Jennifer Chou ’99 has never been afraid to ask deep and probing questions—a quality that helped her to make the most of her time at Augsburg, where students are encouraged to explore their talents and learn through hands-on experiences in order to find their callings. Her thirst for inquiry, as well as her ambition, helped get her to where she is today—a successful entrepreneur who made a career out of her great interest in and passion for vino.
Chou’s curiosity sparked her fascination with wine. During her childhood, she noticed her grandmother would always serve wine at holidays. What does wine taste like? Why is wine only for grownups? Why is wine enjoyed on special occasions?
Chou’s enthusiasm grew into a passion. While an Augsburg College student, she further explored her interest by joining a monthly wine club where she attended tasting events to learn more—from how to identify main flavor and scent components to the basic characteristics of all the varietal grapes to the histories of the world’s best wine-producing regions.
Seizing key opportunities
As a communication studies major and business minor, Chou found work as a financial advisor shortly after graduation. While attending job-training courses in Dallas, she made friends with a man in the hotel gym who recommended a very specific wine to her. She bluntly told him that she’d never heard of it, and asked if he was a “sales guy” for the company.
Once again her inquisitiveness pulled through for her. It just so happened that he, in fact, was the winemaker and CEO of Napa Wine Company. Their friendship blossomed, and his knowledge helped hers to grow. “So I always joke that I got into the wine business by working out,” said Chou.
Soon after that serendipitous encounter, Children’s Home Society, for whom Chou volunteered, asked if she would request wine donations from distributors for their annual winemakers dinner.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m fearless, I’m not afraid to ask!’” Chou recalled. “So I went and asked four different distributors for wine donations, and they said, ‘Wow, you really know quite a bit about wine and seem to enjoy it. Have you ever thought about selling it?’”
So Chou took a job selling wines for a distributor, traveling to California, Oregon, France, Italy, and South Africa to gain a deeper understanding of each supplier’s wine so she could better sell it.
Learning over a glass of wine
Because of her extensive wine savvy, friends started asking her for wine etiquette advice.
“I would get asked questions like, ‘How am I supposed to hold a glass of wine, under the bowl or the stem? Are you supposed to swirl the glass? In a restaurant, why does the server present the bottle?’’’ said Chou. “This was stuff my friends realized they needed to know in order to stay relevant in the business world—hosting clients at a restaurant or thanking someone with a bottle of wine.”
As a way to share her knowledge and enlighten others, she founded The Savvy Grape, a business dedicated to educating people about wine through fun, hands-on experiences. To be an authority on the subject, Chou became a Certified Wine Specialist. This certification required rigorous examinations by the Society of Wine Educators, testing Chou’s expertise and mastery of viticulture and wine production.
Chou quickly found a niche with professional organizations and was able to start out by connecting with fellow Auggies who were also business owners. “Being an Augsburg alumna helped because one thing I always find is that Auggies like to help other Auggies!” said Chou.
For employers, such as finance and law firms, Chou educates people about wine etiquette while providing a fun and entertaining wine-tasting activity at events such as member drives, holiday parties, employee development conferences, and client appreciation events.
At these events, Chou teaches people “how to taste wine like a professional,” offers tips on food and wine pairings, and answers attendees’ questions about wine.
Fighting for what you believe in
In order for Chou to legally pour wine in a corporate event space, she had to work hard lobbying to change the law, making it legal for a licensed wine educator like herself to hold wine education events in commercial spaces.
With determination and grit, Chou hit the pavement, reaching out to her local senators and representatives to see who would be willing to assist. She found Minnesota Sen. Dan Hall ’74 who helped her to navigate the system at the Capitol and get the Wine Educator License signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012.
Making a living out of wine
Chou’s unquenchable curiosity for the world, unstoppable work ethic, liberal arts education, and strong Auggie connections helped to make her dream of making a living out of wine a reality.
Business and Social Wine Smarts
Chou has authored Wine Savvy, a chapter in the book, “Socially Smart & Savvy.” Below are some of her favorite tips featured in the book.
Tips for the wine lover
- Put red wines in the refrigerator 10-15 minutes before serving, and take white wines out of the refrigerator 10-15 minutes before serving. This will help your red wines be less acidic and allow you to taste more flavor in your whites.
- Don’t know what to give as a hostess gift? When in doubt, choose a sparkling wine, or “bubbly,” as Chou likes to call it. You can spend as little or as much as your budget allows, and it’s festive for most occasions.
- Not sure which wine to order in a restaurant? Ask the server for a sample to see if you like it. A restaurant would prefer that you like a wine and order more rather than not like it and order water. This works especially well if you are trying to order a bottle for the table.