Businesswoman takes her wine collection public

NEW YORK Tue Feb 19, 2008 2:02am EST

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - It is only natural that a woman who has made a multi million-dollar fortune in the typically male world of insurance should have the same dilemma as a man -- what to do with all the wine collected along the way.

It took V. Cheryl Womack about 20 years to build a $100 million business that began in the basement of her suburban Kansas City home with a phone line equipped with call waiting. It took her about 15 years to amass a collection of almost 10,000 bottles that are stored in a basement of sorts.

But with her cellar now overflowing, Womack decided the time had come to clear some space with Sotheby's holding a single collector sale of 4,775 bottles from her collection on March 15 which the auction house expects to fetch up to $3 million.

"When I built my first wine cellar, it was to hold 5,000 bottles," Womack, 57, laughed remembering. "At the time, I doubt I had 60 bottles of wine. In fact, I think I doubt I had 16 bottles. But I knew this was what I wanted. I'm a builder."

Womack quit her $17,000-a-year insurance job in 1983 at the age of 33 when she was not just passed over for a promotion, but told to train a newly hired young man to be her boss. Instead, she opened up her own business.

"He never made me sign a non-compete clause," he said speaking of her former boss. "I guess he thought I never would succeed."

Almost 20 years later she sold her company VCW Inc, which had grown to 80 employees and insured 12,000 independent truckers, for $100 million.

"I sold the business because in the end I wasn't doing what I really enjoyed, which is building things," she said.

Since then she has built The Star Group, a program and partnership for annual events recognizing and honoring women entrepreneurs, and participates in mentoring programs sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurial Leadership, Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Women's Leadership board. She also leads the non-profit organization Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World.

Womack has also built up quite a wine collection for someone who started out as a hippie drinking Boone's Farm apple wine in college.

"I just love it. We would host benefit parties and the men would say they'd love to see the wine cellar. So my husband would take them down and it is a lovely cellar. They'd come back up and say 'Do you know what you have in that wine cellar?' And I say, 'Of course I know, you bozo. I bought it!'

"And it has been fun to get," she said.

Self-taught, she began by reading the Wine Spectator, a book by Robert Parker, and found out who were the experts on other wine regions and read their books.

"The one thing I would not do was read about the bad stuff. ... You don't want that wine in your head. I wanted to taste everything for myself and make up my own mind."

When she tasted something she liked, she proceeded to buy cases of it. "You remember all that fuss around the Millennium? Well, I bought 100 cases of some great 1990 Champagne because they had all this Champagne. It was a huge investment, but at the same time I got it at great prices."

She was eventually forced to build a second cellar, but as the cases continued to pile up from her visits to wineries in Australia, California and France, the prospect of building a third cellar seemed silly.

"I'm never going to drink all this stuff," she said. So she called Sotheby's. After the auction house revealed she didn't have the 7,000 or so bottles she thought, but almost 10,000, Womack said sell half.

"It's the right thing to do and this way I get to put it into the world where somebody else can enjoy it. After all, they're not going to be making anymore of that 1990 Champagne."

(Reporting by Leslie Gevirtz; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

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