Click here for the background to this series.

Due to the Mayo Clinic, it’s not a surprise to find many physicians, nurses, and health professionals among 140 people in my high school class.  But of course they’ve engaged in other lines of work too, including law, IT, engineering, education, social work, the military, and small business.  Belonging to the last category is Teresa Thein Meschini, who has been raising four kids while running a wine business with her husband. 

It isn’t everyday that one could claim to have gone to high school in Minnesota – Minnesota, not California or Oregon or upstate New York – with someone who now owns a winery.  In Argentina, no less.   I got in touch with her prior to a visit to the Twin Cities this past July, and Teresa graciously took up my request to meet and chat.  As the schedules worked out, I saw her on the same day as I did another classmate.  I was at Tim Bromelkamp’s house on the outskirt of St. Paul, and at a charming little coffee shop in Teresa’s neighborhood just south of quietly picturesque Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.  In fact, it wasn’t far from the hospice where my mother was staying after a serious stroke, and I drove to the coffee shop after seeing my mother. 

As is the case with many others, I don’t think I spoke once with Teresa in high school. In fact, until she mentioned it (before I turned on the recorder), I’d forgotten that we were in eighth grade at St. Francis Parish School at the same time.  But I remember well that she had a big smile and laughed easily and more often than most.  Which was the case throughout our conversation.  After greeting each other, for instance, she promptly turned hilarious with several zingers.  When told that I missed a classmate of ours earlier that day because his office was closed, she quipped, “John’s a dentist, it’s Friday, he’s out golfing.”  Or, when I said that I’m doing this series “not to make money,” Teresa promptly responded, “Well, there isn’t any money to be made.”  Clearly, a businesswoman who knows business.

Below is our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity and organization.  Teresa asked me many questions, but I’ve shortened some of the answers , especially on my Vietnamese background because I’ve written about it and have talked about it in all five conversations so far for this series. There’s plenty about me already in this blog.  For this series, I wish to highlight my classmates instead.

On that note, make sure to check out the website of Famiglia Meschini Wines, plus its Facebook page, where the photos below come from.

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Eugenio & Teresa hosting an event of Meschini Wines

Tuan Hoang (turning on the recorder): Let me know if you like me to stop anytime…

Teresa Thein Meschini: Oh, you don’t need…

Hoang: … Just in case you don’t want to spill any secrets about making Malbec.  [Both laugh.]  It’s one of my favorite wines in the world.

Meschini: Why, you should have told me that.  I’d have brought you one. I was just at a wine tasting last night.

Hoang: Is that right? Initially I thought that there was a winery here. But obviously that isn’t the case.

Meschini: No, everything started in Argentina. My husband is from Argentina, you know, so we produce two small vineyards in Mendoza. All the production is in Mendoza. His grandfather emigrated from Italy to Argentina. He was an orphan. He started all over again in Argentina. He started in the mountains.

Hoang: I teach a survey US history class, with an emphasis on immigration. And when it comes to the Gilded Age I always tell students that there were a lot coming from Europe to the US, of course, but also to South America: Brazil, Argentina… One thing I tell them is that actually a lot went back to Italy, then some went to the Americas a second time.

Meschini: Actually, recently a lot of people went back to Argentina because of the [political] problems there… The wineries were started back then. His grandfather did it and passed on to his father. But he had to sell it in the Eighties because of the economic downturn.

Hoang: There was a thirty-year gap?

Meschini: Probably… It was from about 1970 to 2000. So yeah.  We started it in… My youngest is eleven, so it was eight years ago.  She was three then.

LIFE SINCE COLLEGE

Hoang: Let’s go back in time… After Lourdes, you went to St. Thomas [University, in St. Paul] and met your husband there. What did you do after graduation?

Meschini: Yes, I went to St. Thomas. Then we got married and he worked for Cargill, a big agricultural firm.  Then we had a baby a little after our first-year wedding anniversary. Then we moved to Kiev with Cargill. We moved to the Ukraine for two years. He worked in the financial market division.

Hoang: What’s about you?

Meschini: I taught English as a second language. I was doing that, a little bit.

Hoang: Of course, it was after the Cold War. I imagine there were many people in Eastern Europe wanting to learn English.

Meschini:  Yeah, I was helping with testing, and it was really good experience.  We had one kid.  Then we moved to London, and had kid number two.  I could have stayed there forever. But we had to come back, and we’ve been here since 2000.  I don’t think we’re going anywhere.  It’s kind of sad.

Hoang: Maybe after the kids have grown up?

Meschini: Yeah, maybe after they graduate from college.  They need stability, so maybe until then. And this is not a bad place at all.

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The couple at his college graduation in St. Paul in the early 1990s

THE WINE BUSINESS

Hoang: After all that, you guys came back to Minnesota. How did the Famiglia Meschini winery come into reality?

Meschini:  One of his best friends is a vineyard developer.  And he found this beautiful piece of land and he said, “I love it and I want to develop this vineyard myself.”  My husband said, “Ok, great idea.”  But [the friend] said, “Actually I need money; I don’t have any money.”  So we invested in it.  So that’s our first vineyard.  We sell most of our grapes. And then the second vineyard happened. His family has a family farm, they wanted to sell it when his dad passed away. But they didn’t get a good deal.  Argentina was volatile at the time. So they hung on to it and developed it themselves.

Hoang: Is it true to say that the Argentine wine industry didn’t really make it international until the 1990s?  The wine industry was growing… Not that I was over-familiar, but I don’t remember seeing many Argentine labels being sold in stores during the 1990s. It’s more like Spanish Rioja.  Later there were Chilean and Argentine wines, including Malbec.

Meschini: Yeah. I don’t think it was until the late 1990s or early 2000s…  I don’t think Argentina really exported it until the early 2000s.

Hoang: Did you guys strike at the right time?

Meschini: I think we got it at the right time, maybe a little bit at the later end of the time. But I think in the Argentine industry, a lot of French came to help develop the wine industry and then they started to export it. So that’s we’ve been doing, which is to sell most of our grapes to other wineries.

Hoang: I don’t understand… You grow your own grapes but you also sell some of the grapes?

Meschini: Uh-huh, we grow the grapes but we don’t want to make all into wine because it’s too much to do all of the grapes. So our friend, the developer, he sells to people who want to buy this or that much. There’s a department for everything.

Hoang: As for the wine you actually make, you grow the grapes, you harvest them, you ferment them, everything?

Meschini: Yes, we do everything [with our own label].  [Otherwise] we produce our grapes, and after selling them, the buyer could do what they want and use any labels they want. They may mix our grapes with others.

It’s interesting because last night, after the wine tasting we did in Stillwater, we came back to a little restaurant here and my husband ordered the Malbec from France, and the grape is from France.  There was a blight in France but most of it died off.  Someone brought it to Argentina.  But the taste [of the French Malbec] is different. It’s not as ruby.

Hoang: Is it lighter?

Meschini: It’s totally lighter.  I didn’t really care for it. I’d call it “colored water.”

Hoang: It should be hardy if it’s Malbec. You should think “beef.” Red meat!

Meschini: Yeah. It’s coming down a little bit, but it’s ok. In Argentina land is cheaper and labor is cheaper. It’s Argentina vs. Europe where land is more expensive.

Hoang: What is the price range for the Meschini wines?

Meschini: Mostly $10 and $15.  There are some grand reserves – and it’s on selected years – and the most expensive is $32. But we have a lot that are $9 or $10.

Hoang: Let’s turn to the work itself.  Do you and your husband have a division of labor?

Meschini: Yeah, we totally have a division of labor. Otherwise we can’t stay married.  [Loud laughter from both.]  Well you know… Can you imagine you work with your wife and try to do her accounting?  [Note: My wife is an accountant.]

Hoang: No, I can’t.  Let me throw in something here… One of the books that I offer my students in American history for extra credit is about the founders of the In-N-Out Burgers chain.  I hope you’ve tried it in California.

Meschini: Oh yeah. My daughter [at USC] is obsessed with it.

Hoang: The book is about the married couple that started In-N-Out and did very well in turning it into a very popular chain. A key to their success was that they had their own jobs.  He trained the employees and worked with them. She did bookkeeping and a few other things.  The author concluded that clear division of labor was the secret to their business partnership. Would you say it is the same for you guys?

Meschini:  Well, I can’t say that we’ll ever be as successful as In-N-Out.

Hoang: Hahaha, that’s ok.

Meschini: I totally agree, if you’re married to someone… Our division is that he works with the production and get the wine here, and then I work with distribution, selling the wine. The thing is that it’s a “hobby” business for my husband.  He has a full-time job like what he did before. He invests in agricultural projects. He travels a lot to South America. He goes to Brazil once a month.  The wines are great, but it’s still a baby.  If one day one of our kids wants to do it, then maybe we’ll grow it and it’s good…  But it’s still in infancy.

We are really busy that way. And I couldn’t do what he does. I mean, I speak Spanish but I couldn’t communicate the same way.  His brother is our contact down there. There are a lot of cultural things that he does well but not me. Argentina is, well, it’s like every fifth day is a holiday.  I am too “American.”  My job is that when the wine comes here, I’ll sell it.

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To quote the FB page, this is “not from the set of a Godfather movie, it happens to be Eugenio’s grandfather (third from right), Primo Meschini receiving a prize for Meschini wine.”  (I think there’s a typo and he should be third from left.)

Hoang: Right now, you sell them in Minnesota, Iowa, and…

Meschini:  Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska, soon to be Wisconsin and Iowa. I did sales for the first five years myself. Then I got people that helped me sell. Really, I didn’t like sales.  I didn’t really like asking people to buy a product.  It was really hard for me to ask.

Hoang: Well, some people are born great and some have greatness thrust upon them. You belong to the “greatness thrust upon” category.

Meschini: Ha, thank you.  Well, I got lucky.  A distributor came up to us… I have a distributor in Minnesota, and this distributor now opens up in other states. So I’m like, “Go for it.”  It was really too much for me.  It’s great now. I sell to one distributor here in Minnesota, and they take it to other states.

Hoang: Before that, you did everything the first five years?

Meschini: I did everything. I went to liquor stores trying to get them carry my wine. Try to get them pay you for the wine.  And do the tasting.

Hoang: How often do you do tastings?

Meschini: Well, about 2-3 times a month. The problem is that they happen in the evening. No one taste wine between 9am to noon. [Laughs] How did you get to what you do?

Hoang: I was a philosophy major in college. Then I went to volunteer work. I thought of graduate school and teaching college. Which I do not recommend today.

Meschini: Why?

Hoang: There are no jobs.

Meschini:  No jobs? But you have one.

Hoang: I was lucky – very lucky! Sadly there are few jobs in the humanities and social sciences. I don’t recommend graduate school for English, philosophy, history – the stuff I like – unless a person cannot think of doing anything else. I’d say to students interested in grad school to think very hard about it.

Meschini:  Why did you choose history?

Hoang: I didn’t go to graduate school right away after college. During volunteer work, I thought of studying literature before deciding on history. It took a while to figure out the best fit. Being out of school for years, I took a class on taking the GRE and then applied. Funny, but I didn’t apply to Notre Dame the first time even though they sent an invitation to apply. They were trying to increase the number of minorities students in the graduate school, and of course they need more applications from minorities students first.

Anyway I went to DC first, wanting to be in another big city after Seattle. After one semester, I lived in Massachusetts for three months and back to Rochester for three months. I applied to Notre Dame during that time, got in, and started the following summer.

HIGH SCHOOL PEOPLE

Hoang: Remind me, what were you involved when at Lourdes? You weren’t in the basketball team, were you?

Meschini: No, I wasn’t really an athlete… I think I ran a little track one year. I was in French Club. I remember I worked after school a lot. I worked at the Dayton’s department store.

Have you been in contact with anyone from our class?

Hoang: Not until Facebook in the last few years. During college, I ran into a couple of people when back in Rochester, but that’s about all. I ran into Thuy Pham at a Vietnamese wedding reception up here somewhere – it was the summer before September 11. But there were hundreds of people and we didn’t have a chance to catch up much at all.

You must be in touch with some people from our class around here?

Meschini: Yeah, you know, I didn’t go to college far. My best friend Nora Breckle went to St. Thomas with me, and now lives around here. Chris Cooney, she went to Notre Dame. I just talked to her today because we went to France together and visited Nice. [Note: Our meeting was on the day following the terrorist attack in Nice.]

Hoang: I’ve a funny story related to Chris. She’s a lifelong Dodgers fan, as you know. At a dinner three years ago, I happened to sit next to the previous owner of the Dodgers without knowing it. She asked about me, and I said I went to high school in Rochester. It turned out that she and her parents went there a lot for medical stuff, and they knew the Cooneys.

Meschini:  Of course, Chris’ dad was their doctor. What a small world!

Hoang: Who else went to St. Thomas?

Meschini: Sue Erickson, Kim Rowekamp, Kevin Rowekamp, they also went to St. Thomas. There were a lot… Basically I don’t know how you chose the seminary, but my parents gave me a stack of catalogs of Catholic colleges and asked me to choose one. My dad went to St. Thomas, my brother went to St. Thomas, and I thought, “Oh, I want to be in a bigger city, so I’ll go to St. Thomas.”

Hoang: Family tradition?

Meschini:  Yeah… I think I should have gone to a bigger school. Like the U [University of Minnesota]. I don’t know why. Well, St. Thomas was kind of small town, and you knew everyone. There was an influx of people from the same high schools.

Hoang:  But then you wouldn’t have met your husband.

Meschini: That’s true.

Hoang: What did you study?

Meschini: I studied business and French. Afterwards I taught ESL for a while. I did teach in the school district. I taught business executive [classes] – I like that a lot – until I started selling wines. Well, for a long time I didn’t work because I have kids. But the wine thing started when my youngest was three. I think my husband was looking for a job for me, really. [Laughs.]

RAISING KIDS TODAY

Hoang: Besides your work in wine you have a full-time job as a mom.

Meschini:  Well, that’s the fun job.

Hoang:  There are a lot of kids among our class now. Besides your four kids, Chris has three and Nora has…

Meschini: Four. Sue has three, I think. Dawn has four, Dawn Toogood. Carol Ness has two, and the oldest has graduated from college.

Hoang: Tim Bromelkamp’s youngest is a couple of years old. The range is wide, from two to twenty-two, maybe wider.

Meschini: Two to twenty-two, big range.

Hoang: How’d you describe raising kids now? You mentioned working at Dayton’s… Do you think that our time in high school, there were a lot of students working? More than now because kids today have other demands…

Meschini: More than now? Yeah, I think it’s different in high school now. I think it’s really hard to work while in high school now. Back then, high school was not academically hard at all.  I mean, compared to how it is now.

Hoang: I hear from parents today that there’s more of everything…

Meschini: It’s more homework, it’s more papers, there’s a lot more pressure. They might have three hours of doing homework [on top of extracurricular activities], so how can they hold a job after school? You may encourage them to get a job to get experience, to have a work ethic. But then they’ll have to sacrifice their grades.

Back then I worked a lot at Dayton’s because there wasn’t a lot of homework. I mean, did you remember doing homework at all?

Hoang: Well, a little because I had to catch up with English. But yeah, it wasn’t the same then. I wasn’t a great student by any means. I was a B or B-minus student.

Meschini: Have you seen the new building?  [Note: Lourdes High School moved to a new campus three years ago.]

Hoang: Not yet.

Meschini: There’s actually a history teacher that graduated a year after our class. He lives in this neighborhood, actually, and his kids go to the same school as mine. We were talking about Lourdes, and Mr. Sherman has died.

Hoang:  He did? When?

Meschini: About… It was in the last six months.

Hoang:  Oh, that’s too bad. I always remember him playing the funeral of Winston Churchill on the old record player. And telling us of summer travels to all fifty states.

Meschini: Yeah, he was always a nice guy.

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The late Dick Sherman, longtime history teacher and coach ~ pc Lourdes Foundation

Hoang:  What’s about others? What’s his name – Mr. Heibel?

Meschini: You’re thinking of the gym teacher at St. Francis.

Hoang: You’re right. Now I’m thinking of the social sciences teacher… I can see his face perfectly, and his name will come up later. [Note: It was Mr. Hrebe]. Do you know any kids going to Lourdes now?

Meschini: No, but I have young nephews. Maybe they’ll go there when older.

Hoang: And your own kids are at a Catholic school.

Meschini: Yeah, they go to a great school up here, Annunciation, kindergarten to eighth grade.   My oldest kids, one is at USC and one will be a high school senior. Both have gone to an all-girls high school. It’s very small, only seventy-five in a class. There’s an all-boys school across from theirs, and my son will probably go there. He has one more year.

LEARNING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE

Hoang: Do your kids speak Spanish?

Meschini: Yes, they speak Spanish at home with my husband and English with me.

Hoang: Awesome. Anything else to improve their Spanish?

Meschini: Yep, I think it’s important… It’s difficult. They have some tutoring too.

Hoang:  Makes sense. I had a student at Pepperdine, whose father is American and mother is Polish. Do you remember Stacey Keach, who starred in the TV series “Mike Hammer”? That’s her father, and her mother came from Poland. My student told me that she and her brother spent the summer in Poland when growing up for better Polish. But they also had tutoring to improve reading and writing, to get to be fluent.

Meschini: I think it’s very important. What we’ve done is taking the [older] kids to Argentina in seventh grade, and they went to school there for a month, to work on fluency on reading and writing. We put them with my sister- and brother-in-law. They lived with them and went to school for a month.   That helps. Then in high school, they took Spanish at a higher level in reading and writing. So my son just did that; he spent the month of May. We just took him out of school here and put him in school there.

Hoang:  How’s about your own Spanish?

Meschini: Well, I can read but I can’t write, at all. So I’m illiterate that way. But I can speak.

Hoang: Ok, you can speak and you can read.

Meschini: Yeah, it’s easy. You don’t have to think of the grammar and you just figure it out. I can’t read at the fluency as English. But I can look at the newspaper and figure out what they are talking about. I remember the first book I read in Argentina was The Little Prince. El Principito. Have you ever read that? It’s sweet.

Hoang: Yes. I think there’s a new movie coming out. Or was, not long ago.

Meschini: Really? It was easy to read. When I first met my husband, I spent three months down there learning Spanish and living with his family. I read the ¡Hola!, the gossip magazine.

Hoang: Ok, ha! Gossip news caters to the masses and uses simple language. I’ve heard that it’s good to spend a year or so in a different country to learn a language. But here, it’s love and romance and it took only three months. [Laughs.]

Meschini: Well, I don’t know about the love and romance, but I was trying to figure out his family, to make sure that everything was ok. Do you speak Vietnamese still?

Hoang: Oh yeah. My dissertation used Vietnamese sources, so there was a lot of reading Vietnamese. And I speak fluently. But I think in English now, usually.  Back at Lourdes, I thought and dreamed in Vietnamese. But after my first year in college, I began dreaming in English.

Meschini: How did you improve English? How hard was it to show up with your dad [to America] and sort of figure it out? I can’t imagine.

Hoang: It was like being thrown into water… Actually, the eighth grade at St. Francis was most important. It was when I really began learning English. You remember Holmes Elementary School, up the street from St. Francis? What happened is that I’d have classes like everyone else, except for one class when I walked to Holmes for ESL class. It was during science class. So I never had science during my first year in the U.S. To this day, I my knowledge of biology and the natural sciences is still lousy, and I blame it on missing out eighth-grade science class at St. Francis. [Laughs.]

Meschini: Was it just you or a group of students?

Hoang: There were several. I also took ESL during the first year at Lourdes. I also bought a book on improving vocabulary… During ninth and tenth grades, I spent 15 minutes each morning, after eating breakfast and before heading to school, and went over a lesson.

Meschini:  Good for you.

Hoang: Funny, but somehow I ended up having ESL and regular English classes at the same time. At eighth grade at St. Francis and ninth grade at Lourdes. I guess it worked out, and [the regular English classes] forced me to read more. Then I took Latin with Mr. Jewison for two years.

Meschini: That should have helped learning English.

Hoang: Definitely. It worked out in the end.  Looking back, I do wish I were being involved in extracurricular activities in high school, or even going to games early on.  I imagine I’d join the soccer team, but there wasn’t one yet at the time.

Meschini: Yeah, the international sport. That’s too bad they didn’t have it. I think there was a lot of new immigration to Rochester that they didn’t know what to do.

Hoang: I think you’re right, it was definitely a new development in Rochester. The city did what it could, including training of adults at the vocational tech school. In senior year, I remember that the counselors organized a multicultural week, etc. Small steps in the right direction.

Meschini: My husband was very similar in learning English, except he went to college… Well, he came to study ESL. When I first met him, he said he had a terrible time.

Hoang: So, he came to the U.S. to learn English, not to look for an American wife.

Meschini: No, that’s what he said: learning English. He has two older brothers who came to California to learn English, but they didn’t learn any English.

Hoang: Ha, there were probably too many Argentines and Mexicans to speak Spanish in California.

Meschini: Yes, there are many Latinos in California. The older brothers didn’t learn a lot, so when it was his turn – he’s the youngest – his parents said, “You’re not going to California; you’re going to Minnesota instead.” It was like Siberia for him.

Hoang: I guess there weren’t many Spanish-speaking people in Minnesota at that time.

Meschini: No, maybe a handful [at St. Thomas], not many. He struggled a lot, especially with writing papers. He was fine in math and things like that, but writing papers was hard. He didn’t grow up writing papers in Argentina because the educational system didn’t require writing papers.

Hoang: And he went to a liberal arts college!

Meschini: Yeah, it was tough. When I first met him, one time he had to write a three-page paper. Nothing big, three pages. But he didn’t have enough, so he decided to make it three pages with really big font.  So, he got it back, the professor said [in the comments] that it had “Dr. Seuss font.” He didn’t understand what they were talking about. Who’s Dr. Seuss? What does this doctor have to do with my paper? He showed it to me saying, “What are they talking about?” And I started laughing!

Hoang: I’d be clueless too. But it’s how you learn. You don’t know and you just have to ask. Looking back at Lourdes, I think I could have used more resources.

Meschini:  Yeah, I just don’t think that there were enough for you and other students.

Hoang:  That too, yes. But I also don’t think I asked enough.

Meschini:  Yeah, Tuan, but I also think that you were bright. I think that there could be more resources to help the ESL students.

Hoang: Yes, you’re right. I think overall the students could use more help, especially with integrating into the school. I think it was also very new for Rochester to have that many ESL and refugee students.

Meschini: Are you happy that you went to private school?

Hoang:  Of course. It’s not for everyone, but I sure benefited from it.

Meschini: You should tell the story. You know, a success story of a refugee from learning English to getting a PhD in American history. You’re making us all look really bad, you know that. [Laughs.] I could have worked a lot harder.

Hoang:  But you did a lot of other thing instead of playing whatever the equivalent of Pokemón Go back then.

Meschini: Oh God, no playing Pokemón Go. [Laughs]. But in high school, I didn’t really try. I got Bs and it was fine. I was just having fun.

Hoang: Is it a reflection of Lourdes?

Meschini: I don’t know. I think it’s just my personality. My parents didn’t put a lot of pressure on me [on academics]. And I don’t put a lot of pressure on my kids. But they feel like if they don’t get all As, their life will be over.

Hoang: Because of their peers?

Meschini: I think so. I think it’s society. I think it’s their peers. I think maybe it’s the schools now. I tell them, “It’s just ok.” I’m just worried about everyone’s mental health. I’m sure you’ve seen it.

Hoang: Yes, and not only Korean American students, who are famous for getting academic pressure [from their parents and culture]. In my first year at Pepperdine, I had a Korean American student and he told me that in high school, his parents never put pressure on him getting As. I told him it was refreshing to hear and I was so happy for him.

Meschini: I have a friend who is Korean American, and she’s a dermatologist and she can’t boil an egg because [when growing up], her mom said, “Don’t come into the kitchen” because she got to study.

Hoang:  It can be challenging, and of course the Internet has changed parenting forever.

Meschini:  Yes. My son is out with his friends in the neighborhood, and [pointing at cell phone] I can tell where he is. I could call and tell him to come back anytime. But kids could be attached to their phones when they’re home, and I’d have to ask him to put it away for a time.

Teresa and I chatted a little more on the way out.  After nearly three decades, it was remarkable to have a pair of long conversations with two classmates in the same day.  I remain much appreciative of Teresa and Tim for giving this series a great start.

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Teresa and her family in Argentina