Laura Booras of Riverbench Vineyard and Winery: “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”

Being mindful means simply that you’re paying attention in a non-judgmental way. You’re aware of things happening around you but instead of reacting immediately to them, you absorb them and analyze them. In a way, you are able to take the meaningful things and make them a part of you for a moment, whether it’s […]

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Being mindful means simply that you’re paying attention in a non-judgmental way. You’re aware of things happening around you but instead of reacting immediately to them, you absorb them and analyze them. In a way, you are able to take the meaningful things and make them a part of you for a moment, whether it’s stopping to literally smell the roses, or pausing to truly listen to the person speaking to you.

As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Booras.

Laura is the CEO of Riverbench Vineyard and Winery, which produces sustainably farmed Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines in Santa Barbara County, California. Raised in a family dedicated to wine importing, distributing, and sales, her own career in the wine industry began after completing her undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when she relocated to California’s Central Coast wine region. Laura loves reading, gardening, cooking, and traveling (with her dogs whenever possible).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Myfamily has always held food and wine in high esteem. Many of the women in my family, on both the French and Greek sides, are and were amazing cooks, and I spent a lot of time with both of them in the kitchen. My father is a veteran in the wine industry and has been importing and distributing wine in North Carolina for almost four decades. When I was little, he would pour me a taste and quiz me on the wine itself, where it was from, and who made it. “Why does Chapoutier always have braille on the label? What are the main varietals in Chateauneuf du Pape wines?” He was relentless and demanded a well thought out (and correct) answer. I didn’t want to get into the wine business at first, but in college, I realized that I loved chemistry, travel, and languages, and suddenly wine, which involves all three, seemed appealing.

I chose Santa Barbara County to start my career because I wanted to get my hands into a vineyard and the region was a little less intimidating than Napa. I called and emailed everyone I could find in the area asking for a job. Finally, Consilience Wines, owned at the time by two couples, offered me a full-time tasting room position. I loved being behind the bar because I had to learn every aspect of the business from winemaking to vineyard practices to sales from the ground up. About a year and a half later, I moved on to Zaca Mesa Winery, and then the opportunity at Riverbench popped up. It was only a vineyard at the time and the owners wanted to make it into its own wine brand. They needed someone to do that and decided I was the best fit. I have now been at Riverbench for almost 13 years.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In 2004, I was about to graduate from UNC Chapel Hill, and I had finally decided I wanted to get into the wine industry. I chose Santa Barbara County because it was an up and coming wine region at the time, and it was near the ocean which was important to me. I called and emailed every winery I could find, and spoke to a few people, asking for work. Finally, I got an offer from a small operation called Consilience wines. I was so excited to accept it so I did, and I started planning my move to the west coast.

As I’ve mentioned, my father has been in the wine business for most of his life, and we planned a dinner date so that I could break the news that I was moving to California. I knew he wouldn’t be thrilled about me going so far away. We had some wine in our glasses, and I let him know that I’d gotten the job and would be moving across the country. He smiled, and just said, “I know.”

Turns out, I thought I was being independent and doing this all on my own, but he had been distributing Consilience wines for years through his company. He already knew the owners and that they had offered me the job. It was my very first important lesson about the wine industry: it’s small, so never say anything to anyone that you don’t want getting around.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Identify the team members that you simply couldn’t live without and find creative ways to ensure they know it. For example, I have a stellar team member who has children who are just starting to get into weekend activities, and she doesn’t want to miss that time in their lives. So we worked out a flexible schedule for her so that she can meet her family’s needs and also be there for Riverbench when we need her. She knows we’ll support her personal goals, and I’ve seen her productivity and efficiency increase dramatically. Mutual support of personal and professional goals do wonders for morale and I think make people feel like they’re part of something bigger than just a 9 to 5 day job.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

When my great grandmother came to the United States from Greece with her new husband, she didn’t speak any English. She brought along only a few things — a branch from her favorite fig tree, her brass Greek coffee pots, some clothes, and her schoolbook that she used as a child. Though she taught herself English over the years, she still mostly spoke Greek throughout my childhood, and I absorbed as much as I could. I started learning the language in grade school, and now I’m the only one left in our family who speaks Greek. I have her little school book, about 100 years old now, and I treasure it. It reminds me that everyone has their own challenges, and that they can be tackled and overcome bit by bit, just like each lesson in that little book.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

Being mindful means simply that you’re paying attention in a non-judgmental way. You’re aware of things happening around you but instead of reacting immediately to them, you absorb them and analyze them. In a way, you are able to take the meaningful things and make them a part of you for a moment, whether it’s stopping to literally smell the roses, or pausing to truly listen to the person speaking to you.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

We live in a world where a million things are coming at us at once, through email and our phones, personal interactions, or just the day to day chaos of a home. When I’m not in a mindful, thoughtful place, even having my workout interrupted by my dog needing to go outside can frustrate me. Yet if I can stop myself, and remember that my dog brings so much joy to my life and he certainly isn’t aware he’s interrupting anything, I can take a moment and just hit the pause button. Some deep breaths and I’m able to put it into perspective and realize it’s not the end of the world, just a short interruption.

I think it’s important to truly live your life, and if you’re not able to be mindful of the world you’re in, you’re missing out. Taking pauses throughout your day gives your brain a moment to reset, leading to clearer, more effective thoughts later. Some of my best ideas have come in instances where I just allow myself to be in that particular moment — feeling the steam in the shower, smelling the dish I’m cooking, or interacting with the people on my team.

In short, being mindful allows you to think more clearly, apply your energies more efficiently, and appreciate small daily inspirations that you might otherwise miss. Not to mention, a mindful mind is a much calmer, less stressed mind.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

  1. Listen. I mean, really listen. Hear the little sounds, like birds, or music, or your dog snoring. But actually listen and absorb what people are saying to you and try to interpret what they mean. Right now, my team is afraid of their families, their health, and their livelihoods. The nature of our business — selling wine face to face in a beautiful vineyard setting — is now a danger to public health. I am determined to keep my full time and mostly full-time staff employed through this, so we’re getting creative and shifting work. When someone on my team called me over the weekend and was frustrated about a new task, I listened to find out what she was really struggling with. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the task that was bothering her, it was the bigger picture — she was worried about her aging mother, her income, the uncertainty. Sometimes people just need to talk things through, or even vent them out, and as a leader you must be able to lend an ear and alleviate some of that pain and fear and stress.
  2. Take a break. We always say we’re going to stop for a moment, but do we really? And breaks are vital to creating mindfulness. Now that I’m working at home, I actually have made a schedule for myself for each day, including breaks. Those times allow me to stop, evaluate, think about something else, and then return to my work with a freshness that always leads to something good. Even the best leaders can’t operate on full speed non-stop. You can offer more to your work and make it more meaningful by taking the time to rest.
  3. Indulge in a hobby. I’m one of those people who has a long list of goals. I want to accomplish so many things in this lifetime, and I like to pass my time in meaningful ways. About four years ago, I started taking drum lessons, and now, playing the drums is one of my favorite ways to unwind and sometimes even release a little frustration. I think taking the time — even 10 minutes a day — to do something creative to expend energy in a positive way can help increase overall mindfulness in general.
  4. Stick to a mission and a strategy. At Riverbench, we have one mission: to make the best wines we can that express our very own ideal vineyard site. Strategically, we support that mission by solidifying our brand image as positive and approachable, making a high-quality product at a value price point, and focusing on the customer experience. Like any business executive, I’m bombarded every day with tons of ideas and promotional tools, and some of them seem interesting. Yet I always go back to our mission, and if something doesn’t fit that mission, it’s not worth doing. A few years ago, we had an opportunity to buy exceptional grapes from another vineyard. We had a relationship with the owner of the property and it was something we didn’t grow ourselves, which sounded new and exciting. Then I thought about our entire company mission, which showcases our very special and unique vineyard site. This idea simply didn’t fit. There are so many fun and exciting things that people can do to enhance their businesses, but a lot of them long term don’t make sense. You can’t be all things to all people, or you’ll compromise your identity. By sticking to a mission and a strategy, you can weed out the important stuff and disregard the less important static, allowing yourself to hone in on what matters.
  5. Follow your heart every once in a while. In business school, they don’t talk much about instinct or “gut feeling,” but the truth is that my business has values and an identity that comes from the people involved with it. The bottom line is vital, or we don’t continue to have that business in the first place, but sometimes, as a leader, you have to step back and be human. I’m all about rules and structure, especially since I sell alcohol. But in times of uncertainty especially, we need to be able to be mindful about individual situations, too. If you lost your job and call to cancel your wine club membership, I’m not going to charge you a cancellation fee. If you’re home sick and have run out of sick time, but need the income, we’re going to pay you because we care about you.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

  1. Listen to the right people and consider the sources of your information. Politics, advertising, and other influences can skew your perspective. Turn to respected experts to follow directly as a way to hear things from the proverbial horse’s mouth. Even then, dig deeper and cross-check critical information before sharing or disseminating to your team.
  2. Be as decisive as you can. When things started exploding around the virus in California, it was chaos. People were coming out to the tasting rooms and acting like the world was ending — getting drunk and aggressive, vomiting, going crazy. On Sunday, March 15, the governor ordered closure of public businesses like our tasting rooms, and honestly, it was kind of a relief to not have to make the call myself. I realized though, that I needed to act on that decision and provide a structure and plan for my people. And I needed to do it quickly. By Monday morning, we had a plan in place to keep our staff working but safe, and I had conference calls to answer any and all questions. It put my team in a better place — they were scared and anxious, and being steady and decisive helped put them in a better mind frame.
  3. Keep people busy. Now is not the time to sit back and watch Netflix. It’s the time to do all of those projects that we never have time for in day to day life — every business has them! Our goal is to invest our time in things that will benefit us later, but that also keeps our team working for the time being, even if that’s at home. We’ve put together a structured education program, we’re supplying resources and classes for them to do online in their spare time, and we’re reaching out to our club members and customers in innovative ways to build loyalty and give them a little something positive. We will be ready to come back with a vengeance when this all blows over. Busier people have their minds elsewhere, so are less anxious overall, so keeping my staff’s task lists full is helpful. It provides a sense of normalcy as well- just keep plugging away and check things off of your list.
  4. Be available — even virtually. We have an open-door policy at Riverbench. Our team knows they can go to their direct managers with anything, but they can also come to me at any time if they need to. I find that sometimes people just need to vent and have someone hear them out, and it makes a lot of the anxiety go away, even for a little while. During this crisis, I’ve been more accessible than ever, via phone, email, or virtual experiences online.
  5. Remind people that this is new for everyone. No one has ever experienced anything like this. Ever. It’s a historical time and it’s terrifying, but no one knows better than anyone else how to deal with all of the parts of a worldwide pandemic. There are so many stresses that go along with it — people are worried about their jobs, their life events like weddings, or how they’ll keep working. I tell my people constantly that Riverbench has their best interests on the forefront of our minds, and we will take care of them. We just have to figure out step by step how to do that, because there isn’t a handbook. It’s not going to be easy, and some companies won’t recover. But I know we’re only getting stronger through this, so reassuring them that it will all end up ok helps.

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

The Headspace app is one of my favorites. I’ve been meditating most of my life, and let me tell you, it’s really challenging sometimes. There are moments when I sit down to take 10 minutes to calm my brain and I just can’t — those times are rare but I just accept them as “best efforts” and try again another time. Headspace allows you to choose a theme and go with it, and guides you into paying attention to yourself in that moment. I often finish a session feeling like I just took a half hour nap.

I’d also suggest a really good fictional book. Some people don’t read fiction and that’s fine, but here’s the thing: allowing yourself to look into the window of someone else’s story can give you some insight and perspective. Some of my favorite ones recently have been Reese Witherspoon’s book club picks, which are always unique and absorbing. Sometimes it’s helpful to put your mind firmly somewhere else for a while.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“You can’t teach friendly.” I’m in the business of providing an exceptional experience, and that experience revolves around wine. My father has been importing and distributing wines from all over the world since I was a baby, so I grew up learning about it every day. I was also classically trained in food and basic cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. Wine and food are the loves of my life and second nature to me, so I can teach people about them all day long. What I can’t teach is how to be friendly. How to intrinsically be able to know what will make someone happy, or how to go above and beyond to do the right thing for someone else. How to provide a sampling of wines that will make someone’s day fun and bright, and to combine that with the proper dialogue and information.

It’s a bit intuitive, and I only hire people who have this ability, because it simply can’t be taught.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The Work/Life Balance movement could be something that benefits everyone. Some countries are on board with this, supplying more paid leave, etc., but I think it hasn’t really taken off everywhere because work/life balance is different to everyone.

One of my team members is amazingly talented at baking bread — she makes this killer local sourdough and breaks her back to supply loaves to our community on her days off. This business and process is meaningful to her, and balances out her day to day Riverbench work with something creative and something that’s her own. That’s what balance means to her. We found that a 4/10 schedule worked best for her so that she can still have a little downtime between both projects.

Another team member has two young children, and just invested in her “forever house.” Spending time with her family and not missing seeing her kids grow up is most important to her. She has a flexible schedule so that she can carpool and be with her kids when she needs to, and also be available for Riverbench when we need her. These two things very rarely conflict; in fact, I’ve seen her work efficiency increase along the way because she’s got a balance between personal and professional goals.

My movement would be more individualized. I don’t think more burden on the business is necessarily the goal — we’re small, so more paid leave is not always the answer. But there are a lot of things you can do that benefit both the person and the business, and allow both to thrive. We seem to have gotten away from that a little in our corporate culture in the US.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Facebook: Riverbench Vineyard and Winery — I host virtual tastings and tours regularly now and those will continue!

Instagram: @Riverbench

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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