Sonoma County is a special place. Its serendipitous placement between Napa Valley and the Pacific Ocean gives it a unique landscape and fertile soil. Days are mild and nights are cool. Mountain ranges, rolling hills, creeks, and tributaries crisscross the land. This is Northern California at its best. This is wine country.
For the 24 million tourists that visit California wine regions each year, Sonoma County is an inviting destination that offers some of the best wines in the world, including distinctive Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But to Ali Pourghadir, the vineyards are an office. Pourghadir is a tax professional and finance expert. And in 2015, he joined Jackson Family Wines to work with the leadership team and help one of the world’s leading wine companies—which includes heritage wineries like Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, and Cambria—to grow and thrive.
Pourghadir works out of Jackson Family Wines corporate office in Santa Rosa, and in some ways, the role as senior vice president of global finance has brought him full circle. Pourghadir was born and raised in Tehran, the capital city of Iran, shortly after the 1979 Revolution. As the upheaval made life volatile and dangerous, his parents decided to pursue a better future. When Pourghadir was two years old, they fled to Germany. After nine years, they packed their belongings in small suitcases and made the long journey to the United States. By then, Pourghadir was eleven years old. Although he had learned German, he didn’t speak a word of English. His family settled in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa.
The transition was difficult. Pourghadir found himself in the back row of a sixth-grade classroom in a school district that didn’t offer English as a second or foreign language curriculum. Instead, an assistant helped him use flashcards to learn basic vocabulary. As Pourghadir raced to learn the language, he realized his German education had prepared him well in mathematics. In fact, he was years ahead of his American peers. He flourished with numbers, and at age thirteen, started his own small business by selling jewelry he had learned to make from a Native American neighbor.
Pourghadir continued working through high school and into college where he worked thirty-five hours a week and took eighteen credits per semester instead of the traditional twelve. “Both of my parents are my heroes because of the sacrifices they made and how hard they worked to provide a better life for me,” he says. “I inherited their work ethic because I know it’s my responsibility to make something of the tremendous gift they gave me.”
While at Sonoma State University studying business, Pourghadir made a realization that would shape his philosophy and change the course of his career. “I saw so many people exiting the university without jobs. I knew I had to find a niche within business that would set me up to add value and help drive a business forward,” he explains. He added an accounting concentration and set his sights on a job with the world’s most well-known professional services firm: PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
The strategy worked. Pourghadir landed a full-time role at the San Francisco-based company. He joined various audit and tax teams, where he worked in assurance and advisory roles. Pourghadir maintained the same vision that drove him during his college years. “Business is about more than the bottom line and accounting is more than crunching numbers. I wanted to develop real, well-rounded expertise to distinguish the value I bring and prepare myself for an executive level or senior management role,” he says.
After starting in banking and capital markets industry at PwC, he volunteered for additional responsibilities and transitioned to start working closely with a head partner in PwC’s wine industry practice. Soon, Pourghadir was advising boutique vineyards and large global wineries, including Jackson Family Wines. Pourghadir learned to provide value and be a trusted business advisor to his clients.
After five years at PwC, the desire to start his own family led Pourghadir to scale back his seventy-hour work week. He took a job at a full-service CPA firm, joining two individuals who had started a new practice where Pourghadir helped them grow their book of business and they helped him grow professionally as well.
Five years later, he received a call about an opportunity at Jackson Family Wines. The family-owned wine business was looking for a director of accounting and tax. The move would give Pourghadir the opportunity to drive strategy in a senior management role and bring him back to Santa Rosa. He accepted without hesitation.
Today, Jackson Family Wines exports its wines worldwide, including the best-selling chardonnay in the United States, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. Early in 2021, Pourghadir was promoted to senior vice president of global finance, a leadership position that leverages his finance, tax, and accounting expertise to oversee global financial results, ensure growth and profitability, and contribute to strategic planning for the Jackson family and the enterprise.
It’s a challenging and complex role, but one Pourghadir is uniquely positioned to execute. The company owns and farms wineries and estate vineyards that span the premier wine growing regions of California, Oregon, France, Italy, Australia, Chile, and South Africa.
Pourghadir, who has lived in three continents and speaks four languages, says his international experience is an undeniable asset. “My life and career experience have provided a broad perspective of the world that helps me navigate business across markets here in the United States and in global markets where we do business or have a presence. It’s rewarding to bring this unique experience to my work, as it gives both me and our company a competitive advantage,” he explains.
In 2021, as global businesses continue to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, Pourghadir is focused on working with the Jackson family and executive team in continuing to elevate the portfolio of wines and ensure the company’s long-term success. In addition to producing world-class wines, he says the company fosters a family-oriented culture and is a progressive leader in environmentally and socially responsible business practices through various sustainability achievements and goals. Jackson Family Wines generates more solar energy than any American winery, uses 50 percent less water than it did a decade ago, and has made a commitment to become climate positive by 2050.
In just sixteen years, Pourghadir has followed a methodical plan he created that has helped him become an influential executive at a leading global wine company. Aspiring tax and financial pros, he says, should learn their target industry well and start their career with a specific goal in mind, and understand that the road to achieving that goal is not a straight line nor will be handed to you—it has to be earned. But in some ways, for Pourghadir, the journey was a natural progression, and importantly, the journey is not over yet.
Winemaking thrived in Iran until it was outlawed after the Revolution of 1979—the same revolution that forced Pourghadir’s family to flee to Wiesbaden, a part of Germany known for its Riesling. Their journey later took them to Santa Rosa, a California city surrounded by vineyards. Some leaders are lucky enough to find a job that aligns with their interest, passion, or hobby. But Ali Pourghadir has wine in his very DNA.
Thoughts from Guest Editor Lorna Hagen
“I’ve found a common thread when speaking to some of the most successful executives I have met—they have always asked for or volunteered to take on additional work. In some instances, it’s work that would lessen the burden on their supervisors. In others, it’s work that will enhance their skill set and sets them on a new learning journey. Ali Pourghadir shows the successful outcome of that strategy.”
Partnering with American AgCredit has helped Jackson Family Wines succeed. Ali and his team work closely with Ed Adams to finance vineyard and winery acquisitions, primarily in California and Oregon. “Working with Ali and his team on financing opportunities to support the strategic wine production and grape sourcing needs of Jackson Family Wines has been extremely gratifying,” said Ed Adams, vice president of corporate banking at American AgCredit.