Grab a glass and listen in to our podcast guest Molly Madden of RedHen Collective, who joined Danielle on The Stories Behind Our Food to talk about our OTHER favorite beverage (after fair trade coffee and tea, of course.)
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Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee. These are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind Our Food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.
So Molly, I’m really excited to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it. I definitely have been waiting to capture your sass since we met at the Co op event in California. I was kind of perusing your website a little bit and seeing some of your videos were really inspiring, especially the one that talks about kind of your why. I am just kind of think one of these quotes from the videos coming to my mind and I just really like you to speak to it and it just gave me chills when I heard it, which was like “I’m a woman and I’m asking too many questions.” And just the way that you said that in the video just really hit me and I just love to hear from your perspective a little bit about gender in the wine industry and kind of how that inspired you to do things differently with RedHen.
Thanks so much Danielle, for inviting me. The difference between working … I mean I had only worked for, for men, which is really common because most wine businesses are owned by men. But, when I suddenly like three years ago — or I guess four, almost four years ago — I had left my last, my last job working for somebody else and I suddenly found myself in the position where if I wanted to just like whip out whatever opinion I had, I wasn’t going to get fired.
It’s nice working for yourself.
Whoa! Sucks that it’s my job to find my paycheck now and not somebody else’s, but, but holy cow, it was so … and I realized that now that I am not working under somebody where like asking these questions and naming these dynamics, and naming my own fears and confusions and like compliances and complicitness and complacency. I realized that I’m in a position that very few of my colleagues in the wine industry are in, which is that I can say whatever I want and my boss isn’t gonna fire me.
It’s nice being your own boss.
That’s one of the nice things. But it comes with this really like intense sense of responsibility as well to finally say things that I never was able to say, when I was working for other people. and those are things talking about, it’s a lot of talking about economics. Interestingly, I’m talking about who’s getting paid and who’s not getting paid, how resources are moving around. And that is just like, it’s so blatant. It’s so obvious that that is breaking down around race and gender and legal status. But like can’t say that I couldn’t say that. And even in the parts of the wine industry that are like pressing against the margins and trying to expand our conversation, I think there’s a ton of fear. Even my own fear, like hearing the question — or hearing the prompt — to talk about “I’m a woman and I’m asking too many questions” …
Yeah. And like is there, is there a story to go with that quote? Right. Cause that’s, you know, something that I’m thinking about when I heard it, is that it’s different working for a cooperative, right? We, we both worked for cooperatives now and I remember when I first started working at Equal Exchange and having this feeling, oh, people want to hear what I have to say. They’re actually listening. My opinion matters here and people are actually taking the time to listen. Right. So that’s something that’s a huge difference in, you know, traditional corporate structures then cooperatives. But I guess like, I’m just not familiar so much with the wine industry. Right. And like the behind the scenes I think to the transparency and the wine industry versus maybe coffee has come far based on maybe where fair trade is taken things and folks are a little bit more familiar maybe with the process of coffee. But for me, the wine industry, it seems like when you go into a store and you’re looking at a shelf, everything looks like it’s independent, right? But it’s, it’s that facade of this illusion of choice. And so that’s something I’m kind of a bit in the dark about. So I don’t know if you could kind of delve into that a bit.
Well, you’re nailing it. The illusion of choice is, I mean like most of our, most of our grocery store shelves, it’s like, oh, there’s hundreds of different lines here. And it’s like, yeah, they’re pretty much owned by two companies, you know, and you’re, and you’re gonna have to dig pretty deep to find even who those companies are. Like those companies don’t want to be known. Philip Morris has an enormous … I mean tons of these wines that people drink every day that have cute little names that look like family estates and it’s like …
Totally, they all look like that. Like you just did picture, you know, like this expansive, beautiful picture ask view and you know, a little family working and you know, that’s obviously that’s not the reality. So I guess what kind of was your job before and where does that kind of sit in the wine industry and kind of like the process of it just for folks who kind of are coming in at just square one to try to wrap their minds around kind of the injustice?
Well, so my personal arc and into the wine industry … So I grew up in Montana, I’m in Montana right now, I’m on a farm. I got up at 6:30 this morning. God,farmers get up early, you guys. So, so early. People are always like, oh Molly, you love it so much. You should be a farmer. And I’m like, are you kidding? They get up way too early, right? I sell this stuff so I stay up late. But so I started, uh, started in the restaurant industry cause I grew up in a — my mom was a chef and a restauranteur and just really brilliant entrepreneur. She grew up in a tiny farming, ranching community. So like deep roots, deep relationship with local farmers and ranchers has always been part of kind of our family history, family culture. and so when she had the opportunity to start building a little restaurant, it was like, Oh, where do you buy food? You buy it from farmers, how do you find farmers there in your community? And so I came into wine through restaurant or hospitality, which is a really interesting, that’s another sidetrack, conversation to like put a pin in for another day. Because hospitality is such a fascinating intersection of like race and class and origin, like all under one roof, under one, like really intense, you know, in a two hour dinner. How many people are in there touching and interacting with the same food? and wines, I guess wine is, yeah, wine is that way because we experience wine through the hospitality industry. and so probably 15 years ago, I had, had just been doing everything, restaurant, restaurant, restaurant. It was my world. and I helped — i basically took over the wine program at my mom’s restaurant. The woman who was running it, moved on to another job and I was like, oh, that looks like fun. That’s like, I like language and travel and wine seemed sort of like sophisticated. And so maybe this will help me be a little more sophisticated and less of the country mouse.
Wine is totally sexy! I’m sexy. Wine’s sexy, this goes together, but, and, and so quickly, I was so lucky because there were a couple of sales reps, basically people who come in and bring their portfolios of wines to help the restaurants and wine merchants figure out what wines they’re going to sell. and I had one or two who were just like deeply passionate lifers. You know, people who had spent their entire career in the wine industry, love stories, love farmers, love teaching, really humble, really fun, such a gift to have those kinds of mentors. And so they just, I, I was, I was hooked and I wasn’t shamed and I wasn’t scared. And I really quickly realized that the kinds of wines I like are wines that come from farmers, which was — I mean technically, all wine comes from farmers! It’s made out of fruit, which requires photosynthesis and cultivating. But what I really loved was wine that was, that came from families, you know, and that came from in the same way that … like my family would, you know, last week my mom is at the county fair judging pie baking. And next week she’ll be picking up a 4H lamb that a kid raised and turning it into lamb burgers for the, you know, for the restaurant. And, and I want my wine to have that same kind of intimacy and closeness.
I was just thinking, you know, if you’re the average consumer and you know, there’s lots of kind of misconceptions, you’re kind of looking at the shelf and you’re kind of seeing all of it and seemingly from these small independent, you know, seeming families, right. You know, this person’s vineyard and kind of what, what do you think the biggest misconception is for a consumer in the wine industry when they’re kind of looking at a shelf?
Dang. I think you’re like, yeah, you’re right up on it. That these blahbity blah family vineyards and things with the tractor on it or it has a lady bug on it. It’s like all of this marketing and it looks so, it’s like, oh, well I guess that’s authentic. And I think, I, I’m always curious why we will ask certain questions about our, you know, smoothies or, or that people will, but we might, you know, our Kale, is it organic? Like did it come from the farmer’s market? like is this bread, is this GMO? And like some real critical high level questions about origins and, and then we get to wine and a lot of, I think the vast majority of us are just like sort of pass over it. We don’t know how to ask. We don’t even know how to ask those questions about wine or what questions we should be asking. And there’s this like aura of kind of magic about wine, which we’re like, well maybe it’s immune to bullshit. Like maybe wine isn’t, maybe wine is immune to being evil. I don’t know.
No, it’s, I mean, even for me, like I, I would say that I am definitely one of those people walking into a store and I’m like, it’s not in a box. I’m doing great. You know? So for meeting people, there, like, how do you demystify what wine am I supposed to buy? And then maybe follow up, what is your favorite wine, right? Wine made by farmers. It’s all made by farmers. But how, how is the consumer, do I buy the right wine if I’m not in California and I can’t buy RedHen? You know, what’s my rule of thumb or, or is there is no, or is there no easy answer?
Well actually, so the good news is, I mean, so much of what I like to do and what RedHen is trying to do is like de shame and de-etitify wine, right? Because like, oh my god, wine belongs to everybody? You know, wine is made by people and why it has been made by farmers for thousands and thousands and thousands of years for primarily their own consumption. Like, and then some kings and Queens got in on up this, they were late to the game. Y’All, wine is Fermented food, it’s like is a staple. I mean all, it’s like every culture around the world has some sort of fermented food that is like a signature of its culture. And I mean that in like a microbial culture. And I mean it in like a familial and culinary and language and climate and historical culture. And wine is that, and, and wine is like, I just like wanna break it down for people and be like, oh my God, it’s sugar that microbes found and started fermenting. You can have some too. Like, like we can go, we can geek out and we can get — because once you start getting into anything, whether it’s like, yeah, I don’t know, computers or jazz or wine or coffee, like, you know, you’ll go down the rabbit hole probably, and then you’d be like, Oh, you just always want to try something new. And, but like, that’s a natural kind of extension of your curiosity. It doesn’t, it doesn’t require you to be elite or like snobby or know at all or wealthy or something to just engage. To just drink fermented fruit, right? Like, so the first thing is just like drink what you like, and drink what tastes good. And like, if we can kind of try to shrug off all of the weird shame, which is deeply class and gender and race associated, like we don’t really get to name those things, but it all those are like the demons that come up inside of us when we’re like, oh no, I’m drinking boxed wine. What does that mean about me? Or Oh God, I’m like, everybody says they like dry wine, but this wine is kinda sweet and I kinda like it. Does that make me low class? Like, right. It’s just like, well listen, the great news about wine is that it is like, like fabulous and trashy, like at the exact same time. So just embrace it. Just be that and drink what you like, be curious. It’s not the end of the world. If you find something in it that weirds you out and you don’t want to buy it again, you’re fine, you know,. It’s still got alcohol in it, so it’s still gonna get the job done.
And then, I mean, and then the bigger question of like, well, how do I decide what to buy? Or how do I, when I walk into a grocery store, I get super overwhelmed cause there’s like this, this like choice, this collapse because there’s so many choices and, and I think that I should know the difference between all of these wines. And honestly, I don’t know if this is — if I’m cheating on this answer, but remember — and reminding people — that the more industrial the food supply chain, so it’s like if this is a store that has like, I don’t know if it’s Safeway or something, if it’s a store where there are similar stores owned by a similar corporation all over the country, what that means is that all the products in order to get to get on those shelves, have to pass through — have to be industrialized. So the short answer of like, which of these wines is the good one, like, or the sustainable one or the social impact one when I’m walking into Safeway is like …oh, the good news is none of them.
Oh God, I’m going to get in trouble. And it’s not 100% true, but it’s like, yeah, nine out of 10 of those you can’t, you can’t make, uh, a small family owned kind of like more intimate supply chain, economic, racial, gender justice. Those choices don’t really happen. They can’t really happen in these large corporations. Because of the way our economy has been structured, you basically have to give up all of those principles and practices in order to industrialize and be able to plug into the chain.
So maybe this can transition. How does that provide a really challenging environment for you who’s really trying to set yourself apart? And I know right now that you’re located in California, but that there may be other places that you could expand to, I know state by state, it can be a bit complicated, but maybe just speaking to how do I differentiate myself in this really challenging market because that’s something that’s something that Equal Exchange asks all the time and it is really challenging to tell a story. You know, you have a label and you have conversations with people, right? But how do you kind of set yourself apart I guess?
well, I think we’re like, we come up against, — this is such a fascinating question. I mean, red hand is grappling with it all of the time because we get, we’re presented with this sort of dichotomy or this binary of how to engage in this economy. You can either engage in this economy in a massive industrial scale where you know, it’s all about volume and like making the cheapest, cutting every corner, the cheapest choices you can, externalizing every single risk you, you sacrifice and compromise values and value and quality and impact in order to flood the market. You know, and you try to make up for it with expensive, sexy looking branding. Right? So that’s, that’s one element of that, right? And that’s one end of the spectrum. And then we get on and all those binaries like opposite, uh, framework or opportunity, which is to like be small and be independent and maybe be feminist, maybe be biodynamic, and be broke for the rest of your life and just not make any money. And bootstrap everything. and like not really build an economic legacy. Certainly not be able to –the word scale was such a dangerous word. It’s like, oh, how are you going to scale your company? it seems implicit in the question of scaling that you’re going to have to compromise or sacrifice, integrity and place specificity and like unique identities and unique climates and cultures in order to industrialize. Cause scaling is kind of commensurate with industrialization in our economic framework right now. And so this is such an interesting question cause RedHen looks around and sees a lot of people doing amazing work and those people are, we see people farming that are doing amazing work. We see wine makers doing amazing work. We see retailers and restaurants and little wine clubs and folks who are tiny and are — or pretty darn small, especially in the, you know, scale of things — or we see … and they don’t have any, there’s no framework or on ramp or kind of like blueprint for them to grow their impact for them to take up a bigger, to grow their pie in this economy, right? Without having to sacrifice their values.
And so part of what RedHen dreams about and is engineering and rapping on with these all of these different supply chain partners is how do we basically retrofit this industrial scale economy so that like high quality, high impact deep, like local, like identity preservation can happen. and it can somehow plug in to like, how do we plug into Costcos and Whole Foods and places where consumers are going and they’re certainly buying, they’re certainly looking for grass fed beef or you know, pasturing eggs or organic kale. How do we plug wine into that kind of a situation when wine in, it’s what makes it so magical and beautiful is that it’s so unique — that is when it’s not industrialized. Right? and so these are the, this is the conundrum and I actually think this is where the most exciting opportunities are because this is where we actually have to re-engineer, we have to restructure the way we create product and the way we bring things to market and the way we do marketing. because like what happens if we can take 25 of RedHen’s producers and they all make their own, you know, independent little wine labels that are their own family name and their own identity. But what if we create then in addition to that, a pool of wine that is sort of a, it’s almost a CSA structure or something where like each grower gets to put in, you know, annually from this one parcel and some years there’s going to have, they’re going to have a lot to put in, some years they’re going to have nothing to put in cause there was a hailstorm. but if we can structure the economics so that they can count on that income and then RedHen can count on that wine coming in, we can develop like a large pool of wines and they can all be bottled, with like that growers identity and story on the back of the bottle or the back of the can if this stuff happens to go into cans. But then the front label is all, it’s, it’s designed and streamlined to interface with corporations that normally could only work with, massive conglomerate and industrializing wine companies. and these are the kinds of, so these are the kinds of project innovations that we’re looking at. Where, how do we build grower equity and maintain like producer identity, and place identity and all of this uniqueness.
Right, because there’s both, all of these growers have this in common. These are all their values. But like you said, what makes them great is their uniqueness, the uniqueness of flavor, how they’re doing things differently on their farm. Can maybe, can you talk about, your favorite producer story maybe, and maybe give us a snapshot. Hey, these are the different types of growers I’m working with. This is like where they’re located.
I have a, a, so two, a couple, a couple of winemaker farmers. right. They’re not in RedHen’s — like they’re not, they have other representation, but they’re just like deep in our family and community. and they’re in Champagne and their names are Roland and Dominique and they, I was just so cool because this is husband and wife and they have two different, they each have their own independent, they produce their own wines and they farm their own vineyards. I mean, and they’ve seen, you know, work together and help each other and it’s like, okay, it’s your bottling tomorrow, I’ll help you with that. I’m pruning today, you’ll help me with that. But they really created this beautiful dynamic where they get to each kind of express their own story and they kind of focus on different grapes and they farm slightly differently and their wine making styles are slightly different.
That’s super interesting.
Oh, it’s so neat. Nobody, I like, so few people do that, to find this harmony where they can kind of like, they don’t have to collapse themselves together and Roland. It’s got a couple of like really fabulous giant doneys that he took me to meet. He’s very shy guy. They’re both like pretty kind of introverted folks. And, I actually surprisingly get along super well with introverted people. oh my gosh.
It’s like a balance.
It is, I love it. I crave it. so yeah, my last trip to Champagne a couple years ago was visiting with them and I got to go out and hang out with Roland’s donkeys.
I love it.
So great. He was like, you know, they do donkey therapy and France and I was like, ah, I got to come to France more. I’m not here enough. Awesome. maybe, yeah,
Maybe too, let’s return to our roots. Right. We met at a Co op conference. Can you talk little bit about whether being a cooperative was something that kind of just made sense as you started learning or was that the goal from the beginning?
I’ve definitely, I definitely stumbled into co-ops. not really knowing that that was even the language that was, I had no idea. Like what an enormous community or like kind of economic, political, like political, social, cultural foundation it was going to become for RedHen. you know, in the last couple of years I’ve started to discover what these kind of multi-stakeholder cooperative models can look like. and so now we’re like, oh my God, how can we bring our producers in as cooperative owners of this business as well? Like, it’s fantastic to do it. Equal Exchange does. And I mean like y’all are just like above and beyond. It’s not just like fair trade, right? I mean like, yeah, I, it just, it like people do not get it. People do not get the power of Equal — like the economic power of Equal Exchange’s model on so many levels. that your bar is just way above what, uh, like pretty much anybody and everybody else in the coffee industry is doing. and so RedHen like, oh my God, we want to get there were not just like paying, you know, a few pennies more a pound and calling it fair trade, but like, paying way above these market rates and doing it consistently and building these lifelong like intergenerational relationships with producers, with deep commitments and investing in their cooperatives and investing in them, transforming their farming for the better and paying them up front of the vintage. I mean, that’s, that is radical, which you guys are doing. and so RedHen is looking at that and then we’re like, yes. And you know, what if we can actually build, I mean, we all know that if our growers, they’re farmers, if they had $10,000 in the bank, they’d fix the other tractor, you know?
But they have fricking inventory, right? They have inventory in the bank, they have wine in the bank, which is also called the celler. So part of what we get so excited about is bringing in these like really brilliant, whether it’s like a securities lawyer or a or cooperative lawyers. And like, I mean, lawyers, lawyers, but all and like thought leaders and these kinds of, these systems engineers who are really specialized and they come in and sit down with us and they’re like, did you know you could do this? Did you know you could do this? Like, did you know you could structure an equity investment around property or it doesn’t have to be around money. We’re like mind blown, like wine could be an investment in this company. So we’re getting so excited about these are getting super creative with capital, getting super creative with engineering, kind of these supply chain flow leaks where it’s like, oh, how do we, we keep having these misses, we’re trying to get into grocery stores or when we’re trying to build these good partnerships. and I really just think that so many of those misses happen because we’ve like externalized all stakeholders. And when we internalize and when we turn stakeholders into shareholders and we internalize all of these different voices, all of these different players, I mean, obviously that’s going to be messy, but you’ve got the information you need.
No one talks about that. Democracy is super messy. Another thing too that I want to say is that for Equal Exchange. I think that what has been radical about us has definitely been our model, right? And you know, our product happened to be coffee, your product happens to be wine. So many times people will say, why? Why doesn’t Equal Exchange make this product? Why don’t you make this product? And I think it’s like, because we have friends like you are going to do other products, right? Like it’s about building this cooperative economy. So that’s another thing that I really like about cooperatives is that it’s about supporting each other and Equal Exchange isn’t going to make every product that would be the antithesis of what we’re trying to do in a diversified economy where everyone kind of gets a seat at the table, everyone gets a stake in there. It’s not a zero sum game. But I, I think that we could probably sit here and talk about this forever. I’m really happy that you were able to make it on with us. And I wanna leave with one fun question. what is your favorite wine and why?
Oh my gosh, that’s such a terribly hard question.
Fun for us. Difficult for you.
I mean cause the truth is I love so many different, so many different things and it’s kind of like you don’t have to either like spaghetti or birthday cake, you know, there’s my favorite wine.
Okay. Maybe top three.
Okay. Well I’m like, okay, what’s in my, what’s in the fridge? What’s in the farm fridge right now? but what did I, I brought like cases of wine up to the farm. cause farmers are really fun to drink wine with. and some of the things I’ve brought, I brought a bottle of Fino sherry, Manzanilla sherry, which is in the fridge right now. and it’s like this. So sherry, sherry is super confusing partially because there’s all these terrible, disgusting grocery store, bottom shelf cooking wines that are supposedly sherry. They’re not like — sherry is actually from this region in Spain. Like this incredible. Hundreds and hundreds of years of legacy. There’s sweet styles, there’s dry styles, there’s all this different stuff. And my favorite style there is this style called Fino. So it’s a white wine. A totally dry, like aka no sugar white wine that has been aged with all of like this. They’ve aged in barrels for years, up above ground and it gets this kind of like blanket of yeast grows on top of the wine. which contributes is like really yummy., biscuity bready kind of like sourdough bread and, and like almond’s flavors in the wine. It’s kind of like salty and savory…
I’m going to change my mind about sherry.
You gotta be careful. You gotta find the right one. But Fino sherry and specifically within fino, this like little micro category, this called Manzanilla, which comes from one particular little village. oh, that stuff is crazy good. Champagne champagne is like, it’s like once you start to love something so much, you actually wind up hating 90% of it. You know how that is. If you love musical theater, you hate 99 out of a hundred musicals. The more you love it, the more particular you are.
So champagne is that way for me. I’m like crazy about it. And the more crazy about it I get the more like it’s the more I only want exactly what I want. and then these days I am just like … last year we took a trip to Hungary, and I was like completely floored. There’s so many grapes there that it was just like, I don’t even know how to pronounce this stuff. Like lots and lots of white wines, some of these red wines that are really kinda light and, and delicate and like snap, crackle poppy. I just … so I’m always like wanting to kind of wander off the, the edge of my own known world and if I can’t pronounce it and if I can’t find it on a map, like yes, I’ll take it.
That’s a, that’s the role of them we’re bringing back to consumers. Awesome. Well thank you so much Molly. I appreciate you being on here. This was great.
Oh my gosh. Really Fun. Thanks so much Danielle.
Thanks for listening to The Stories Behind Our Food, a podcast by Equal Exchange, inc a worker-owned cooperative. Love this episode? Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equalexchange.coop to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Equal Exchange with hosts, Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux and sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.