Monique Soltani had a loving husband, twin daughters, and a flourishing career producing a television show exploring the world of wine called Wine Oh.tv. In 2018, on a shoot in Italy, she got the call everyone fears. Mark was dying. His prognosis, terminal.
Death, a pandemic, widowhood, and single-motherhood took a toll on Monique’s psyche. This year, however, she’s resurrected her beloved show and tells Forbes the long and heartfelt tale of how it all unfolded.
I suggest you print this interview to PDF and settle in with a coffee or wine, as it deserves your full attention. Her story is one of the human condition and how food, wine, and the humble dinner table signify the highest purspose of life: communion.
Given your professional background in television, how and when did you first discover wine?
In September 2001, I was working in my first “real” job out of college as a morning show anchor and was on the anchor desk when the first plane hit the Twin Towers. The tragic event that changed America changed me (like many of us) forever.
I struggled to hold it together, fighting back tears, as I tried to make sense of it, and explain to our audience, what was happening. I decided at that time news was not in my blood. I couldn’t disassociate myself from the story. It consumed me in a way I can’t explain. As a trusted person in the community, I didn’t know how to help our audience feel safe when I myself was so scared.
Shortly thereafter, I walked away from my TV news career and walked straight into a steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan and applied for a job as a waitress. It was the early 2000’s, and I was a young woman working in a man’s world in Manhattan. I’ve smiled my way through my share of pinches and pats and quickly came to realize in New York City if I could talk about wine, I could have a credible seat at their table.
When did you first conceive of the idea for Wine Oh.tv?
In 2008, I was working for the NBC affiliate in California’s Central Valley. We launched a new talk show called Central Valley Today and we had six live segments a day to fill. I started my Wine Oh! segment there as one weekly segment in the hour-long live show. My original goal was to create a show to teach women about wine and use it as a tool to help empower them the way it empowered me.
I eventually pitched my station on the half-hour version of Wine Oh! to air once a week on Saturdays. I ended up accepting a job at KPIX in San Francisco and the half-hour version of Wine Oh! was off the table for the time being. Flash forwards a few years and Wine Oh TV in its current form would be born with the help of my future husband.
Mark and I fell in love over big lattes, egg sandwiches, and chicken scratched outlines of what Wine Oh TV could be, at the Diamond Cafe in San Francisco’s, Noe Valley district. Armed with an MBA, a successful career in financial services, and a very unique ability to dream bg, his eyes saw me in a way I could never see myself.
An entrepreneur at heart, he always encouraged and inspired. “Monique, you cover wine for everyone else, why not do it for yourself?” He was forming his own start-up at the time, so the two of us connected over ideas of what we could be together both professionally and personally. Fresh off consuming all the Malcom Gladwell books my Kindle could swallow, I was convinced with his confidence in me, and my 10,000 hours, I could give it a go, and go at it on my own.
What was your first episode about and how did you pick the destination? Where else have you taped that you especially enjoyed?
My first episode picked me! I had built relationships with wine regions in Northern California while I was covering wine for different media outlets. When I told Beth Costa, Executive Director, Wine Road Northern Sonoma County, I was going at it alone and launching my own show she stepped up and offered to be my very first sponsor! I had no product, no pitch, just an idea in my head. Beth believed in me and backed me from the beginning. In 2012, I was lucky enough to cover four wineries in Northern Sonoma County once a month for 12 months for Wine Oh TV. For this reason and so many others I hold a very special place in my heart for Healdsburg.
Other places I enjoy are usually the last place I’ve been. Right now, I’m still high from my recent visit to Lodi. But I am always in love with Italy, whenever I go there they treat me like one of their own. This could be because they think I am one of them. I look Italian, my name sounds Italian, I grew up pretending to be Italian, but I’m actually Iranian. Regardless of my heritage, the Italians have a way of making everyone feel like they are home.
When did your husband die and what challenges surrounded his death?
In 2018, I was shooting a production of Wine Oh TV in Italy when I got the phone call no one can imagine, yet everyone fears. Mark was alone with our then 2.5-year-old twin daughters when he found out he had Stage IV incurable colon cancer.
I stopped production and came home to take care of my family. When Mark got sick, my show felt so small. Then when we lost Mark, we lost everything. Then Covid came and we lost community.
The last life raft keeping the three of us afloat, popped in an instant. I was drowning and I had two four-year-old’s to save from sinking. The rock felt bottomless, and not the kind that comes with bubbly and OJ.
One of the worst blows was served by one of my toddlers when she pulled herself up on my bed, crawled on top of me, and screamed in my face “stop crying!” It was June 2020; I had been alone since July 2019 and in total isolation since March 2020. I had been hoping for something to change, praying for things to get better, but hit after hit, the life blows kept coming. I could not get back up. I needed someone, anyone to come and help me. Then silence after her scream. My mind shouted back at me. “The calvary is not coming! There is no knight. The hero of this journey is you. Rise.” Change. Your. Story.
To rescue my family, I asked myself two questions. “What will make this better? What can I control?” Everything up to this point was out of my control, but how I responded to what was happening to us was within my control.
In the past when my life got hard (and I had a very hard life in another life), I always found my way out of a bad situation by finding a way to make it fun. How could I flip the switch on this? The answer came to me so quickly I didn’t have time to overthink it. Sunshine and a pool. Fun in the sun. It’s an expression for a reason.
Thirty days later, my twins and I made our first road trip, 480 miles south, without stopping. I drove us straight from San Francisco to San Diego in July 2020 with the Wizard of Oz CD playing in the background and a porta potty in the hatchback.
Tell us about loss and grief. However, whatever you want to share about it. How it stops your or pushes your or changes you or how the grief itself morphs.
I think the hardest part about grief is everyone hopes you get over it and get over it fast. But it doesn’t work like that. The pandemic prolonged my grief period and looking back now, I believe I suffered silently from complicated grief.
Prior to the pandemic, I had friends who never called me again after Mark died. Or others who would burst out into tears every time they saw me. Some showed up but stopped sharing the highlights of life or funny stories with me because they didn’t want to “upset me.”
In the grief world, this is known as secondary loss. The first loss is losing your person, secondary loss is loss of friends, jobs, identity, life you thought you had, the future you thought was guaranteed.
Grief is also complicated in the fact that it brings up waves of emotion that you don’t even see coming. For example, I was at a wine dinner in Umbria earlier this year with winemakers and a fellow journalist at my table who had met my husband several times. He said, “I can really see Mark in your daughters when I see pictures of them.” He didn’t know my daughters, but he knew Mark. That touched my heart so much I broke out into tears at the table.
Mark’s biggest fear wasn’t death, it was that his daughters wouldn’t remember him. And for my colleague to see him in them meant to me in that moment that he could never be forgotten. It touched me to tears, which made for a very awkward transition when I turned to the winemaker sitting next to me and said, “So tell me about your Sagrantino.”
What did you miss about the wine world over these last few years?
To be honest, I didn’t know I missed it until I knew I missed it. What does that mean?
I thought the wine world as I knew it was gone. Lost forever with Mark, then solidified with the pandemic and my move to San Diego. I missed the life I used to have but that life was gone. I was trying to mourn the loss and move on. I got very used to sucking the life out of every room I walked into, so I stopped walking into them.
Then in October 2021, I felt a huge shift. Jordan Winery was pulling off their well-known industry Halloween party. I didn’t know how I was going to go given all that had happened, but I decided if this show goes on I will go on with it. The show went on and it was filled with old friends, loud laughs, big hugs, and an overall gratitude for the simple act of being together. My people, my community, in person again. I came back to life that night in a way I didn’t think was possible for me.
I realized after that party, I could have this little part of my life back. That gift gave me just the push I needed to keep pushing forward. What I missed most wasn’t the wine, but the connection, the community, the people.
What did it take to decide to revive Wine Oh.tv?
Emotionally it was challenging. I was scared to show my face again. I used to light up a room and the past few years I sucked the air out of it.
It also meant I had to leave my daughters. Something I really hadn’t done since that shoot in Italy back in 2018. This time there was no co-parent, never a nanny, just me.
I struggled with what the right thing to do was. Up until that point (and even now) most people had been encouraging me to “move on” in the sense that they want me to start dating again. Very few had pushed me to move on in terms of my career. The loss for me was twofold. Wife turned Widow. Career woman turned Stay at Home Single Mom.
I think a lot about men who have lost their spouses. And yes, I have met and even talked to some! Most if not all, go back to work regardless of their children’s age. Men “have to work.”
The greatest honor of my life was taking care of Mark until the end of his life, as his wife. My greatest duty and joy are raising our daughters. But having a career is in my birthright, it’s who I was born to be.
Does that make me a bad mom? Or does that make me the kind of mom I want my daughters to see? A question I’m in the process of discovering. I have never met a mom in my life who doesn’t feel some kind of guilt when they leave their family.
If I was going to leave periodically, I felt compelled to make it matter. So, I went back to what I knew. I started reaching out to TV news directors. They brought me in, not because of a decade-old resume tape, but because of what I had built with Wine Oh TV. I heard comments like “You built a brand; do you know how hard that is? Why would you walk away from that? Why do you want to work here?”
In December 2021, my dear friend and founder of a successful team building company, Chad Hardy, who I have known since I was a 20 something morning show anchor in Pocatello, Idaho took me to dinner and said, “DO YOUR SHOW!”
“Stop interviewing for jobs you don’t want. Stop putting energy into what you don’t want and shift your energy into what you do want! Bring back Wine Oh TV” he said.
To handle childcare, I take very short trips typically three days for domestic and no more than seven days for international. I have taken a total of six this year and have relied on a hodgepodge of babysitters, amazing friends, and a few faithful family members.
To manage financially, funding comes from where it’s always come from, sweat equity, social capital, and fellow colleagues who believe in me.
What was your first destination back on the road and why?
When I thought about breathing new life into Wine Oh TV, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. So, I reached out to the best in the biz to see if they would get behind bringing my show back to life. This year, I brought on DuPont, Peabody, SPJ, Murrow, Scripts Howard, Emmy award- winning Cinematographer Michael Horn.
I called James Beard and Emmy award-winning wine journalist Mary Orlin and she was generous enough to offer to help with some of the episodes. We have Emmy award-winning Anaconda Street Productions working on post-production on some episodes.
My husband’s background was in business. I remember him saying over and over again, “it’s all about the team, Monique. Every successful startup has a team of people, very rarely do solo founders get funded.”
As a woman, I always tried to go at it alone. Seeing more value in how hard I worked instead of how smart I worked. But was I happy while I was doing it? I thought so. But now looking back, I can see I was resentful. I was so mad that I had to work twice as hard and not get the same results.
Being a widow, I have the unique benefit of having the ear of some of my late husband’s very successful friends. Most of them work in the top of their fields either running companies or C level in some capacity. When I ask them their secrets to their own success, it’s never about being solo or working hard. It’s about finding the right people to surround yourself with.
As I look back six months later, I believe I’m better than I’ve ever been. I’m doing the best work of my career and I know we will only get better.
Where are you heading next and how does restarting your wine show honor your husband, if you think it does?
In 2022, we have shot episodes in Walla Walla, Paso Robles, Lodi, Mendocino, and Umbria. Virginia is on deck but really the next place you will find me is in the edit bay! My goal is to launch the 2022 season of Wine Oh TV in January 2023. We shot with the seasonal change in vineyards from bud break in March, veraison in June, to harvest in September and October. I will follow this format moving forward. Wine is as much about weather, and capturing a moment in time, as it is about the people behind the bottle.
Mark’s first love wasn’t wine, or even me, it was travel. He was the envy of many for walking away from an extremely successful career to travel the world or as he called it “become a beach bum.” I didn’t grow up traveling, never studied abroad, and the only bug that ever bit me was a mosquito. What I knew about travel I knew and loved through Mark. My show is about traveling to wine regions around the world, but at its core it’s about connecting, and how we come together.
Can you share an example?
The night before we lost Mark…
He was in bed, our kids were in the bath, and we were piecing together a makeshift meal. Thai food in to-go containers from Rebecca Hopkins, cupcakes from Kristen Green, a bottle of white wine from my friend Laura Oppenheimer, flowers in the center from Aunt Sue, aromatherapy scents in the air from Katie Calhoun. Less than 24 hours before, Lauren Mowery (the interviewer for this story) would run two terminals to give me an in-person hug at SFO.
Mark found his way to the head of the table. Anyone with experience in end-of-life cancer care understands the magnitude of this move. My mom yanked our daughters out of the bath and plopped them next to him naked and wet. I gently held his cold hand, and we had our last meal. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t eat. He came to the table.
You ask if my show honors my late husband. I don’t know, I hope so. With the purpose of bringing people together by breaking bread, opening up a bottle, and connecting through culture, this is the new season of Wine Oh TV. Join me.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Get a colonoscopy or in the words of our daughters, “Do your duty, check your booty!”
Screening age for healthy people with no symptoms and no family history starts at 45 years old. If they would have given him one, he would be here helping me send you a very different story.
Show up! For yourself, for others. You matter more than you know. We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.
Wine Oh TV Digital Channels
The current season is still in post-production but sneak peeks can be found at the links below