Think it’s too late to change your career? It may not be.

On this episode of Think Tank of Three, we’re talking to a former nurse who spent decades in hospitals, but changed gears completely to follow her passion: wine. She now has a very successful company and charity with her husband, and we’re finding out how she did it.

In this podcast, you’ll also learn:

  • How to get the best value on a bottle or a glass of wine in a restaurant.
  • Which glass should you buy to save money.
  • Which glass of wine has the highest markup and which one to choose instead to save money.
  • How you can order a bottle of wine in a restaurant at the best price — without looking cheap.
  • A little insight on what it’s like owning a business with your husband.



Kathryn Janicek: Hi, this is Kathryn Janicek here with Audrea Fink, and Julie Holton. Our guest today is Denise Cody from Cellar Angels. It’s a wine marketing curator, that helps people all over the United States, find wines made from lesser known vineyards, and gives money to charities, with each bottle they sell. Sounds pretty awesome.

Kathryn Janicek: Denise calls herself the “chief operating angel.” She’s co-CEO with her husband. He’s the idea guy, and she gets it all done.

Julie Holton: I love it. Denise, you’re the implementer. This is such a great story, and such a big career transition.

Julie Holton: Denise, how long were you a nurse?

Denise Cody: Thanks ladies, and thanks Julie, for the question.

Denise Cody: I worked in surgery for 20 gratifying years, including three mission trips to South America, making people see. We did cataract surgery.

Julie Holton: Wow.

Audrea Fink: Amazing.

Denise Cody: And then, made the leap, because you do that for so many years, and you’re just ready to go out, and do something on your own.

Audrea Fink: What made you decide to leave nursing, and switch to your passion, and were you maybe a little scared of not being successful in that shift? It’s a major shift, from nursing, to wine.

Denise Cody: It was a big shift. I don’t think I knew what I was in for. And then, in 2007, I made the leap, opened a wine shop. At the time, I had no fear, but then, we opened the doors, and my fantasy of having people lined up around the corner wasn’t there. I thought to myself, what have I done?

Denise Cody: At that point, the challenge was on. It was through that wine shop that, Cellar Angels was born, actually. We were buying from distributors here in the area, and we realized that, there were so many great small producers, small wine producers out in Athens, Sonoma particularly. That’s where our roots were, and we wanted to make certain that they got introduced to wine enthusiasts. Wine distributors won’t pick them up, because they have too small of a production.

Denise Cody: During that time, around 2010, we launched Cellar Angels, to leverage the internet, got the inspiration from a company called, Groupon, here in town, and we thought, why can’t we leverage the internet, to help out these small producers? So, Cellar Angels was born.

Kathryn Janicek: Okay, so what you’re getting at is that, when we go to a restaurant, and we open up a menu, depending on what city you’re in, you have a selected number of wines that you might see in that city, or that region, that you live in, in the United States, right? And that’s controlled by the distributors?

Denise Cody: Yes, that’s correct. Mostly distributors are going to pick up as their clients, the larger wine producers, and then, they’re going to promote them. It’s easier to promote with larger volumes, right?

Denise Cody: These smaller producers, they can’t leverage their very, very tiny production. Some of the ones that we work with, only have 50, or 100 cases. There is no producer that is going to try, and distribute that city-wide, or even nation-wide, so they get left behind.

Kathryn Janicek: You’re helping small businesses, and family-owned vineyards?

Denise Cody: Exactly, Kathryn, these are small family-run wineries.

Audrea Fink: Do wine shops, like local, regional wine shops follow the same thing? Are they part of the same distribution as maybe the restaurants?

Denise Cody: Yes, so anywhere you go, at least in the city that I live in, which is Chicago, while it may seem like there is so many options, if you go to either the bigger wine locations, or the small wine shops, or even a restaurant, if you look closely, you’ll see pretty much it’s the same brands everywhere you go, on every shelf. Even in Jewel, they recently started carrying wine in CVS. But, these again, are the large, large production lines.

Denise Cody: Just to give you an example, there is a very large winery that you know of, that is sold at Trader Joe’s, that might cost $3 a bottle, and their production is 16 million cases a year.

Julie Holton: Wow.

Denise Cody: We’re working with wineries that are doing a couple barrels a year sometimes. We work with wineries that are 5,000 cases, and under. We tell their stories through video, and then, we hope that you make a connection, and you want to buy direct from them.

Julie Holton: Denise, your business is called, Cellar Angels, and that is because of the charitable part of your business. Can you talk about that a little bit? For each bottle you sell, you also donate money to charities?

Denise Cody: Right, and these small wineries love to give back to their communities, and they were asked multiple times for donations. So, one of the things they like about working with us is that, we have a charitable component.

Denise Cody: From the consumer side, you come to the website, you find a wine that looks interesting to you. You have watched the behind the scenes video. It resonates with you, and you go to make a purchase. When you make your purchase, you get to choose from our 15 charity partners, something that resonates with you.

Denise Cody: Let’s just say it’s a military charity for example, so the Patriot Education Fund is a great one. You can then buy your wine, support a small business winery, and a small charity as well.

Julie Holton: That’s awesome. How did you guys go about selecting the charities that you’d offer on your website?

Denise Cody: That’s a great question, and this is a rotating selection, so they change ongoing. We do have some that have been on a longer partners, and some that have recently been added.

Denise Cody: Another one that maybe people have heard of, but maybe it’s not in your everyday vernacular would be, Gilda’s Club, Gilda Radner, Chris Kyle Foundation is another military charity for example. This is the movie, “American Sniper”, so those are some examples of things that we work with. Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation.

Kathryn Janicek: That’s great. It makes you feel … Wine itself is so intimidating, it can be like, I don’t know which bottle to … It’s overwhelming. You don’t feel like … You can be embarrassed to ask questions, but you’re taking it, and you’re making it feel good, with that angel part, with the charity part, I feel like, if I buy through your website, or I learn about a wine through your website, I’m able to give back also. It’s wonderful.

Kathryn Janicek: Why is wine so intimidating? I remember when I was in my 20s, I started logging. I remember logging in this book, all the wines that I drank, and whether, or not I liked them, because I wanted to not buy the same bottle I didn’t like, or the same year I didn’t like.

Kathryn Janicek: I had read it somewhere, like in Money, or Forbes Magazine, I just remember reading this 26 year old like, “Logging my wines.” Because, I didn’t want to make a big mistake, and then have to either drink a glass of wine I didn’t want, or have to say, “I really don’t like this.” Because, that’s embarrassing too, when you have to send back a bottle, or send back a glass of wine. Why in general, why is this so difficult, and why is it so intimidating?

Denise Cody: It’s the aura that has been put on this industry from wine snobs, just to put it very simply. These are the people who, they want to … If you watched the movie, “Sideways“, for example.

Julie Holton: Yeah.

Denise Cody: And he says, “Oh, there’s peach, and there’s this, and there’s …” then, he puts his finger over his ear, and he says, “And maybe, there is a flutter of something …” You know … It’s so pretentious. They made it pretentious, but it doesn’t have to be pretentious. In the end, drink what you like.

Kathryn Janicek: Good.

Audrea Fink: So, can you give us a quick run down of some just basic wine terms that we need to know, to not sound like an idiot? Because, I drink a lot of wine. I love wine. I just started two years ago, working on building a cellar, which is really hard, because I want to drink everything I purchase.

Audrea Fink: But, when people start talking about tannins, or mouths, see, I don’t know. I’m like, “I don’t know, this tastes good.” What are some of the terms we need to know, and what do they mean?

Denise Cody: Yeah, let me go through a few with you, and let me help demystify some of the snobbery. When you see Niles on “Sideways”, do his assessment of the wine, assessment is a process, like anything else, you’re either drinking, or you’re tasting.

Denise Cody: When you’re tasting, you’re going to look at the wine, and this is just called, sight. Then, you’re gonna smell the wine, and this is called, the nose. Then, you want to taste the wine, and these are the flavors that you will taste on your palette. These are some words that will be used when you are assessing wine.

Denise Cody: The tannins for example is, that’s that chalky feeling you get in your mouth, like if you had black tea. That’s what a tannin is, and tannins come from, generally the bigger, robust wines, like Cabernet.

Denise Cody: They can also come though, from other things, in lesser quality wines. For example, if they don’t hand de-stem, these are some of the things that our small production wineries do. They hand-sort, and hand-de-stem. So, if everything’s put through a machine, you’re gonna get some of those stems in there. That’s gonna cause some higher tannins. So, that’s what tannin is, and it can come from its authentic source, which is the skin, or it can come from lesser quality practices.

Denise Cody: Then, what else did you say? You said, tannin …?

Audrea Fink: Mouth feel.

Denise Cody: Oh, malolactic fermentation, is that your thinking?

Audrea Fink: I don’t know.

Denise Cody: Okay.

Audrea Fink: I don’t know. I’ve just been told, “This has a mouth feel of …”

Denise Cody: Oh, mouth feel, yes.

Audrea Fink: I don’t … it feels like wine in my mouth.

Denise Cody: Yeah.

Audrea Fink: You know?

Denise Cody: So, mouth feel is like a 3D perception of the wine. Does it have tannin? That’s a mouth feel. Does it feel fruity? Is it sweet? Does it …? Then, when I swallow it, does it have a long finish? Do I still taste it 15, 20, 25, even 30 seconds later? That would be the finish.

Denise Cody: This is again, things that you would do when you’re assessing wine. A lot of people, if you go to look at our tasting, most people love tasting notes, so we do that on every single wine.

Denise Cody: When I do tasting notes for my business, I often do the finish, because people love to know, how long does it last?

Julie Holton: Denise, I love hearing you talk about this, because your passion really shines through as you start talking. I know our listeners can’t see you, but you’re smiling, and you just really get into it.

Julie Holton: This is a passion that you share with your husband, owning this business with him. I want to just stop for a minute, and talk about the business aspect, and being entrepreneurs.

Julie Holton: What is it like, owning a business with your husband as your partner, your business partner, as well as your life partner?

Denise Cody: Like any other relationship, there are things that come together nicely, and sometimes, there are challenges, so one of the things about our relationship is that, I find working with him comforting, and frustrating. I find it synergistic, and frustrating, and I find it productive, and frustrating.

Julie Holton: I’m noticing a theme here.

Kathryn Janicek: This is great.

Denise Cody: But overall, I think we’re a really good fit. He’s the dreamer, and I’m the one who gets things done. I’m the practical one. Most of the time, it’s a really good fit. It’s effortless, but there are times we have to sit, and negotiate on things that we disagree on.

Denise Cody: I think the biggest benefit for us is that, we can be super efficient. We can have an impromptu meeting on a beach.

Kathryn Janicek: Cool.

Audrea Fink: Do you ever find that, because you work together, and live together, vacation together, that sometimes, turning off work is difficult?

Denise Cody: Yes.

Audrea Fink: And maybe, how do you navigate that?

Denise Cody: Really, it’s about setting boundaries, and having reasonable, thoughtful negotiating conversations. You’re going into a restaurant, and you just set the boundaries, because clearly, there’s wine that’s gonna be on the table, and it’s gonna lead to a conversation about our business. So, you just say, “This is the safe zone. We’re not gonna talk about wine in this dinner.”

Kathryn Janicek: Oh, that’s good. That’s a really good practice. Like, we’re gonna just be us, as a couple tonight for dinner. I love it. I think everyone should take that as advice. Maybe, don’t talk about the kids, don’t talk about your job. There’s gotta be something that’s sacred for just the couple, to stay close, right?

Denise Cody: Right.

Kathryn Janicek: All right, so you already gave some really great tips for Audrea, telling her about the mouth feel et cetera, but let’s go through a couple more tips. Most of our listeners are professional people, who may come across this. They’re ordering wine for a group, or maybe some friends at a restaurant, and they … or, what if it’s a work dinner? It could be pretty daunting, just again, that whole pretentiousness. It’s intimidating.

Kathryn Janicek: What can we do to sound a little more educated about wine? Let’s start with the lists. How are the lists organized? Did you have a tip on getting the best price also, on a certain variety?

Denise Cody: Yeah, so the lists are generally still leaning towards the snobby side of the wine industry, in that, they’re categorized by grape type, or region. Well, if I said to … and I have no idea what the wine knowledge is of this level of group of ladies here, but if I said to you, “Oh, Bordeaux.” What kind of grape am I gonna taste in this wine? Mostly, you probably wouldn’t know.

Denise Cody: The wine lists that are categorized by region, or even grape type, you may not know what a tannin is, so these things sometimes can be a little bit elusive.

Denise Cody: I was a little enthused on my trip to California recently. I found a couple of lists that were categorized by taste style. I’d like to see this moving a little bit more in this direction with a lot of the restaurant wine lists.

Denise Cody: For example, they had a section called, bold reds. Well, that’s pretty explanatory.

Julie Holton: Yeah.

Kathryn Janicek: I like that.

Denise Cody: Then, as far as a value, Kathryn, I would say, stick to more of the obscure regions, like Chile, New Zealand, or Portugal. So, these may not be Burgundy, and Roan, and Napa Valley, but they are making some amazing wines in these regions, and the prices haven’t caught up yet.

Audrea Fink: I just got back from New Zealand, and drank a ridiculous amount of Sauvignon Blanc, because that was everywhere, and in the states, I never drink it. I’m not a big white wine drinker, but in New Zealand, every bottle was good.

Denise Cody: Yeah, New Zealand is really starting to come on the radar, and they’re upping their game. They’re doing a great job.

Denise Cody: On that note … So, let’s just say that, you’re in a restaurant, and somebody says, “I’d like a pinot noir”, and this is one of your clients, and you’re paying. So, you want to find a good pinot noir, at a good price, right? Well, the go-to region for pinot noir would be, Burgundy, the most famous pinot noir region in the world. It also has some of the most expensive wines in the world. So, to your point, I would pick a pinot noir from New Zealand. They are amazing.

Audrea Fink: Good to know. So, I’m in the Pacific Northwest, so Oregon is our pinot space, and then, I don’t actually … I should know, but I don’t know what Washington does. If you are looking at something that’s local in my region, if I’m at a restaurant here, is it worth getting something from New Zealand for a pinot, versus an Oregon pinot?

Denise Cody: I would say Oregon would be considered local to you, and if it were me, I always try to support local. So, Oregon tends to be more pinot noir, Washington tends to be a little bit more Merlot, and Cab, and things like that, as far as reds go. If there is a pinot in your area, I would always support local. Not only do you support your local community small producer, because it’s gonna be easier in your local area, to get access to the small producers, but then, you’re gonna probably get a good quality wine, because your restaurant vetted it.

Julie Holton: I love to hear that Denise, because … Julie here, and I will admit, I do not know much about wine, other than, I’ll drink it. Even if I don’t like it, I’ll pretend, and I’ll drink it, but Michigan girl here, and love our cold climate wines.

Julie Holton: I find myself ordering Michigan wines, because it’s much easier for me to … We only have so many of the vineyards here, so I’ve come to know which ones I like and don’t like, plus, supporting local makes it easier for sure.

Julie Holton: Okay, so when I’m not ordering my Michigan wines, because those are the handful that I know, I know you have some tips on getting a better quality of wine, when it comes to ordering by the glass, so what are those tips? Which ones should we order?

Denise Cody: Julie, I’m so glad you asked that. This is such an important thing to know, because when you go to a restaurant, like any other business, they’re trying to make money, right? When you look at the by the glass list, you’re gonna tend to want to go with the less expensive red, or white, whatever you’re choosing that’s by the glass, and this is actually the most marked up wine, because they know people choose it the most.

Denise Cody: So, I say, go with the second least expensive.

Audrea Fink: It’s so funny you say that. I was just in a restaurant two days ago, and they had one of my favorite back home, Tuesday night wines, because they’re cheap and easy. It was Hot to Trot. You can get too hot to trot for I think it’s $90 a case at Costco, right? Super cheap, which is also how we buy a lot of our wine. In this restaurant, it was $40 for the bottle, and it was the cheapest bottle.

Audrea Fink: That’s what we ended up buying, and I remember thinking, like … But, that makes sense, right? People are gonna buy this low-priced bottle.

Denise Cody: And you’re spot on, because it’s so marked up. This is something that my husband and I were just talking about, when we were on our business trip in California. When are the restaurants going to start understanding that people are bringing their own wines to a restaurant for a reason? They are too overpriced.

Denise Cody: Like you said, you can get this bottle for, what did you say it was, $9?

Audrea Fink: If I buy it in the grocery store, it’s $8, or $9. When I buy it at Costco, it’s $7 a bottle.

Denise Cody: Yeah, and $40 in the restaurant. People just don’t want to spend that. This is why those other tips, with going with the more obscure regions are even more important.

Kathryn Janicek: Absolutely. I always feel guilty when I do buy a bottle, and you’re buying the ambiance, right? You’re at a restaurant. There’s all that, but I hope Denise, that there is a change, because I think we’re all getting smarter, and there’s so many BYOBs in major cities, where you can just bring your own bottle of wine, or you can pay a corkage fee or something, because it’s just so frustrating, knowing the prices as we all get a little more sophisticated knowing how much that bottle should be, and then having to pay 400% more. It’s really frustrating.

Kathryn Janicek: All right, so what if I’m trying to tell the sum, or the waiter a price range, but I don’t want to actually say it out loud, I want to give them an idea, without telling my clients, or my friends that I’m looking for a $50 bottle of wine, or nothing more than a $100? Is there some kind of a little … How can I say it, with still being sophisticated?

Denise Cody: Yeah, right. Well, to avoid the whole thing all together, you can always look at the list online, or even call ahead, and speak to the sommelier, before you get there. But, if you’re there, and you’re sitting in your chair, and you’re holding up your wine list, and you don’t know what to pick, and you want to stay in a price range, I would call over the sommelier. They’ll probably stand over your shoulder.

Denise Cody: You would say, “We’re looking for a red wine in this region”, and point to the price. This is called, the pointing trick.

Kathryn Janicek: Oh.

Denise Cody: If you do have a wine steward, or a trained sommelier, they should know exactly what you’re talking about. Keep in mind, if you’re doing this to your server, that has not been trained in table side service, they may not know what you’re talking about, so you want to make certain that you get the restaurant’s wine steward, or wine sommelier.

Kathryn Janicek: That’s a great tip. That’s awesome. Okay, cool.

Audrea Fink: One of the things I do a lot with work is, we take groups of clients out, right? So, we’ll take a client out to dinner after a big closing, or after a big win, or sometimes just to say, “Thanks for being our client.”

Audrea Fink: If we know that, when we go in, we’re gonna have a mark up on our wine, what are some tips we can use, to get a good wine, that isn’t necessarily focused on price, and does it look bad, if we bring our own wine?

Denise Cody: Yeah, so the couple unwritten rules about bringing your own wine, number one, never bring a wine that is already on their list. So, you’re gonna want to check that. That’s a faux pas. Call ahead, and find out what the corkage fee is.

Audrea Fink: Okay.

Denise Cody: Talk to the general manager, or the sommelier, and say, “This is a special client dinner. I’d like to bring in some wines that are meaningful to this group. What is your corkage fee, and may I do that?”

Denise Cody: They make their money on wine, so hopefully they’ll charge a corkage fee, and everybody is happy, but just keep that in mind, it’s a little bit of an uncomfortable place to be right now. But, by all means, you can absolutely do it, and that’s why they charge a corkage fee, to make up that difference.

Audrea Fink: Also, I have one more question for you, about this distribution idea. There are a handful of wineries here in Washington that I love. Mosquito Fleet Winery is one of them. It’s this teeny tiny little winery in Belfair, Washington, which is Nowheresville, but it’s where my dad grew up. Then, there’s Hard Row to Hoe, which is a Lake Chelan-based winery that also has a tasting room.

Audrea Fink: I love them, but they are never in stores. They are never on the menu. Is there something that as a personal consumer, I can do, to help get them into those places?

Denise Cody: You can certainly ask for them. That’s a good thing, but keep in mind, when these small wineries have to go through the distribution channel, it’s called, the three-tiered system for a reason. There are multiple stops on the way, and everyone wants their cut. So, the best way you can support these wineries is, to buy direct from them.

Audrea Fink: Nice.

Kathryn Janicek: Good tip.

Denise Cody: So, let’s just take that restaurant that you went to, where that one wine was $40, and you had purchased it for $9, or $11, I would say, take it with you to the restaurant, and pay the corkage fee, even if the corkage fee is … I think $20 is high, but let’s just say it is $20, you’re still ahead.

Kathryn Janicek: All right, so before we go, we are collecting advice from successful women in our communities, so every woman that we have on in our podcast, we ask them three quick, rapid fire questions, and we share them with the rest of our Think Tank forum.

Kathryn Janicek: Here we go, Denise. Number one, is there a lesson that you’ve recently learned, that you wish you would have learned earlier in your career?

Denise Cody: Yes, I wish I had started networking, and building my network of not only really powerful women around me … I wish I had done that earlier.

Julie Holton: What advice would you offer to your younger self, 10 years ago?

Denise Cody: Push through the fear.

Audrea Fink: What do you think is the most important skill to hone for a woman is, in today’s professional setting?

Denise Cody: I think at least for me, and some of the women around me, I think ask more questions. We tend to be … we think our voices shouldn’t be heard, that we should just be seen, so I would say, ask more questions, get more clarity.

Kathryn Janicek: I love it, and this is why we do these kind of podcasts. We ask questions of professional women, who started businesses, or who manage amazing things, and Denise, that was great. I think well, a little bit, like push through the fear?

Audrea Fink: Love it.

Kathryn Janicek: That’s a great tip. Push through the fear, because we all deal with it every day. Imagine all of the things that you wouldn’t have achieved with this amazing business that you have, if you did not say, “You know what? I’m not gonna be a surgical nurse anymore. I’m gonna push through the fear, and I’m gonna do this whole new career.”

Kathryn Janicek: And just asking more questions, not saying, “Oh, I’m gonna sound dumb if I ask a question.” Because, I know I dealt with that when I was younger, and not just asking a question. I love it. I love it, I love it, and that’s what we’re gonna continue to do with this podcast. We’re gonna make sure that, we’re always asking great questions of successful women like Denise Cody at Cellar Angels, so you can learn more, and we can learn more, the three of us for sure, at Think Tank of Three.

Kathryn Janicek: Denise, before we go, can you share the best way that people can connect with you, if they have additional questions about wine, or business interests, or want to buy wine? How can they find you?

Denise Cody: They can find us at It’s Cellar Angels with an S, and keep in mind, when you order you get to pick one of the charities that resonates with you, and we will give a donation to that charity.

Audrea Fink: I love that. I just think that is the coolest thing. I don’t know any … I don’t know of very many companies at all, that do that, so kudos to you. That’s rad.

Julie Holton: This has been such a great conversation Denise, thank you again. If you at home have topics to discuss, send us a message at, and join us, as well continue this conversation with Denise online, We blog weekly. Subscribe, and you’ll get a first alert email.

Julie Holton: You can also find us on social media. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. Be sure to join our private group on Facebook. It’s private group, so we can all give, and get advice freely. Just look for that group in the community section, on our Facebook page.