Natalie Scotto: Reeling in the Leviathan

A few interesting things become obvious after a short conversation with Natalie Scotto.  First, she doesn’t operate on Scotto Time, that unique World Clock zone where everything is red-shifted forward ten or twenty or thirty minutes to fit rapid-fire schedule changes.  Setting a meeting time with Natalie is different:  If you say 11 AM, she’s there en punto, every time.

nataliescottoAlso, as a generally calm and introspective woman in an occasionally old-school Italian family overloaded with focused, jitterbug males, she is a unique puzzle piece that nonetheless fits in securely—her talents are a beautiful and strategic counterpoint to theirs.

Third, her legal name is Natalie Woods, which as a name comes with more baggage than a family of hyper-male Scotto brothers—she called her company ‘J. Woods Beverage Group’, explaining that her middle name, Jean, is a “J” name, and that to her, ‘J. Woods’ is sort of gender neutral and professional-sounding.  And to an extent, I agree:  ‘J. Woods Beverage Group’ conjures up (to me) an image of a professional dude in a Jos. A. Bank wool suit sitting at a polished desk dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s.  ‘Natalie Woods Beverage Group’ makes me think of cute little Susie Walker sitting on Santa’s lap, then growing up to be a bombastic beauty—in plural form.

Natalie Scotto-Woods is all that and more, and certainly no less.  Number four in the Scotto birth order, she was the second one to join the family business, and even that happened, quite literally, by accident.  Her father had a disagreement with a staircase, and the staircase won: She ended up as his driver throughout the healing process.  “I felt like a gangster’s driver,” she laughs.  “I never knew exactly where we were going or why, and I figured I was just there to push the gas pedal.”

But if you learn the hard way (like I did) that driving anywhere in California means long sojourns in backed-up traffic, you also know that prolonged automotive clots generally results in long conversations.  Over a number of congested afternoon, stuck on one of Northern California’s arteries, Natalie learned an awful lot about the blood flowing though her own arteries—her family, her history, and of particular interest to her, what her father actually did for a living.

“It sounds strange,” she admits, “But when I was growing up, I really was never sure what my dad did.  I knew that it had to do with wine, but he had strange hours, worked out of our home office a lot and went off on trips. My friends all had fathers with more, sort of ‘definable’ professions…”

In fairness to A2, a lot of Natalie’s childhood took place during a time when he was either out of the house or consulting for other wineries; his hand was in many pies as he scrambled to establish the substructure of a company that his children would ultimately help expand, Natalie included.  Her harpoon in that particular leviathan seems to have been forged in traffic, jam by jam, as she shuttled the wounded warrior between his various meetings.  The upshot was a clearer—but by no means complete—view of what her role would be in the remarkable family dynasty, the great vinous behemoth that, whether or not the Scottos admit it, exists… and with growing proportions.

Natalie’s was a baptism by fire. Or technically, by marriage.  Her oldest brother Anthony got married and Natalie was called upon to do some temp work in the office while he was on an extended honeymoon—a sort of all-inclusive job without a description or formal introduction wherein she fielded phone calls from people making offers she couldn’t even understand, let alone refuse.  At first, it scared the sh*t out of her when people called and wanted to cut deals, sell this, buy that—she was a stranger in a strange land, but through the sheer weight of responsibility, she did not remain one for long.  She handled the calls she could, negotiated when it made sense, solicited input from A2 when it didn’t, learned the lexicon, figured out how to handle invoices and gradually, meticulously, began to get a handle on precisely what it was her father did for a living.

“It wasn’t a cookie-cutter job, that’s for sure,” Natalie shares.  “Nothing you can stamp with a paragraph on a resumé.  At the time, I didn’t figure I was cut out for that sort of lifestyle—I had just spent four years at UC Santa Barbara studying sociology and education, and I was sort of geared up for precisely a cookie-cutter profession, like teaching.  My professors were pushing me toward grad school, and that’s pretty much where I saw  my future.  What working in the wine industry entails is a life without routine.  And I like routine.”

But, in her mind, she owed her father a term of repayment: Thanks to him, she’d graduated college debt free and had spent a summer in Italy on the family dime.  So, she took on the paper-pushing duties and the chauffeur duties, and by the time A3 returned from his honeymoon, she had begun to see a missing denominator in the Scotto equation:

Distribution, especially in Northern California.

logoAn essential to any winery’s formula is accessibility of product, and with the expanding portfolio of labels for which Scotto Family Cellars was responsible, getting shelf space and store placement was becoming an imperative.  Making wine involves a certain amount of throwing caution to the wind, but selling that wine is a whole different ball game: You’ve got to harness that wind and convince customers sitting inside life’s stadium that they want to drink it.  That involves a unique skill set, and two years ago, when her father and brother approached her to build a distribution network in Northern California, in part to cushion her family’s brands and in part because they sensed she would be good at it.

Before she agreed, however, she had a trio of non-negotiable conditions:

Michael Scotto

Michael Scotto

First, the company had to be based on a commercially sound business plan; second, it had to encompass a roster of like-minded people, both as clients and as representatives, which in brief means that integrity is bigger than the dollar.  And the third condition was but a monoword synopsis of Condition #2, a concept understood by Italian gangster drivers and Italian wine people alike:  ‘Honor’.

So with those contract riders in place, her family purchased a distribution company called Eagle Rock, and while maintaining her role at Scotto Cellars managing exports, compliance and wine and cider tasting event planning, Natalie agreed to take the reins, renaming it after herself—sort of.

Quality Scotto Time…

I sat down with Natalie at eleven en punto inside the upstairs all-purpose room at the Scotto’s Cluff Avenue winery in Lodi.  We rapped for a long time about the whole state of affairs, her family, her job, her outlook, her future.  She is a Scotto in every sense of the word, displaying the charm, energy and humility that I read as characteristic of the clan.

When I hung around with the eldest Scotto scion, Anthony III, I was struck with the paternal attitude he adopted when dealing with his siblings; that might be a natural birthright of primogeniture, and I found it touching.  But, equally touching is Natalie’s perhaps unconscious maternal predisposition that bubbles to the surface when she discusses her brothers—she looks out for them, scraps with them, does not suffer much backseat nonsense that might cause her to pull the car over to the side of the road.

Not that the true family matriarch, dear Gracie Scotto—who held down the fort through A2’s many masterpieces and missteps—is anything less than all encompassing as a mother figure; the short time I was able to spend with her was glorious.  She is, in every sense of her name, grace.  Every Scotto, including A2, acknowledges her role as the true hero of the Scotto story.

But Natalie possesses that grace as well, wrapped inside the front of a shrewd businesswoman—probably shrewder than she originally gave herself credit for.  She’d have made a good teacher, too, and God protect the student that thought he could slip something by her.  She has shows uncanny insight into her family’s individual fortitudes and foibles, perks and quirks, pluses and pockmarks and she rattled off a summation of her brothers with dead fire accuracy.

Anthony Scotto III

Anthony Scotto III

Number One Son Anthony, she notes, is a true visionalist.  A hyper-energy salesman that would have made a sensational history teacher, (much as I thought that she would have). “He’s got a brain wired for sales,” she maintains.  “And all the lateral thinking skills that requires.  I’ve never seen anybody who can be in so many places at the same time, not even my dad.  But with him, it’s organized and disciplined chaos.  He’s really a phenomenal leader because he teaches by example, not by lecture.”

Of Paul, the brother she claims is most like her in an approach to the wine industry, she say, “Paul is fun—he’s approachable and authentic, but highly technical.  He does nothing without research.  You find something you need for a dollar, I guarantee that Paul will find it for 99¢.

Paul Scotto

Paul Scotto

But, with these respects paid, she owns an ephemeral sort of attachment to her brother Michael perhaps unmatched in the others: “We’re closest in age and went through a lot of the same things at home; we had the same friends growing up and we both have—to some extent—a ‘go with the flow’ attitude.  With Michael, that’s a feature of hard work; he’s there, where he needs to be, every day without fail.  He’s the go-to guy—box sizes, bottle weights, that sort of stuff.  Paul is the technical whiz, but Michael takes care of the details.”

For her father, Natalie reserves the review that is the most poignant, and the one that may reflects most upon her own character: “I used to hear him in the morning, up ridiculously early, loud music playing, and I never really gave him credit for the depth of his knowledge—how his environment was perfectly suited to his performance.  Which is almost always superb. I remember him trying to bring in some sea containers of wine from Argentina and I kicked and screamed, thinking he was out of his mind.  Thinking back on it, I think he might have been testing me, seeing how I would react to such a risky move; anyway, I don’t think we wound up with that wine so on some level, he must have agreed with me.”

the Patriarch, Anthony Scotto II

the Patriarch, Anthony Scotto II

Her loyalty to the cause, however, both genetic and professional, is perhaps better illustrated by her reaction when we discussed the years that her father was gone, when there was no heavy metal at five in the morning, no long stints in the home office, no mentor riding shotgun and talking genealogy during traffic jam.  It was tough on all the kids, she says, but on her and Michael especially, because they were still at home and had to field the inquiries.  Tough on Grace, of course, but in the end, she had the adult perspective that might have been still beyond the kids.  And Grace forgave him, quicker, perhaps, than he has forgiven himself.

Has Natalie?  “He’s human, we all make mistakes.  He’s admitted his and he’s apologized I accept it, and we move forward.”

The true test, I figured, was to press my luck and the propriety and the situation’s delicacy and and ask her if she’d forgive her own husband Josh—a great dude who fits into the family seamlessly—for the same transgression.   And she doesn’t miss a beat: “Of course,” she says.  “And I told him so.”

See, to me, that’s class squared.  That’s grace under pressure.  Or better: That’s behaving with honor even when those around you, those you love the most, do not.  And the ability—the inclination—to do this becomes the test of any true teacher, whether in a class room or a board room:  Leading by example.

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