Rodeo, Breast Cancer And A $690 Million IPO For Vintage Wine Estates: Terry Wheatley’s Whackadoodle Career

It’s an odd word to hear so often from the person leading a $690 million IPO. But that IPO is exactly what Terry Wheatley, President of Vintage Wine Estates, is currently undertaking, and “whackadoodle” is exactly the word she used most frequently (almost as much as “scrappy”) during our interview.

Those two words piqued my interest, which had already been sparked while researching Wheatley’s background. Before we spoke, I’d learned about her history with rodeo (as a young girl, then in high school and college) and her experiences as a breast cancer survivor. I was curious how rodeo and cancer factor into her personality and professional success in the wine industry. Most of all, I wanted to know how a whackadoodle frame of mind has led to her leading role in Vintage Wine Estate’s IPO.

Here are my five favorite takeaways from our very colorful conversation.

“Every Day There’s Something that Requires Hard Work or Thinking”
Wheatley’s personality was shaped very early during a time and place when, she said, kids were raised differently. Wheatley, now 67, was born on a ranch in northern California and moved with her family to Red Bluff, about halfway between Sacramento and the Oregon border, when she was in the third grade.

She remembers that that was a time when you woke at 4:30 am to exercise horses before your brother drove you ten miles to school. It was when you jockeyed race horses for your father, and when you started working at age 14 and didn’t stop, maybe not until a $690 million IPO, and probably not then either.

In Wheatley’s words, “every day there was something that either requires hard work or thinking.” Such as? “There’s a cow running down the orchard next door and you have to figure out how you’re going to catch it before it gets to the road,” she said. “And you’ve just come home from work in a suit.”

A Lineage of Breast Cancer
The matriarch of Wheatley’s family, her grandmother, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 55, and she died at 58 when Wheatley was 18. Wheatley’s mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy at age 38. Wheatley’s daughter Kate had her first lump removed when she was 17, and has already undergone three lumpectomies.

Cancer is personal, and Wheatley herself was far from immune. She followed the same course as her grandmother and mother of biopsy after biopsy, until her doctors found 13 lumps that they were checking. Her surgeon put the lab screens up and said to Wheatley, “This looks like someone’s dropped confetti on you. I can tell you that one of these is cancer, I just can’t tell you which one.” Wheatley was 48 at the time, and was scheduled for a double mastectomy within the next ten days.

Cancer at Work
At the time, Wheatley was the Senior Vice President of Sales at Sutter Home Winery. She returned to work after her surgery and learned that Vera Trinchero, Napa pioneer and owner of Sutter Home, was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Wheatley credits Trinchero as a “huge support” in pushing the company (despite their attorneys’ advice not to align breast cancer with wine) to create and contribute financially to the Sutter Home for Hope campaign, which has since partnered with the National Breast Cancer Foundation in raising awareness and funds.

Pink Shirts and Pink Wine at the Rodeo
The idea and momentum of Sutter Home for Hope helped to align what Wheatley had always considered her “parallel universes” of work and her home life. In 2004, her son was a top-ranked cowboy competing in the National Finals Rodeo and Wheatley saw an opportunity, over the ten-day event, to involve Sutter Home’s white zinfandel in promotional activities. “Let’s get it poured by the glass in the casinos,” Wheatley recalls. “Let’s give cowboys’ wives something to drink” other than the Crown Royal whisky, Coors beer and Jack Daniels that are typically available.

The “Tough Enough to Wear Pink” initiative was founded as a companion initiative, kickstarted by every single rodeo participant (man or woman) wearing pink shirts to the competition. (The two exceptions were Army personnel who wore black, decorated with pink ribbons.) It was the first time that professional athletes wore pink in support of breast cancer awareness. Wheatley said that the pink shirt phenomenon was “like an avalanche” to hit Wrangler, the rodeo sponsor and outfitter.

The Whackadoodle Cheerleaders
The pink wine and pink shirts at the rodeo may have been a whackadoodle idea but, like so many of Wheatley’s ideas over the course of her career, it was a hugely successful one. She jokes that her husband, who was also a cowboy and rodeo champion, used to describe what Wheatley does for a living as “marketing and selling wine.” These days he says that “she creates something out of nothing that makes us money.”

Wheatley also smiles when she describes Pat Roney, CEO and Founding Partner of Vintage Wine Estates. “He doesn’t look like someone who appreciates whackadoodle ideas but he’s like a whackadoodle cheerleader over there,” she said. “He’s never said no to a crazy idea, ever. He’s like, hey, see if it works. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, move on.”

Wheatley sees the trajectory of her career as a giant circle, where she’s interwoven her western heritage with her wine creation skills. “That benefits [breast cancer] awareness,” she said, “but at the same time, it’s a business all the way around.”