For many wine lovers, bigger is truly better. Rolling vineyards, bold flavor profiles, and magnum-sized bottles are often celebrated in the industry and among wine drinkers. But then, some oenophiles see the beauty in the small things. Sharon Kazan Harris, owner and director of winemaking at Rarecat Wines in Rutherford, Calif., is one such wine lover and producer. With an emphasis on artisanal winemaking and one-on-one interactions with consumers, Rarecat embraces old- school techniques with a modern twist.
Since founding Rarecat in 2009, Kazan Harris has approached winemaking from two perspectives: her traditional training in France, and her California roots.
From classic Napa Cabernet Sauvignons, to sparkling wines grown in Bordeaux and Champagne, her offerings reflect an effort to seamlessly integrate French and American influences, flavor profiles, and winemaking practices.
While her company’s production may be small by Napa standards, at 3,000 cases a year, Kazan Harris’s reach is expansive, with efforts to promote diversity and connect women through wine crossing borders. As the founder of Wine Entre Femme, Kazan Harris facilitated trips to Napa and Bordeaux, bringing women winemakers from the two regions together to exchange wine knowledge and create long-lasting networks. And as the co-founder of A Woman’s Palate, she uplifts women in the industry while educating female-identifying consumers about wine.
VinePair spoke with Kazan Harris about her mission “to use wine to impact positive change,” how a cartoon character propelled her wine journey, and more. Here, we get a peek into the struggles of a small-production winery during these ever-changing times.
1. How did you get your start in winemaking?
I always like to give the example that my parents put vodka in their watermelon and came from that extraordinary cocktail generation. Not that we didn’t have wine in our house, but that was not something that my parents focused on. But I was very obsessed with speaking French. And for whatever reason I attribute that obsession with French to … “Pepé Le Pew” the cartoon, because that was certainly a TV head as a kid. It was a deep and profound obsession.
And so I went to UCLA, did a junior year abroad, and got accepted to their program. I signed up to go to Paris, and I got sent to Bordeaux. So that’s how I arrived in Bordeaux in 1983 — no knowledge about wine, but really obsessed with the culture and really open to learning. I think that that was probably the great thing that helped me, as I said “yes” to everything.
A fortunate introduction to an extraordinary woman, Madame Tavernier, whose husband ended up being president of the [French] university, made it possible. She asked one of her friends to invite me to their chateau. So I took a bus, walked this long road, and knocked on this big wooden door. It’s November 1983, and the chateau was Château Haut Brion. … I ended up getting to taste the ‘82 out of the barrel and the ‘66 that [the winemaker] had opened. And I would be the person who would have asked, “How did you get the cherry [flavor] in? Did you squeeze it into [the wine]?” I had no clue. But what I knew was that it was something extraordinary. And so that was it. I still have the brochure they gave me. It was an eye-opening experience for me.
2. How do you combine your appreciation for the wines of Bordeaux and Napa Valley at Rarecat?
Rarecat was really a brand that was meant to be small lots of very fine wines, but also incorporating that spirit of French classic education and a French palate — which is my first palate — with a California sensibility. I’m not French, and I don’t see things like French people, but I still have this [feeling of], “Oh, you must do this and you must make wines like that.” So there’s a lot of tension between the classic way of making wines but yet this [American] spirit about “don’t tell me what to do, I’ll do what I want.” So they’re really clashing concepts, but I think Rarecat is a perfect embodiment of those two diverse philosophies. And what I learned in France is … it’s about the elegance; it’s about the balance; it’s about the freshness; it’s about the complexity; and that’s what a great wine is. It has those elements to it.
In our wines, I don’t use chemicals to replace time. I make beautiful wines. That was what I learned from France. There are things that you do and you don’t compromise. I don’t like the snobbery of the wine culture. I want to make wine accessible. Wine is life. It’s the table. It’s people. It’s connecting.
3. What’s the best part of your job?
Entertaining people with wine, I love that. Making wine, I love that. I love harvest, I love the elements of those first three weeks where things really happen in your wine production. I love engaging people and using wine to delight people. I love using wine to connect people, … advancing women and minorities and corporations by using wine as a chance to elevate that message to top executives. Love that. That’s my joy. It’s transferring knowledge about something that people are interested in but is often intimidating — taking away the intimidation and replacing it with delight and excitement. That’s what I love doing.
4. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced during your career as a winemaker? How did you overcome it?
I think that it’s being small and artisanal versus not. It’s access to markets and it’s access to buyers. And we’re a small winery that functions as a business, that has needs, and that is profitable. It’s not a hobby for me. It’s not an afterthought or a second job. It is my world, and I’m respectful around the business of wine. I love the business behind it and those decisions. But the No. 1 hardest thing for an artisanal, small producer to survive is access to buyers. There are lots of ways, as you know, to get exposure points in the wine industry, right? But most of those are extraordinarily expensive without a return [on] investment very quickly.
5. As a female winemaker, how do you work towards empowering other women in the industry?
I started to use wine to empower women and to promote diversity about 10 to 15 years ago. And I started to use wine to help corporations connect with their stakeholders. And that vision has never changed.
Early on, I started something called Wine Entre Femme. I started with 11 winemakers from Bordeaux and brought them to Napa, and a whole group of extraordinary female vintners in Napa hosted them. So we had a day on sales and marketing, a day on vinifications, and a day on vineyard techniques. And then, I took 15 women from Napa over to Bordeaux, and 80 extraordinary women from Bordeaux hosted these women. The last year, I think we had about 30 women from overseas hosted by about 60 women in Napa. It was extraordinary. It was a peer-to-peer exchange of information.
I also got involved in launching a company that was really about empowering collections of women so they could get their voice out with A Woman’s Palate. But my focus right now with Rarecat is really helping executive women advance their careers. It’s always been something that I care deeply about, and I have a unique ability to understand business; and I have a very, very unique ability to translate the love of wine in ways that people can understand. I love entertaining people. It has really kind of culminated in this sense of using wine to build community, using wine to promote these important things — women and diversity being two of the most important things for me — so that’s how I ended up on this path.
6. How did Rarecat’s business operations have to change as a result of the pandemic?
I remember in March of 2020 when shutdowns happened, and it was scary, right? I remember saying to my partner, “Rarecat will cease to exist.” Our business was high-touch, one-to-one experiences, where we created extraordinary experiences for people to come in and try our wines and leave delighted about spending time with us. Well, that was done. We didn’t do tastings last year as a result of that. We couldn’t travel into the market and host private events, which was a core part of what we’ve done for the last seven years.
What was really nice is we had already offered virtual tastings, and it just so happened that no one took us up on that prior to Covid, but a lot of people took us up on it after Covid. We were able to work with some major corporations, helping them connect with their clients. We still do that. There’s a hybrid model going on right now, not everyone can travel, and we are extraordinarily good at helping to use wine to connect people in a business setting.
I’ve always wanted to do more and more work with corporations to help them sell their big products or connect with their clients. The cool thing about Covid is that we were able to do hundreds of those instead of just maybe 10 a year. It was a really exciting opportunity for us to reach a lot more people. And yet, I didn’t even have to travel, and I loved it and still love it. So that was the silver lining for us.
7. Why did you decide to build Rarecat as a boutique winery rather than a larger operation?
Rarecat is very small. We do about 3,000 cases of wine. It’s intentional — I’m not getting bigger, I’m not interested in getting bigger. We sell our wines direct-to-consumer (DTC), so we are 100 percent DTC. That’s very important to us, because we like those one-on-one conversations.
We think that wines without a connection point are just SKUs that can be substituted in a supermarket. A great wine has to have more than just what’s in the bottle. It has to have a story or connection or a memory. And so for us, we want to create those memories. We want people to go home and drink our wine and relive their experience in Napa. And I think that element of understanding that story brings value to something that’s curated by an artisan [and] is what separates a fine wine from a commodity wine.
8. How do you envision the future of Rarecat?
Our short term future is to stick to what we’re good at and try to continue to delight people using wine as the tool. I think that’s it. I think our needs are to figure out how to effectively reach new buyers that can get exposed to our brand. That’s always the challenge. Rarecat knows what it is and what it wants to be, and it’s exactly where it wants to be. Rarecat just needs to be able to do it more effectively, more efficiently. So it’s more the efficiency and effectiveness of how we are reaching new clients. That’s probably our biggest goal, if that makes sense. But we know what we are. We know who we are. We know how we do business. We know why we do business. And we like where we are. We like the wines we make. We like our connections with clients. We like high-end customer service.
9. How did you come up with Rarecat’s name?
Rarecat is a woman of such beauty, she’s a rarity. And I just love the name because when I think about wine, [they] have personalities like people. But the great wines — the great, great wines — are always temptresses. They give you a little hint of who they are, and then they drive you crazy. But they drive you back to that glass because it’s kind of trying to figure that out. And when we try to figure things out, we think, we imagine, we have memories. It kind of drives us back to whatever we’re trying to figure out. And to me, that’s inherently feminine and that’s inherently a temptress. And I wanted to make these rare beauties that tempted people back to the glass.