Head for Numbers, Heart for Hospitality

In the three years she has been CEO of Les Bourgeois Vineyards, Rachel Holman has become someone other Missouri wine industry leaders go to for input and ideas.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

Holman was 31 when she first took over for owner and founder Curtis Bourgeois. As someone so relatively young and as a woman in a male-dominated industry, she said at first it was difficult to make her voice heard.

“It was hard sometimes to justify your seat at the table — especially since I was so young and these people have been doing it for years,” Holman said. “It’s been rewarding for me, and at times really difficult. It’s hard to get people to listen to you as a woman, as a young woman, as a young person.”

She said the expectation for women in the wine industry is that they work in sales and “make things pretty” and don’t know numbers or how to be analytical. It’s a particularly ironic assumption because Holman has a degree in personal finance.

Over time, through her work at Les Bourgeois and her efforts as a member of the Missouri Grape and Wine Board’s marketing committee, Holman has changed some of those perceptions and become a force to be reckoned with.

“It’s been rewarding to see people’s opinions change and watch pillars of our industry learn that I’m valuable and my ideas have merit,” Holman said. “Now a lot of times they’ll come to me first. That’s a really empowering feeling, and I’m proud of it.”

Becoming a CEO and industry leader was not something Holman set out to do as she began her career.

A St. Charles native, she attended the University of Missouri to major in personal finance and minor in marketing. Then 9-11 happened, the stock market crashed and Holman realized she “didn’t have the emotional fortitude” to tell a client that they had lost everything.

So she fell back to what she knew best — the restaurant and hospitality business, in which Holman had been working since her first job at age 15. Holman was a manager at Grand Cru in Columbia while she was in school, and started learning about wine — and discovering she had an affinity and talent for it. Although her first job after graduation was with Missouri Employers Mutual, Holman jumped at the opportunity when the catering director position opened at Les Bourgeois in 2005.

Holman spent two years in that position, booking special events such as weddings, graduation parties and seminars. When the marketing director left in 2007, it was a natural next step and allowed her more opportunity to learn more about the industry she was coming to love. She joined the Missouri Grape and Wine Board marketing committee in 2009.

Then in 2013, Curtis Bourgeois decided he wanted to take a step back from the day-to-day operations of the winery he had started in 1985. After conversations with Holman and other stakeholders, Holman was handed the reigns.

Holman acknowledged moving from marketing director was a big jump for her, noting that she had thought that if she was going to take on new challenges or grow in her career she would likely have to find those opportunities outside of Les Bourgeois.

Holman emphasized that despite some of those early misconceptions about her abilities as a woman and a young person, that the wine industry in general has been very supportive as she’s stepped up her roles over the years and learned her craft.

“The neat thing about the wine industry in Missouri is it is a real can-do, lift-your-neighbors-up kind of industry,” she said. “There’s a lot of information sharing.”

The prevailing attitude, Holman said, is that the more successful wineries there are, the better the Missouri wine industry itself becomes.

Les Bourgeois helps other wineries around the state with various stages of wine making and shares things such as what sorts of social media strategies and promotional events have worked for them.

That extends to other aspects of alcohol agriculture as well. Holman said she has been excited to see the continued popularity of micro brewing in recent years.

“I hope we see the drink local trend continue,” she said. “Win consumption is up. We’re losing a little to craft beer, but that’s fine, it’s local. It’s why it’s fun to build relationships with them and learn what worked for them, what works for us.”

Being named CEO also had an impact on Holman’s personal life. Holman said she had always planned to return home to St. Charles or move on to a bigger city, but as she got to know Columbia and the people she was meeting professionally, she began to realize how much the area had to offer — professionally and personally.

Columbia “became a place I could see myself for quite some time. My position now has changed the way I’ve looked at growing a family and the way I see what the rest of my life is going to be,” Holman said. “This was going to be a stepping stone … but this is my life now. I don’t see myself going somewhere else.”

She even met her husband, Jacob Holman, at Les Bourgeois — he is the wine maker. Their daughter Hazel was born right at the start of the 2014 harvest season.

Like many new parents, Rachel Holman said becoming a mother has made work — and figuring out how to balance the demands of her job and her home life — harder, but has also changed how she looks at everything.

“I look at situations now with a very different lens — things that used to be really important to me or would be bigger sources of conflict don’t carry the same weight,” she said. “I also think it’s made me a more empathetic boss.”

In the three years since becoming CEO, Holman has overseen a few changes as Les Bourgeois continues to grow and expand, including a restructuring of management and expansion of the tasting room — including the addition of a gift shop.

Under her watch, the winery is also expanding into other branches of alcohol agriculture with the launch of Rocheport Distilling. The craft distillery currently has white and dark rums with plans for a peach brandy, gin and whiskey in the future.

“We wanted to get into all elements of the fermenting sciences,” Holman said of the new venture.

She said it is also a new experience and learning opportunity for Les Bourgeois customers, whom Holman said are becoming a more experiential group.

“They don’t just want their drink, they want to know how it was made and meet the guy that made it, see the barrel it came out of,” she said. “I’d like to see the direction this corner goes in.”

Holman said there are plans to expand Les Bourgeois’ wine offerings as well, including alternative packaging and possibly building on its popular Brut sparkling wine by developing a line of sparkling wines.

She said she also wants to continue as a go-to location for important life events like engagements, bridal and baby showers and graduation celebrations.

“It’s really neat people choose to share those big moments of their life with us,” Holman said. “I want to build a relationship with people and be a part of all those big moments.”