When Dianna Novy moved to California in 1994 with her then-husband Adam Lee to found the Pinot Noir brand Siduri, they were young and brash and knew next to nothing, she admits, but they learned quickly. Siduri helped define the style of modern California Pinot with numerous single-vineyard bottlings. In 1998, the couple also created the Novy brand, known for Syrahs and Zinfandels, with Dianna's family.
But like many women, when Novy became a mom she found herself facing new obstacles in the business she loved.
In 2015, Jackson Family Wines purchased both brands, and Dianna stepped back from Novy and Siduri entirely. Now Novy is writing a new chapter with her Pinot Noir and sparkling wine brand Flaunt. She sat down to talk with senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec about how she went from Texas to Sonoma, how she fell in love with wine and how she is stepping into the spotlight with Flaunt.
Wine Spectator: You grew up in Texas, right?
Dianna Novy: Yes, a small town outside of Dallas called Ennis. I'm the only one [in my family] that moved away.
WS: Why were you the only one that moved away?
DN: Well, everyone else works for my parents. My parents are in the printing press industry. I know it's rare, a bit of a dinosaur of an industry nowadays, but there aren't many people left and those who are left are very busy. What my family does is they repair printing presses and they buy used equipment when a shop closes down and rebuild it.
The idea was I was going to get into sales. But there was a little turn of events, because after college I started drinking good wine. [Laughs] I was drinking cheap wine in college. The better stuff happened when I started working at Neiman Marcus.
I grew up on a farm in a small town and didn't really know much about the fancy ways of life. Neiman Marcus was a great introduction, and the epicurean department was a good fit for me. I did not have the clothes required to work on the floor at Neiman's so in the epicurean department I wore an apron on top of everything else. That's where I learned to eat caviar and foie gras. We had a big tin, and somebody would come in and buy, you know half an ounce or an ounce, and we scoop it out for them. There would always be a little last bit left on that mother-of-pearl spoon.
WS: When did you meet Adam?
DN: I met him on the first day. He was a new hire, just like me. He was already in the stockroom putting labels on jars of salsa and jelly and coffee. When they gave me the tour of the stockroom, he was sitting on the floor playing with price tags.
Adam was one of the wine buyers. A sales rep would come in, and if it was Adam's day—he had a crush on me—he would have the wine buyer leave a little for me to taste after they left.
Then Adam and I started putting on tastings for the Neiman Marcus customers. We would have Champagne events and Burgundy events. People who attended the tastings would buy the wine by the case. We could open the Salon Champagne and Port for customers. We could open the Pomerol. It was all good because they were going to sell it. The more expensive the wine, the better the sales were that day.
I don't know why, but I was definitely intrigued by wine and had this desire to learn more. It was really the first time in my life that I found myself being really interested in something. Wine was different. Wine was something I wanted to learn more about. It immediately became apparent to me that printing presses didn't sound like something I wanted to do the rest of my life.
WS: When you look back, are you surprised you jumped to winemaking?
DN: I grew up in a family of farmers. If something needed to be done or made, we did it. If the fence needs to be put up, we went out there and did it. We didn't hire people to come in and do it. If we were out of meat, instead of going to the grocery store, we looked at our cattle. It is definitely a family of doers.
So when I got interested in wine, my desire wasn't to sell it. Right away I wanted to know how to make it.
Adam and I started Siduri in 1994. Our experience was retail, and we didn't know how to make wine. We thought we were going to come out to California, we were going to find great grapes, we're gonna make this awesome wine and get great scores. And that's what happened. Part of that is timing—it was a great vintage. That's not typically how you make wine, you know, but fortunately it worked that way for us. And in the process, we were learning.
WS: It feels like Siduri has been an important part of California Pinot Noir's history, not just with your wines, but other vintners you all have helped or inspired.
DN: Yes. I think for me, when I started, I really needed people to be kind and gentle and generous. Then we just wanted to help out people because we knew what it felt like to be the outsider coming in and not having experience. Just look at people who have worked under us and then started labels and it's impressive. I'm happy to be part of that.
WS: When you look back at your work with Siduri, what are you most proud of?
DN: I'm very proud of everything that that we did there. But it started to change a bit once I started having children and having employees. I got treated a bit more like the mom by the employees. You know it was, "Here I'll carry this for you," or they didn't want me to climb a ladder. Those sorts of things. I would yield to them, but I probably shouldn't have as much. My priorities became different with the kids and I have no regrets. But I noticed that I got pushed back a little bit—I let myself fall back, I guess.
It got to where I was most comfortable in the vineyard. I think it just comes from my growing up on a farm. I enjoy working with growers because a lot of growers don't know a whole bunch about winemaking. I found I could trade wine talk for vineyard talk. I could gain an education while giving an education.
I always made it clear that any grower can come into the winery and ask me anything, and I will just happily explain it. And they did the same for me. I don't have a degree in enology. This was a way that we learned, and from the people that knew it the best.
WS: What do you want us to know about your decision to sell Siduri?
DN: It wasn't part of the plan. We had no reason for it to happen. We thought we were going to hand this down to our children. Then when a certain amount was offered, we had to think about it. It was such an opportunity. We do not regret it at all. Adam and I have said, as recently as two weeks ago, we would have done it all over again. Siduri had just gotten too big. We were running a business more than we were making wine.
WS: Siduri was always known for having a lot of single-vineyard wines—as many as two dozen. Did that add to the challenge?
DN: It was all about the vineyard for us. We were just going to make the best wine we could from those locations.
I always had my kids with me, and traveling to vineyards was something we would have fun doing. They would pick blackberries while I'm sampling. We might stop at Avila Beach and spend the night there before we had to be up early to go to Santa Barbara and check vineyards. There were so many great memories made.
It was a cool way for the kids to grow up, and I felt very womanly, you know, doing my job and raising my children. As they started school, I would take them to school and pick them up. I was a room mom. I had a lot of flexibility.
WS: You sold Siduri to Jackson Family in 2015, but then you turned around and went back into wine.
DN: I actually started making sparkling wine back 2013. It was just sitting there aging, and I didn't know what I was going to do with it. It was kind of on a whim when Christian, my oldest child, was a freshman in high school. I went to a bunco party [a group dice game] one night, and the mom who hosted poured this beautiful bubbly and she had her own label on it. She told me that she had a little store in Healdsburg. I think it was a little antique store or furniture store or something, but she would pour for customers and sell it out of the store.
I was like, how the heck do you do that and how can you legally sell this? She told me about Rack & Riddle [a custom crush facility]. I worked with plenty of fruit over the years that wasn't cool climate, but had a hard time ripening and was super high in acid. I started off with just a little bit.
So I started my own company. It was something Adam and I had always talked about, and something I have always wanted. With Siduri, Adam had definitely become the name and the face of it, and he has the personality and he does a great job with that. I wanted something that was just my own.
WS: Did any part of you feel like you had to prove to people that you belong as a winemaker, or the face of a brand?
DN: I was conflicted at the time. It was something that I wanted, but I really was lacking the confidence. I had more confidence when I was younger. At the age of 45, I had lost some confidence over the years.
I think that was something that came from being married and being partners with somebody who was so vocal and recognized. I had kind of lost some confidence of what I was capable of.
That's where the name "Flaunt" comes from, because I wanted to feel like I'm living up to that name. My goal is that it becomes a part of who I am. I'm definitely working on expressing that more and more every vintage.
WS: Years ago, you said something to me about being identified too much as "Adam's wife." Is that how you felt at the end of Siduri?
DN: Definitely. You know, I was proud to be Adam's wife. I truly was, but professionally I was more than that. When I started, I was Adam's equal partner. It is true that over the years, he was physically spending more time at the winery. I was the one physically raising the children. There was this trade-off. We tried with me traveling as much as he did and him taking the kids to the school in the morning so I could go do the early punch-downs and additions and all those things. But instinctively—even though he is a great father—it came easier for me and for the kids.
So that was our relationship. And what worked best in our household. I know that's not for everybody. It was always such a struggle for me. You would have to ask Adam, I don't know how much the struggle was for him—that whole, you know, "Parenting versus having their career and winemaking and travel." Ultimately Adam wasn't around a whole lot, and I did the whole kid thing.
Adam and I separated in June of 2019. It's completely amicable. We raise our kids together. But the marriage is over. It doesn't matter since the best parts of us were our kids and our careers, and that's the part that we will keep alive.
WS: Do you feel your authority is ever in question because you're a woman?
DN: I always think of any time I would pour in public, especially pouring at something like Pinot Fest, with people coming up. I would pour the wine for them, and they would turn to ask the younger man next to me the technical questions about winemaking.
Once I was with Ryan Zapaltas, who was our assistant winemaker for years, and is now the winemaker at Copain. He was just so cool about it. In a typical Ryan way, he would say, "Well you're talking to the winemaker right there. Why don't you just let her answer this question?" Everybody's always polite, nobody means it intentionally. It's just instinctively they're going to talk to the man, even if I'm the oldest one the table.
WS: Did that ever get better over time?
DN: Yeah, but instead then I got a lot of "Where's Adam?" and "Where's your winemaker?" I would tell them I'm half of the winemaking team. If anybody ever called me "Mrs. Adam Lee," I would want to punch them. But the biggest insult to me was I would be referred to as, "Adam Lee and his wife Dianna." It just seemed pejorative.
WS: Isn't it fair to say that without your background Siduri wouldn't have happened?
DN: Adam says he never would have gotten in the winemaking business [without me]. He was interested in wine, and he still loves to write. However, look at him shine, look at him go. I mean he picked it up and ran with it. So yeah, it was great that I helped him step in that door because it was definitely where he belongs, right?
Some people just either have that drive to be that entrepreneurial person or not. For me, I just didn't know any different. He and I still taste each other's wines, during harvest we support each other. He just packed up orders for me. I do the same thing for him. We're totally still partners and trust each other more than anyone else in the industry.
WS: How much Flaunt do you make annually?
DN: Annually I'm right around 1,500 cases. I'm learning just like I did with Siduri, just kind of figuring it out as I go, playing around. My wheels are turning and thinking about what I want to do next.
This year—2020—I was not able to harvest my fruit in the Russian River Valley [because of smoke]. I went down to Santa Rita Hills and got some good clean fruit. It brought back good memories being down there. I got some good fruit, and I want to continue working with it. So in 2020, I only have the Pinots from Santa Rita. But in 2021 I want to have Russian River, Sonoma Coast and Santa Rita Pinot Noirs in addition to the bubbly.
I pick my sparkling a bit riper than most. I love the characteristics of the grape. Picking at 17, 18 Brix isn't really my style. I like to pick 20, 21 or 21 and a half. I like to get more flavor.
WS: You got into the bubbly game after working intensely with Pinot Noir. Are you able to taste Pinot grapes and translate how it would work in a sparkling wine?
DN: Yes. I mean, that's why I always wanted to make bubbly. I've been a fan of Champagne ever since those early days at Neiman Marcus. There were a lot of times I'd be out there tasting the fruit wishing I was making sparkling wine out of it instead.
I feel like I am on the brink of something. I have this feeling, this energy and enthusiasm that I had back when I was 23 and 24 years old and just starting Siduri. It's a really cool feeling to have that. I turned 50 this summer.
Even though I came up with the name "Flaunt" a few years ago when I was still married, it just has so much more meaning for me now.
I'm not as comfortable in the limelight as Adam was all these years. I don't think I'm ever going to be like him, because it's just simply not my style. But I understand Pinot Noir very well. I have ideas of what I want to do. I'm just not going to be as loud, I'm not going to be as obvious maybe. But my heart is in this totally. Everything I'm doing is made with love more now than ever.
Before it all fell into place with Siduri, we didn't know what we were doing. It was super easy when we started off, we were pretty cocky and arrogant and lucky. Now I'm just so appreciative, and I want to take this opportunity to have my voice in wine heard.
I'm healing from all the years of everything. I think it's part of being a woman my age, as well that I'm just really more comfortable with who I am and more deliberate about what I'm doing. So right now, there are no more accidents or stumbling into things. It's all done with reason and purpose now.