A bold glass
Banking executive Roger Whitenhill ’03 pursues his passion of business ownership and
opens a winery
When Roger Whitenhill ’03 registered for a UCI School of Social Sciences Zoom event featuring a vintner who was also an alum, he had no idea that he would soon become a winery owner himself.
“I’m an extrovert and I was bored stiff during the pandemic,” recalls Whitenhill. “So I signed up for this Zoom meeting with the winery, ordered two bottles, asked a lot of questions, and enjoyed the wine.”
At that point, he already knew more than a little about the business side of wine. Several of the clients Whitenhill has advised during his decades in the banking industry own and operate wineries. Gradually, he went from seeking vintners as business clients, to wanting to try his own hand at running a winery.
When the opportunity presented itself in late 2021 to purchase the Long Beach franchise of Waters Edge Winery, which has 15 locations across the U.S., Whitenhill seized it, albeit quietly. Even now, most of the people close to him know he loves wine, but are just now learning he owns a winery. He believes “smart people don’t plan big moves out loud.”
“There’s a boldness to being quiet,” he says. “If you tell everyone, you’ll have naysayers, people who detract from the boldness of what you’re trying to accomplish.”
A business-minded kid
Even as a child, Whitenhill had an entrepreneurial drive and a bit of a contrarian spirit. When his father refused to buy him a fancy new baseball mitt when he already had a perfectly good one, Whitenhill started going out to the creek in his Chino Hills neighborhood to catch frogs, lizards and salamanders and sell them to other kids until parents begged him to stop – and he had earned enough money for his glove.
“‘No’ just meant my dad wasn’t funding the glove but didn’t mean there wasn’t another avenue or solution,” Whitenhill says. “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”
He chose UCI for college for several reasons, including the university’s emphasis on undergraduate research, and the fact that his cousin Ronald Whitenhill – the son of his father’s twin brother – was an Anteater. He participated in the Summer Bridge program which aims to help students transition to college, and during those first few weeks living in Middle Earth, he made lifelong friendships. One of those friends, Barlow Flores, would be the best man in his wedding years later and his friend to this day.
There’s a boldness to being quiet. If you tell everyone, you’ll have naysayers, people who detract from the boldness of what you’re trying to accomplish.
“It was relationships like the ones I built that summer that made me feel like I belonged here at UCI,” says Whitenhill. “Your net worth is your network and without Summer Bridge, I don’t know if I’d have had the same level of success or the strong network I have today.”
Whitenhill drew on his fascination with how capital was used to build businesses and expand cities to double major in economics and international relations, and to complete undergraduate research on minority-owned banks.
“Even then, I was fascinated with the idea of how you buy and sell goods,” he says. “I think it was a function of me trying to figure out how to buy that baseball glove when I was young.”
Whitenhill competed in intramural basketball and flag football at the Anteater Recreation Center, and after classes enjoyed playing Nintendo’s Super Smash Brothers with friends—a game he now plays with his daughters. During his sophomore year, he helped reinstate a chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., in which he served as chapter president for two years.
“UC Irvine, ‘The ’Vine of Southern California,’ was the right place for me to grow my business acumen and cultivate my passion for business,” he says. “It was just right for me.”
Through on-campus recruiting, Whitenhill landed his first banking job with Balboa Capital, where he made upwards of 300 cold calls a week, “dialing for dollars.” There, he learned the art of selling and engaging people which set him up for a full-time salaried positioned job with Citibank. He leveraged that experience when he applied to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and was accepted at the age of 24—younger than most of his cohort. After receiving an MBA with an emphasis in macroeconomics and finance, Whitenhill launched a career on Wall Street as a bond trader for Banc of America Securities in 2008.
“UCI hands down prepared me for business school at such a young age,” he says. “If I didn’t learn how to ask questions, conduct research to support my hypothesis, and communicate my opinions, I wouldn’t have been prepared to compete with people who had worked on Wall Street or top consulting firms and were flat out brilliant people.”
Today, Whitenhill is a senior vice president at Wells Fargo Commercial Banking, and has previously worked for JPMorgan Chase and City National Bank, as well as his earlier roles with Citibank and Banc of America Securities. He serves as a dedicated banker for privately held companies—distributors, manufacturers, professional service providers and real estate holding companies. He says he uses his degrees from UCI and the University of Chicago every day.
“I’m an advisor more than a banker,” he explains.“The job is fun because it goes back to a lot of the things I did when I was younger: If there’s a problem, I try to find a solution.”
Always eager to learn, Whitenhill enjoys visiting his clients’ companies to learn the ins and outs of their business, their vision for the future, and how they manufacture their products.
“A lot of companies still manufacture products and it’s fascinating to see how things are actually made,” he says. “Furthermore, ‘learning by doing’ is still a fantastic way to build experience and continually challenge yourself with stretch opportunities.”
UCI hands down prepared me for business school at such a young age. If I didn’t learn how to ask questions, conduct research to support my hypothesis, and communicate my opinions, I wouldn’t have been prepared to compete with people who had worked on Wall Street or top consulting firms and were flat out brilliant people.
The art of wine
Whitenhill grew up in a devout Christian family, and thought that alcohol was “the devil’s juice.” But in his late 20s, a good friend and pastor discussed legalism and suggested that teetotaling didn’t make anyone more or less righteous, nor was it a requirement tied to salvation. Thus, he shared a hefeweizen and a hamburger. It tasted fantastic, and his insatiable curiosity kicked in.
“I was a little older when I got into wine, so it was more of a food experience for me. Every good wine has a story and pairs well with food,” Whitenhill says. “I was impressed by how wine and food interacted differently with my palate and enjoyed meeting new people to share the experience.”
As Whitenhill got interested in the flavor profiles of wines, cognacs and whiskeys, he even flirted with the idea of becoming a sommelier. He has traveled to different regions to explore wines and liquors and plans to visit Armenia this summer to taste local offerings.
With his Waters Edge Winery, located just a few blocks from sandy shores and the Long Beach Convention Center, he hopes to both entertain and educate wine lovers and novices with carefully crafted food and wine pairings.
“It’s an art. You have to have fun with it,” he says. “We have a tempranillo called Terremoto, which means earthquake in Spanish. I love a good tempranillo and I love telling people we have a red wine that will rock your world.”
Whitenhill hopes that the time and effort that he invests in caring for Waters Edge Winery Long Beach will eventually yield fruit that lasts not just for a season, but can be preserved and enjoyed for years to come, providing a legacy for his three daughters.
“My parents grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and due to their Midwest upbringing, they always emphasized ‘you should always leave something better than the way you found,’” Whitenhill says. “My parents definitely did that for me. I’ll never be able to repay them, but I can pay it forward to ensure our daughters are better off.”
Whitenhill has also strengthened his connection with the UCI School of Social Sciences Dean’s Leadership Society, which hosted that Zoom tasting session in 2021.
“These are fantastic events, and the more I participate, the more interesting individuals I meet,” he says. “The Dean’s Leadership Society provides an opportunity to pay it forward, because my mentors told me I can’t pay them back, but I can pay it forward.”
His advice for current Anteaters is to boldly follow their passions, make moves quietly, and leave society better than how you found it.
“Don’t let people tell you that it’s not going to work,” Whitenhill says. “Go out there and go after what you want.”
- Christine Byrd for UCI Social Sciences