“A military mindset is one that tackles challenges head-on, focuses on solutions, looks ahead at solving problems before they have a chance to even manifest, and making a plan without assumptions,” Renee Ventrice says. “I carry all of that with me in all aspects of running my business: marketing, operations, projections and execution of our tours.”
Ventrice is referring to Cork & Keg Tours, a family business that she owns along with her husband of 26 years, Don. “We like to joke that I’m the gas, he’s the brakes,” Ventrice says. “Don handles all of the technical and practical aspects of business: finances, licenses, permits, etc. I am in charge of the marketing, branding, PR and creating the packages. I designed our website, I handle guest interactions, and manage all of our social media. We both deliver concierge services on the tours—people love the husband/wife aspect of our business—especially the bachelorette parties! People always want to know our secret to being married so long and working together.”
What sets Cork & Keg apart from others in its industry is its unique approach to incorporating life into their wine and beer tastings. “The emotion is already there,” Ventrice says. “I simply draw the line that connects the dots. If you ask wine drinkers about their favorite bottle, often they won’t just tell you the name, they will tell you where they drank it, who they were with, and what they were celebrating. Those moments exist in everyday life. And I love helping people make that connection.”
This outlook has proven beneficial. Cork & Keg was awarded the Golden Standard by several wineries, which is given when a business goes above and beyond as a standard and not an exception.
Ventrice was a fun and wonderful interview, and our conversation was very uplifting and at times emotional. It’s clear that she not only practices what she preaches, she also embodies it in all facets of her life. Her effervescent personality is almost tangible as she shared her life story and the road to Cork & Keg Tours.
An Influential Early Life
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Ventrice is the fifth sibling out of six children. Her mother owned and ran an infant daycare while her father was in the Air Force until he retired in the mid-1970s.
Despite constantly moving and growing up in a family of eight, Ventrice was a reserved kid. “I was a pretty introverted child,” she shares. “Which surprises everyone who knows me, but I was a real bookworm. I still love to read as often as I can. I played the clarinet in junior high and was a varsity cheerleader all through high school.”
As Ventrice got older, she and her father spent a lot of time together, specifically doing jigsaw puzzles. “I think that contributes to the way I think and my success with business development,” she said. “Turning things around in my mind in different ways to make pieces fit. It also taught me patience and how to relax through challenges and trying over and over until I get it right. I still do puzzles to this day and just sent him a wine puzzle that I completed.”
Ventrice’s mother also had some influence that would later contribute to her career. “My mother is West Indian (from St. Kitts, raised in Aruba) and she’s a phenomenal cook,” Ventrice says. “She taught me to cook, but she never used measurements in her recipes; it was always ‘give it a few shakes over the pot’ or ‘cover the top with this seasoning’ or ‘make it the consistency of a really good pudding,’ but never any actual amounts. She taught me ways to fix recipes too. Too much salt in a sauce? Add a potato to soak it up. Rice too bland? Use chicken broth instead of water to boil it. I think all of the different herbs, flavors, and spices I grew up with helped my palate to develop. I never thought that eating lychee, tamarind, oxtail and souse would lead to being a wine tasting expert.”
After graduating from high school, Ventrice decided to go the military route, joining the Navy. She said she clepped most of her classes, meaning that she tested out of them, except for math and science and made plans to attend college. However, she ended up meeting her future husband—also in the Navy—and her plans changed as her life did.
“I served in the U.S. Navy from 1989-1995,” Ventrice says. “After leaving the military, I focused on motherhood, then entrepreneurship, and finishing my degree never became a priority. My life experiences guided me in a different direction.”
A Palate Teaser
In 1998, Ventrice and her husband celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary at a sushi restaurant in Pensacola, Florida, called The Fish House. They wanted something new, so when they asked their server for a wine recommendation, he suggested the 1996 Dr. Thanisch Riesling.
“It tasted fine on its own, but when I sipped it after a bite of sushi, I couldn’t believe how the flavor changed. My husband and I looked at each other like, ‘What just happened?’ It was the very first wine pairing either of us had experienced, and we were hooked from that day forward.”
In 2001, Ventrice and her family moved to Virginia, where she worked several odd jobs for years. “I did it all,” she recalls. “I worked in a dentist's office, did direct sales, pet sitting, fitness instructor, personal trainer, I worked at Carfax, I did everything.”
Ventrice’s eclectic job history was because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. “Friends would offer jobs and I would take them,” she says. “When you’re in it, you’re wondering why you’re doing this and where it was going.” But she said she doesn’t regret working any job she had, no matter how good or bad it was.
“Looking back, all my jobs helped me get to where I am now. All my jobs spilled into my business. I learned so many lessons, and it helped me become a better leader.”
Also running parallel to her job exploration was her search for a wine that could match the 1996 Dr. Thanisch that she and her husband had once shared. Ventrice said that even though that bottle made her a wine drinker, she was choosing wine that was on the low-cost side. “I was trying to recreate the moment, but I didn’t know anything about wine,” she says. “I would find one, but Dr. Thanisch ruined it though because it was so good. I was still a rum and coke or beer-drinking type of girl.
Ventrice said moving to Virginia wine country certainly helped sharpen her wine palate and she and her husband started intentionally going out to try different wines. “It opened us up and we tasted a lot of wine we didn’t like but eventually found ones that we did.”
In 2005, Ventrice’s husband started taking business trips to San Francisco, and she flew out to join him so they could go wine tasting. “That's when we became wine enthusiasts instead of wine drinkers,” she says. “Visiting Sonoma is how we came to have a love, passion and realization for wine. Having high-quality wine changes you, and we had no idea how vast wine is.”
Ventrice said the high-end wine was pricey and she couldn’t afford it, so she discovered craft and small-production wine, which, along with her mother’s cooking, helped heighten her palate.
So, what turned Cork & Keg from a passing idea into a full-on business? “The final nudge was when we were in Sonoma wine tasting with friends who were Virginia winery owners,” she says. “During the tasting, I was picking up very subtle notes that no one else had mentioned, and they said, ‘We should have you taste our wines and write our tasting notes.’ Hearing that a few more times from other wine industry professionals gave me the confidence that I just might have a talent for it, beyond my passion for drinking and trying different wines.”
Ventrice said that she and her husband moved quickly when they decided to open their business. “We came up with the idea in mid-November of 2016 and by November 26, we had the LLC, the name, the logo in process and the business plan.” Corks & Kegs opened for business and had its first tour that following April.
“Tours can cost money, but it’s more about education. It’s good for the soul.”
Corks & Kegs Tours, as the name suggests, offers wine tasting and beer tours, which Ventrice says is a far cry from the cheap beer and Boone’s Farm that she drank in high school while becoming a master in the drinking game Quarters.
In 1990, while in the Navy, Ventrice was stationed in Germany and started trying the beer there. “I really couldn’t afford wine my first time there, so I drank mainly German Helles, Starkbier and Weissbier.”
In 1997, she said during her second tour in Germany, her husband with her and they ventured out to Rothenburg where she had her “first memorable red and white wine experience.”
Ventrice had no idea what kind it was, “because it was poured from a pitcher shaped like a chicken.” She says, But it was the first time I thought to myself, ‘Hmm. Wine is definitely something I need to explore.’”
In 2017, Ventrice earned her first wine certification and “became a wine geek.” “I love every process of wine,” she says. “My level of education was around a somm without the somm education components.” That changed when she completed in 2018 when Ventrice earned the level 2 award certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which requires a minimum of 28 hours of study time in topics such as environmental factors of grape growing, the winemaking process and its influences on different wines and various wine tasting.
Ventrice said she has plans to continue her wine education. “I’m studying to earn my level 3 now,” she says. “I also implement principles of the 5-Star Excellence training I received from a Ritz-Carlton course to develop the level of guest service that sets us apart from other tour companies. I also have a marketing and leader certification from e-Cornell, which helped develop my skills in that portion of my business.”
“I wasn’t looking to become a mentor or educator. It just happened.”
When 2020 and the pandemic hit, everything shut down and small business owners anxiously waited for news on what would happen to them. Around the end of the first wave of the pandemic, news of George Floyd, another Black man dying by a police officer's direct actions lit up the news cycle.
Like so many Black mothers, Ventrice, who has a 22-year-old son, had a breakdown. She was emotional as she told me that she had an (understandable) fear for him and it made her question his self-worth and hers.
“I realized you have to find a place outside of yourself and find your value with other people,” Ventrice says. “Anyone who struggles with self-worth and finds something of value, you owe it to yourself to let yourself thrive. I decided to make a conscious effort to find worth outside of myself.” Ventrice found her calling through mentoring and wine education, which all started during the pandemic last year.
Ventrice says that Cork & Kegs closed doors between mid-March and the first week of July and had to cancel thousands of dollars’ worth of reservations. “We took that time to improve operational practices and needed to revamp our pricing and packages,” she says. “We also stayed in contact with and promoted the wineries and breweries that were still offering curbside and delivery services.”
The business also launched Go Be Grape, a play on words a long-time mentor used to say to her. “‘Go be great,’ which is what my mentor, who is deceased, always told me to do any time I doubted myself,” she says. “Go Be Grape; don’t be afraid of success or failure. Take that to heart. Don’t be afraid to be wrong or fail.”
Even pre-pandemic, Cork & Keg Tours continued to get praise and recognition. Besides receiving the Gold Standard, in 2020, Cork & Keg Tours won third place in USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards for Best Wine Tour Company, placing behind two established California wineries.
“It is my personal brand as a certified wine expert for onsite and virtual wine tasting events,” Ventrice says. “And sharing unique wine notes on Facebook and Instagram. I have a way to make people understand the complexities of wine and I wanted to spread that knowledge.”
Ventrice does Facebook Live ticketed events, and her goal is to make wine approachable for wine lovers of all levels. “I will continue to bring diversity to the upper levels of wine experts,” she says. “And to go beyond the glass to connect people with wine on a personal level. I also offer donation-based social marketing coaching as a way to raise funds for a veteran’s charity that I volunteer for called Veterans Moving Forward.”
During the pandemic, Ventrice joined a handful of Facebook groups, some for business owners, and started to offer help. “Everyone was online and freaking out,” she says. “I started doing Facebook Live streams and lots of networking. I helped people who needed guidance and were unable to work due to COVID.”
Listening to her animated talk about helping others, it was clear that being a mentor is Ventrice’s innate calling and she agreed, saying it was “very therapeutic.” Ventrice stated multiple times that giving back was the source of her self-worth and it wasn’t about money. “When you find something that no longer keeps you from thriving, it’s good for heart and soul and I’m helping other people along the way,” she says. “I’ve transformed in being able to help other people, even on the smallest of scales.”
Ventrice says she doesn’t charge those she’s advising; she tells them to “pay what they think she is worth.” She told me about a client who only had 300 followers, but with Ventrice’s guidance and a few months, the number jumped to 3,000.
Ventrice said she helped with the client’s campaign by networking through social media. On the day of the client’s launch, her product sold out within a day. Many people noticed how Ventrice was helping out, and a publication reached out to do a profile on her, noting her resilience and inspiration to others.
Her profile was published and even more people began to contact her, benefiting both Cork & Keg and Ventrice’s selfless knack for mentorship. She says she’s currently mentoring fifteen people and appreciates those who believe and trust in her. “2020 was a transformation,” she says. “I thought I was a butterfly, but George Floyd [death and protests] made me realize I was still a caterpillar and I needed to go back into the cocoon. People don’t realize how much more powerful they truly are.”
“Growth!” Ventrice says. “We plan to expand our Cork & Keg Tours business, and if the pandemic results in stricter rules around tourism and group gatherings, we will expand our virtual wine events through Go Be Grape.”
Ventrice says social media has also helped their business. “Being highly visible on social media, reaching into multiple aspects of the wine industry and continuing my education through the WSET have given me a foothold and placed me in front of many media outlets,” she says.
“It’s up to me to take these opportunities, like talking to you and promote them in a way that reaches others who may want to move up the wine industry ladder but aren’t sure how. I also want them to see women who look like them and know that we are not only welcome but influential and powerful in this industry. The biggest challenge is reaching a mass audience to create brand awareness on a nationwide level. We are ready for whatever 2021 throws at us.”