Street to Rubber Pants

Internship at a Napa winery. Foot in the door, and 95% pay cut.

non-Glamorous Wine Industry

The unglamorous job of cleaning the wine tank.

Cleaning the Tanks

The joie de vivre is ever-present in Renee’s approach.

The Vines

Seven Stones Winery, Napa.


SevenStones_artowrk on site

From high-rise Wall Street office to THIS officeL the grounds at Seven Stones Winery.

Kuo in her new career, as General Manager at Seven Stones Winery in Napa.

Kuo in her new career, as General Manager at Seven Stones Winery in Napa.


By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


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