Chêne Bleu is a family-owned winery based in France that makes multi-award-winning fine wines without using any chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides or additives. Located in the heart of a UNESCO biosphere forest, it actively nurtures the wild environment and exceptional biodiversity that surrounds its vines. It collaborates with scientists and like-minded pioneers in regenerative agriculture, making it a hub for thought leadership in guiding the fine wine world to a more sustainable Future.
We hear from the CEO, Nicole Rolet, on her journey in the wine industry, the qualities of a great leader, the lessons she has learned, and her goals for positive change.
Hi Nicole! When did you join Chene Bleu and how long have you been in this role?
I’m the Co-Founder, Principal and CEO of Chêne Bleu, our family winery, and La Verriere, the medieval property on the estate that operates as an eco-luxury guest house. 25 years ago, I left my career in international affairs and joined my husband as a sidekick on his passionate quest to restore the abandoned historic vineyard on the estate. We spent 12 years resuscitating the old vines before making our first wine. In the process, I became badly bitten by his wine bug, studied wine, and found my calling. From the get-go we ran it on organic, biodynamic and sustainable principles, long before that was fashionable hashtag. In 2006, we formed Chêne Bleu and launched our first wines a few years later. I took full oversight of the company last year. As the grand-daughter of a fearless Boston suffragette and trailblazing mother, I’ve always felt an obligation to think beyond the boundaries of our company and look for ways to improve the greater ecosystem of fine wine. In addition to my role at Chêne Bleu, I founded the Fine Minds for Fine Wines think tank and co-founded several other organisations, including the Areni Global Institute for the Future of Fine Wine, which I chair.
What three things do you think make a great leader?
Finding a leadership style that matches your authentic personality and builds on your natural superpowers. If you’re a visionary introvert, don’t try to be warm and fuzzy, focus on leading by example and inspiring people. In my case, I love people and collaboration, so my leadership style will be more inclusive, compassionate and team-oriented.
Generosity of Spirit. In the end, people only remember what you do for others beyond your obligations. Are you there for them even when you don’t need to be? Do you go the extra mile for them? They will do the same for you.
We have the great fortune to be advised by Zelma Long, an inspirational winemaking pioneer who embodies that quality. She is a total icon in our field, with impossibly high standards for herself and others, yet is still so modest and accessible. I worked for David Rockefeller in a think tank, and he was the same – he treated everyone with respect and graciousness.
What three things would the people around you say make you a great leader?
Willingness to listen. It allows me to know people better and tailor-make my style to their needs. Sometimes it can be a double-edged sword. Some people reward your interest with loyalty, others will take advantage of your kindness, but I wouldn’t change that for anything. Perhaps because of my multicultural background, I believe deeply in diversity and inclusion – as a philosophy of life, but also as a benefit to the work environment and even to the bottom line. I think I’m naturally respectful of different cultures and backgrounds. I believe my team appreciates that I’ve been mindful of creating a supportive diverse environment, even in a rural part of France where that isn’t always the norm. Our company motto is “Non Mihi Non Tibi Sed Nobis” which translates to “Not Mine Not Yours But Ours.” It’s even on our wine label. This may sound idealistic, but it’s been my experience and I’ll stand by it.I like to have fun! We all work really hard, but when I see opportunities for team activities or outings, I like to treat my team, and have a good time.
What is the toughest lesson you learnt?
Overcoming rejection. I was painfully shy and hyper-sensitive as a child, which I’ve worked hard to overcome. This made me very vulnerable to other’s opinions of me – it also made it harder to take risks, harder to sell, harder to lead. I realised that to build the sales and reputation of Chêne Bleu, I’d have to get people to try the wines. For that, I’d have to bang loudly on pots and pans. One day, I finally mustered up the courage to meet a famous wine importer for some advice. I only had one first wine to show and even so, he proceeded to rip my hopes to shreds and tell me why we would never succeed. It was bruising, but helped me understand I wasn’t going to have the luxury of waiting for validation along the way, I’d have to find the resolve to let criticism roll over me and develop resolve and self-belief. A decade later, I’m completely confident in the quality of my wine and comfortable with any and all opinions of it. That importer has become a big fan of the wines, by the way!
And the most rewarding?
Learning that to be successful you can be yourself and stay true to your ethics. Many times we are told that to get to the top you have to be ruthless or back-stabbing. That may be true in certain fields or companies, but there are others where that’s not the case – seek and thou shall find!
What is the one piece of advice you wish you had been given early on in your career?
I’d have taken more risks, sooner. I wasted valuable time doing what I thought I should do, instead of what I wanted to do. Take that year off and work on that fishing boat in Alaska or do that thing that doesn’t make any sense in the financial short-term or as a linear career path. It’ll be so rewarding as an end in itself, but also as a means to an end. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll be able to integrate the learnings into other professional experiences. Besides, no matter how hard you try, your career is not going to be smooth and linear anyway, so you might as well not delude yourself!
What is your immediate focus for creating positive change as a leader for Chêne Bleu?
Many people on our team are proud to work for a company that’s deeply committed to sustainability, but now I would like everyone to share the responsibility of bringing more solutions and ideas for sustainable practices to the table, so they feel more committed and follow out of conviction, not obligation. More delegating, educating and listening!
And your long-term goals?
To do more for others and for the environment. My initial ambition was to fix up the one little piece of earth that was entrusted to us, and leave it better for the next guys. But slowly it escalated into a much broader and more proselytic ambition to help people understand the importance and urgency of sustainable and regenerative agriculture, and the role it can play in saving the planet. It may sound over-ambitious – no one can do everything. But everyone can do something, and at least I will have tried.
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