Carnegie Mellon University

Photo of Cynthia and Mark

May 28, 2024

Raising a Glass

Cynthia McMillin parlayed her passion and a CMU MBA into career in fine wines

By Elizabeth Speed

When Tepper School of Business alumna Cynthia McMillin’s career took a corkscrew turn into the wine industry, she landed a series of plum jobs distributing the juice of the grape.

“My first career was as a paralegal, but I was miserable. I wanted to have my own business,” she says. “So I went to Carnegie Mellon for my MBA.”

She graduated in 1999, and her degree led her to unsatisfying forays into the tech world, leading Cynthia to refine her vision once again.

“I wanted something where I could be working with something I loved, and not just working with widgets for a paycheck. So ... wine!”

She worked her way up in sales with big players in the wine industry such as Henry Wine Group, Dean and Deluca, and Wilson Daniels. She credits her CMU degree for opening that last door, because Wilson Daniels especially valued her education when they hired her as a national brand manager.

“My first career was as a paralegal, but I was miserable. I wanted to have my own business. So I went to Carnegie Mellon for my MBA.”

Cynthia made another jump to a position where her MBA skills aged like a quality red wine: as a buyer for the Grocery Outlet chain. Grocery Outlet is a deep discounter. The challenge in that role was to source great wines at fantastic prices, combining the best of her passions for wine and business. She located excess inventory, and then negotiated deep discounts to get wines on shelves with the right profit margin.

“We were buying 16,000 to 18,000 cases a week on the spot market. You have to be very, very quick on the math,” she says.

She recounts a fun — and successful — deal with a big producer who had a packaging issue with a Zinfandel. The wine was perfect, but the label wasn’t, so Cynthia saw an opportunity.

“They offered me 14 truckloads of it at a deeply discounted price,” she says. “That was one of the bigger deals I did, and it was great for our customers, they could hardly get enough of it.”

In what’s likely to be her career’s finishing note, Cynthia now runs her own business, Alaska Fine Wines. Her company is a wholesaler focused on premium wines for restaurants and retailers, working primarily with family-run vineyards. She’s realizing her dream to run her own business, and enjoying a semi-retired life with her husband, Mark Moustakis.

They make their home on Alaska’s Kenai River, enjoying world-class fishing, cross-country skiing, ice skating, running, two crazy dogs, world travel, international wine sampling and, of course, a nice glass or two at the end of the day.

“It's one foot in the wine business, and one foot out the door for retirement,” she says. “I sell some really beautiful high-end wines. Alaska winters are long, but we have fun with it all.”