Marisa Sergi graduated from Cornell with a degree in enology and viticulture. Upon graduating from Cornell, she launched her first brand called RedHead Wine. She is the founder of Red Brands and the Chief Growth Officer at L’uva Bella Winery. Red Brands is a food and beverage company primarily focused on the premium wine market. L’uva Bella Winery specializes in the creation, production, and distribution of various wine brands and juices.
Where did the inspiration for your business come from?
My grandparents immigrated here from Italy in the 1950s bringing over the Sergi family tradition of winemaking. I am a third-generation winemaker and have been passionate about making wine for quite some time. I was able to refine my skills by studying winemaking at Cornell University and graduated in 2015. L’uva Bella Winery was started by my father, but my husband and I fully acquired the business in May 2020 to take the company to new heights.
If you could go back in time before you started your business, what would you tell yourself?
Although I technically did not start L’uva Bella Winery, I did develop our distribution business. In 2018, while building my brand Red’s Wine, I was hired to consult L’uva Bella Winery’s distribution business (i.e., selling wines wholesale to a wine distributor and then to retail stores). I would tell myself that I am up against many global conglomerate-ran brands in the market and to not be too hard on myself. Building a brand and business takes many years of hardship and dedication.
What has been the greatest challenge that you have faced on your entrepreneurial journey?
There are very many tough challenges that come to mind, but the most recent challenge that I had to face was switching to new distributors in my home market of Ohio. This was a huge challenge personally and professionally. In the wine business, if you are doing business in a “franchise state,” conducting business can be extremely difficult if you are not represented by the right distribution partner.
For our situation, we had representation by a company that would not properly service our retailers—countless Walmart, Meijer, and Target store shelves went empty for months, and that greatly affected our business. The retailer does not know if our distributor is servicing us properly or not—they just assume our products are out of stock due to us not being able to produce or, even worse, not selling. This increased the risk that our products would be discontinued.
The only way to leave our current distribution partner was through a buy-out. The distributor could name any price, which they did, and was incredibly heartbreaking. Fortunately, I was able to find other distributors who wanted to represent us properly and who could step in and assist us with the buy-out. We transitioned to better distribution partners and could not be happier!
What are you most proud of about your journey and/or company?
I am proud of my team. They are incredibly hard-working and talented. We would not be where we are without them. I am very grateful and feel positive about the future.
Entrepreneurs wear many hats and must quickly become a master of all trades, so how do you find mentors and foster connections along the way?
I am very generous with my time and my interactions with people I meet along my journey. I make it a priority to ask questions about who I am meeting/speaking to and make sure to keep in touch with connections over LinkedIn and email. Following up is the key to success! I swear by it.
Do you have any piece of advice for Cornellians starting out their own entrepreneurial journey?
Go to as many events as possible that fit your interests on campus. Cornell offers so many amazing resources and has an incredibly powerful network. I was not confident during my undergraduate years, but I finally forced myself to get involved during my senior year. Because I pushed myself and showed up with a positive attitude, I was able to meet so many amazing individuals who I still keep in touch with today!
What role has the Cornell network played in your career?
Support—many of my connections have been able to connect and guide me in many challenging situations, and I am very grateful for it. Your net worth is truly your network.
What do you miss about being on campus the most?
Campus is not only beautiful, even when the sky is grey, but it is also a unique place where there is an ultra-concentration of talent, intelligence, and innovation. Use your time wisely—every person has a unique story and something to offer this world. Meet as many people as you can, and know that the moments and memories you make on campus will last way longer than the stress of prelims! Not once has someone asked me my GPA unless we were laughing at a cocktail hour!