Couple balances home life and winery

by Emily Kaiser

;ST. HELENA, CALIF. – University alumni Duane and Susan Hoff literally can’t give up their Minnesota roots.

The college sweethearts left their high-power careers as Best Buy executives to start a northern California winery in 2004 that Susan calls “sexy, smart and unpretentious.”

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Tucked along Spring Mountain in St. Helena, Calif., sits the Hoffs’ Fantesca Estate & Winery, a 53-acre property with nine acres of vines.

Despite their business on the west coast, the two still balance a home in Minnesota. Duane spends most of his time in California while Susan and their two children regularly take the four-hour flight between the two homes.

Duane and Susan met as members of the greek system at the University in the 1980s. Susan, a member of Alpha Gamma Delta, met Duane, a Sigma Alpha Epsilon, at the annual greek Ballyhoo festival.

Susan, a 1987 graduate, was part of the dancing team for the festival and Duane, a 1985 graduate, was the main singer for the band.

The two celebrated their first-date 22nd anniversary earlier this month and have been married for 18 years.

The Hoffs named their winery after a female during the Renaissance who travelled with Italian comedy troupes when women typically didn’t perform on stage.

“When Susan and I bought the land, we tried to think of how we’ve been inspired,” Duane said. “We looked for a sense of fun and seriousness and thought of Cirque Du Soleil, which performs with a wink and a smile.”

Best Buy careers

Susan’s career at Best Buy started right after high school in the accounts payable department. Her father, Dick Schulze, started the company in 1983.

In college, Susan worked in the stores when only six were in operation. Susan graduated with an advertising and graphic design degree and made her way up the company hierarchy to her position as vice president of corporate communication.

Susan said it can be tough to break through people’s perception of how she got the executive position at Best Buy because of her father’s power in the company.

“People who don’t know me don’t believe I have any smarts until they get to know me,” she said. “I don’t lead with that first.”

At work, Susan said she would keep her distance from her father, never calling him “dad” or introducing herself with her maiden name.

In 1994, Susan founded the Best Buy Children’s Foundation and is president of its board. She stepped down to this position in order to get her international business MBA at Bordeaux Business School in France.

After graduating from the University in 1985 with a political science degree, Duane worked for a marketing department at a company in St. Paul. He said he originally chose not to work at Best Buy because of the undue pressure associated with working at Susan’s family business.

Schulze offered Duane a position six years later as an assistant store manager.

“One of the executives at Best Buy pulled me aside and said, ‘I have no idea if Best Buy will survive, but you will learn more here,’ ” he said. “That’s when I joined.”

Before leaving the company in 2005 to concentrate on Fantesca, Duane was Best Buy’s vice president of strategy and business development.

Duane said working for a company that grew so quickly was “about 70 percent terrifying, 20 exhilarating and 10 percent exhausting.”

“The growth was so fast you’d get a promotion and then if you could handle it, what happened was they would say, ‘Oh my god, we need you to do this’ and you would be promoted again,” he said. “It was like building the ship while strapping rocket engines to it.”

Duane said their experience and the success of Best Buy gave them the opportunity to start the winery.

Fantesca begins

Before starting their winery, Susan and Duane made regular trips to the area to get away from their busy lives in Minnesota.

“We both traveled so much that the only time together was with our kids or romantic rendezvous,” Susan said. “Napa was our place to be a couple.”

Duane said, at home, when their two young children went to bed, moments together with wine became “grown-up time.”

“We had a lot of sippy cups and Barney tapes lying around,” he said. “This was just for us, what we enjoyed.”

During visits to the area, Susan said they often dreamed of moving there to start a winery, but several major events in their lives back home made the plan come to fruition much more quickly.

“After 2001, my mother passed away at the young age of 60,” Susan said. “It was really a time of thought-provoking moments.”

That year, the couple also lost many colleagues in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“It made us think about what life was really about,” Susan said.

Fantesca was officially founded in 2004 and produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The wine averages $60 a bottle at retail price.

One of the main goals of the company is to make wine approachable, Susan said.

“It’s about who makes it and who you share it with,” she said. “It’s nice to know we are part of that experience.”

For Duane, wine is meant to be personal and free of pretentious overtones that often scare away novice tasters.

“The best advice I’ve received is to find what you like and drink it,” he said. “Wine is like food; just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

One of the unique aspects of their bottle is the “fortune corkies.” The idea for the quotations on the cork came from their daughter after a meal out at a Chinese restaurant.

In addition to the vineyard, the property has a cave spanning 280 feet along a ridge of the mountain. Barrels of wine line the sides of the cave in addition to the four 60-foot arms for compact storage.

The other end of the cave leads to the family’s home with views of Mount St. Helena and the Palisades, a swimming pool, tennis court, multiple gardens and large patio for entertaining.

The long commute

The Hoffs still consider Minnesota home. Susan and their children, Taylor, 16, and Chelsea, 14, live in Chanhassen. Duane lives permanently at the estate.

The four-hour flight has become routine for the family. Susan travels to the winery twice a month for long weekends, often bringing the children along.

By the end of May, Susan will make a final decision about changing her permanent residence. With several offers from Best Buy and the lure to move to the west coast with her husband, she is still contemplating whether to close one chapter of her life for a new one.

“I think when you have so many wonderful options, it’s hard to choose,” she said.

The move is also an important choice for their children, who came out to St. Helena two weeks ago to visit potential new schools.

Even if she decides to move the family west, Susan said the family will always come back to the Midwest.

“We will always keep our Minnesota roots,” she said. “We grew up there, went to school there and raised our kids there. It will always be an important part of our lives.”