A Wine Speak Interview with Amanda Wittstrom Higgins

Here is an interview we did with Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (VP of Operations-Ancient Peaks; Co-founder of Wine Speak & “40 under 40”–Wine Enthusiast) for Wine Speak 2020.

It’s hard not to dream big when you spend time with Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins.

Amanda is a fourth-generation San Luis Obispo County resident and has been with Ancient Peaks Winery since its inception. As VP of Operations at Ancient Peaks, Wittstrom-Higgins has helped forge annual double-digit sales growth while managing a variety of new initiatives, such as the creation of the winery’s Oyster Ridge event venue. She also created an innovative multidivisional internship program that has graduated numerous aspiring young professionals.

Amanda co-founded Wine Speak Paso Robles with master sommelier Chuck Furuya in 2017, and it has since become regarded as one of the top events of its kind. In 2018, she established Dream Big Darling, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the success of women in the wine and spirits industry. An outgrowth of Wittstrom-Higgins’ passion for mentorship, Dream Big Darling is steered by a board of industry veterans dedicated to creating leadership opportunities for the next generation. In the summer of 2019, Amanda was featured on the cover of Wine Enthusiast’s “40 under 40” issue, showcasing “the trailblazers who are redefining the industry as we know it.”

Chuck recently caught up with Amanda to talk about Wine Speak 2020—and to learn more about her passionate outlook on work and life.

Has Wine Speak lived up to your dreams?

This event has been an incredible experience. In 2017, when we dreamt it up, I didn’t really have any idea what it might develop into. Our original goal was and still is to elevate the wine community through sharing, collaboration and camaraderie. What I didn’t realize was how much power there is in this concept. I’ve personally seen this event have a ripple effect that transforms trajectories and offers opportunity to so many people and regions.

Why are you so fully, all out vested in this event?  Don’t you already have too much to do?

When you love what you do and the people you partner with it doesn’t feel like work, it actually feeds your soul! Someone once told me, “Why should we stop learning when we get out of school?” Every day you need to learn and grow, for me this event challenges me to learn grow and look at things differently. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from amazingly talented people who have incredible drive and commitment to their craft. I was able to visit Adam Tolmach at his home ranch and walk his extraordinary kitchen garden and disease-resistant test vineyard; to experience his commitment to innovation, research and fostering those around him, and his legacy of quality was really inspiring. And, Shelly Lindgren of A16 & SPQR’s commitment to authentic Italian food and wine is remarkable. Through her work she’s been able to enhance the community she serves. Additionally, her passion has helped transform lives in Italy as the popularity of wines she’s curated for her list have spurred demand enormously, so much so that the country of Italy has chosen to honor her for her work.

The power of this event and the examples of success I’ve been exposed to have taught me that ALL individuals have the power to create change and a lasting impact on the world. This is probably the greatest gift I could receive.

In 2019, Wine Speak featured a panel—“Wine from a different perspective” —featuring five top female wine professionals, which you moderated. Many, many participants have said it was so powerful and drew lots of emotion out. What made this happen?

This was an incredible experience for a multitude of reasons. For one, it sold out faster than any other seminar, and it was the only session that didn’t serve wine! The concept was to share the journey of these individuals and their paths to success. At first, we were really nervous and unsure how a panel that didn’t serve wine or focus on technical procedures might be perceived.

We selected superstars from several facets of the industry to add dimension to the conversation: Meridith May, Somm Journal/Tasting Panel; Jordan Fiorentini, Epoch Wine Estates; Helen Keplinger, Keplinger Wines; and Shelly Lindgren, A16 & SPQR. What made this session so powerful were the attendees. This session was different, the room was bubbling with excitement of young wine professionals, many of whom were women. Before the event began a young woman in the audience raised her hand and professed to loving her career and had no idea how she would ever be able to have a family, a husband and a career all at the same time. She wanted to know how it could be possible. This sparked the discussion for the next 90 minutes as well as the conversation that was heavy on the hearts of so many.

The truth is that the top spots of our industry as well as many others aren’t occupied by many women. It isn’t because there aren’t any amazingly talented women who are capable of doing the work; it’s because they made a different choice for themselves or their families. Seeing this panel of accomplished women together sparked a sense of hope, courage, and confidence in the audience. If they can do it why can’t I? Hearing the group share how it’s not always easy but how they continue to push forward and make every day their best was truly inspiring. Our industry won’t evolve if we have the same type of people doing the same types of things, we need new ideas, new perspectives that appeal to all people and consumers.

The most impactful part of life is when you see others find their “light.” I believe that everyone has a special gift and a beautiful light to shine on the world. Many people have a hard time identifying their own special gifts and therefore don’t shine brightly. BUT, when you can help someone find their special gift and show them how to use it in a way that can provide for themselves and others, WOW!!! This will also have a HUGE impact on our industry and world. Just imagine if the world was filled with people who were using all their own talents and helping others, to make this industry and world a better place. I walked away from this session thinking that the future is really bright!

What would you then share with all of the young, aspiring professionals out there moving forward?

Travel, read, learn, ask questions and align yourself with people and projects that will help you grow. Don’t chase money. Be ready to work hard. Opportunities come in very strange packages.

“A lion doesn’t need to tell anyone he’s a lion, everyone already knows.”

For 2020, you will now be taking this thought and including a new speaker for her perspective—Madeline Triffon, MS. Why Madeline?

Madeline is a superstar and the ultimate professional. She has dedicated her life to her craft and creating memorable experiences for guests. She was one of the first Americans to pass the rigorous Master Sommelier exam and the first female. But what’s so impressive about Madeline is her love of sharing her knowledge and passion with others. She isn’t boastful or self serving and once said, “At any exchange you should only use 10% of your knowledge.” I love this as so many are quick to show how much they know and this is when, without knowing why, consumers are turned off. She truly believes that wine should be enjoyed at every meal and that there is a place for it at ALL tables. She is a big advocate of the industry and the promotion of the next generations. She said, “Sharing is our most powerful tool, we can’t take the information with us, so why not use it to make others better?” We could all learn from Madeline’s wisdom, work ethic and passion.

This panel seems to align with your mission of Dream Big Darling.  Why is this so important to you?

For many young people, the road map or definition of “success” is confusing. In school, we are taught 1+1=2, and when you graduate from school you should be a top earner. The real world doesn’t really work this way and young people today would greatly benefit from wisdom and guidance. Soft skills, work ethic, drive and passion are almost always at the core of “success.” In addition, there are very few females holding top positions in our industry. I know there are plenty that are certainly capable and it’s an interesting concept. What’s really interesting is that the majority or at least 50 percent of our consumers are female. I think the industry would benefit from considering a different perspective. Madeline is a shining example of someone who has made a mark on our industry, and by sharing her valuable experience I think we can inspire others to reach for greatness.

How do you keep it all managed/balanced—work, personal, family and now dealing with all of the attention/publicity because of Wine Speak, Dream Big Darling and the “40 under 40” recognition from Wine Enthusiast?

Ha! When I figure it out I’ll let you know. The truth is that this is something that I’m always working towards. My husband, Sam, is my rock and I’m so blessed that he is an incredible father and husband, and raising our family is really a partnership. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be able to do anything extra, I am thankful everyday. I am so thankful to have an AMAZING team that I trust and respect, this allows me some flexibility to focus my energies in different ways. Our ownership at Ancient Peaks Winery is deeply invested in our community, learning, and growing—I’ve always been encouraged to give back. Our company philosophy is “the rising tide lifts all boats.” Our community and my friends are absolutely amazing, and without everyone’s efforts, many of the initiatives we’ve put together simply wouldn’t be possible. And lastly, I’m thankful for you Chuck, in true sommelier fashion, you are always looking for talent and value—little did I know you look for these qualities in almost every aspect of life and others.

What would you say to all of the wine professionals out there who want to understand what makes your home turf of Paso Robles so special?

There are so many incredible regions in the world and I have been really inspired when traveling and seeing the energy within these places! I’ve spent a lot of time traveling the country and working with our national distribution and accounts. The world is full of amazing wines from both the old and new world.

Paso Robles is a somewhat undiscovered region bubbling with passion, value, innovation and character. It’s a place where the community is deeply involved and there is a true passion for the craft. The soil profiles and climate make the region a near perfect growing environment. The AVA was established in 1983 and the breadth of innovation, learning and community are really prevalent. The price of land in the area is approachable enough that we have attracted some of the most talented producers to spread their wings. I would encourage you to take a chance on Paso Robles wines.

For 2020, Wine Speak is inviting more perspectives from the Old World.  Why?

There is great value in history and learning from others. We really need to push ourselves and learn from others with incredible drive and dedication. The old world is so inspiring and many have been farming the same land for centuries. Their lives live and breathe the creation of wine. I can’t wait to hear their perspective!

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Keep your chin up, if it was easy everyone would do it. Make everyone around you better.

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