Competition – Lisa N Drakeman

Lisa N Drakeman PhD, seen standing here at a wine and business dinner for MBA candidates in Cambridge, UK, describes herself thus: ‘an American business executive, was the founding CEO of a Danish biotech company, which she led through the record-setting IPO in 2000 described below. It became one of Europe’s most successful biopharmaceutical companies, and, so far, has created two important new medicines for the treatment of cancer (both of which are made by a fermentation process). For the past several years, she has been a wine consultant and educator, and has led wine education events for current and future executives at Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton and other universities. She is a Certified Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), and a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is currently a candidate for the WSET diploma, as is her still extremely supportive husband.’ This is her unedited entry in our seminal wine competition

For yet another day, a stuffy, windowless London conference room overflowed with bankers, lawyers and anxious executives racing to complete an Initial Public Offering before the notoriously fickle biotech financing window slammed shut. Around midnight, I exercised one of the privileges of being the CEO and popped open a bottle of fizz to thank everyone for helping celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary so memorably. Then, we all went back to the documents. Later in the week, after the last comma had moved to its final resting place, one of the lawyers invited me and my exceptionally supportive husband, as well as the various IPO inmates, to a charming but slightly shabby Shepherd’s Market street café for a more extensive anniversary celebration.

Our lawyer proposed wine, to which I responded that I didn’t really like wine, but it had been a long six weeks, so why not? His first choice did not shake my belief. I still did not like wine. Even the acknowledged wine lovers present were not fans of that one.

After the embarrassment of bottle number one, and with his billable hours meter having run virtually around the clock, our lawyer splurged on what looked like a safer bet, the most expensive bottle on the list. The waiter presented a dusty bottle of Jacques Prieur 1989 Montrachet to the table. One taste prompted an epiphany: I did not dislike wine. I just had not been drinking the right wine. It was hard to believe that this rich, full bodied Chardonnay with pronounced, practically unending flavors emerged from the same grape as the thin, somewhat raw offerings I avoided at American cocktail parties. (Admittedly, a substantial price gap probably loomed between those two.)

The revelation of Shepherd’s Market launched years of dedicated wine tasting and studying, and an immersion into the world of wine that has paid many personal and professional dividends. It turned out that a serious wine culture pervaded much of my industry. A mutual enjoyment of wine built bridges between me, as an American CEO of a Danish company, and my European colleagues. Even outside the company, this widely shared passion fostered introductions and deepened corporate connections. For example, at a dinner launching our crucial initial partnership with a major pharmaceutical company, I selected a white burgundy – not from the hallowed ground of Montrachet, but still from a good neighborhood. Our new partner’s head of research took one sip, and declared “Close the menu!”, promptly slamming his shut so that he could focus solely on the contents of his glass. That partnership prospered, and I like to think it was because white burgundy gave it such a good start in life.

Beyond the business world, a growing love affair with wine also provided a welcome layer of complexity to balance a high intensity career. Fortunately, I even discovered that there was more to the world of high quality wine than rare and expensive white burgundy.

I have now retired from the biotech industry and become a wine educator, which gives me a chance to teach future executives about the role of wine in business – including the story of an impressive return-on-investment from a single bottle of 1989 Montrachet.

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