A JAG's Journey to Wine Country

Jill James Hoffman's U.S. Naval career took her from UMKC Law to Italy and California — and wine entrepreneurship

Jill James Hoffman has lived a life of discovery, from her time at UMKC School of Law to practicing law around the globe with the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) to becoming a California entrepreneur.

Today, Hoffman (B.A. ’86, J.D. ’89) runs Qorkz Wine (pronounced “corks”), an e-commerce platform connecting wine lovers with a network of small producers. She still practices with the Naval Reserve JAG, and makes time for skiing at Lake Tahoe, sailing on San Francisco Bay and serving on the Sausalito City Council. Hoffman, who grew up in Liberty, Missouri, spent some time with us recounting her journey.

Portrait of Jill Hoffman in a vineyard.

What drew you to UMKC?

I spent my first two years of college in a small town, and I missed living near a large city. UMKC was/is a great school and allowed me to return to Kansas City. It was kind of a no-brainer — I could go to a wonderful university, live on the Plaza and go to a great school in a lovely urban environment. After undergrad, I was lucky enough to be admitted to UMKC School of Law, so I stayed. My reasoning was that attending law school in Kansas City would afford me greater opportunities for summer clerkships and creating contacts during my time in law school than in the smaller towns where MU and KU schools of law were located, which turned out to be true.

How did you end up in the Navy?

I always wanted to practice litigation, specifically criminal law. The appealing thing about the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps was that I could practice criminal litigation anywhere in the world with my Missouri bar license. Acceptance was competitive and has become even more so since then; however, I was accepted and was commissioned as an ensign. I reported for active duty after taking and passing the Missouri Bar. I completed three active duty tours: two years at Naval Legal Service Office, Treasure Island, San Francisco; two years at Naval Support Activity, Naples, Italy; and my last active duty tour was at Naval Legal Service Office West, San Francisco. Since I left active duty, I have been in the Reserves. My specialty is as a litigator in the Military Justice Pillar of our Reserve community.

What was your introduction to wine?

I really became interested in wine when I was stationed in Naples for two years in the early 1990s. In addition to a fascinating and exciting litigation practice all over Europe and the Middle East, I tasted a lot of excellent locally produced wine. For the first time, I really experienced good food and good wine as an everyday experience. Restaurant meals included the option of the “vino da tavola” (table wine), which we almost always chose.

How did you make the leap into the wine industry?

When I returned to San Francisco, which had been my first duty station, I began exploring the California offerings in earnest. At the same time, I became fascinated as an attorney by the regulatory challenges of the small producers, who were of the greatest interest to me, probably stemming from my time in Italy when we tasted such great wine produced by the restaurant owners or other local vintners in small quantities. At the time, there was the explosion of the internet as a sales channel for direct-to-consumer sales and a gradual opening of direct sales to states other than California, through two or three U.S. Supreme Court cases. The small producers were a growing and largely underserved community with regard to legal services that specialized in that area of law. I started doing more outreach to that community of small winemakers about seven to eight years ago. The idea for Qorkz Wine as an e-commerce platform to help facilitate the direct-to-consumer sales channel for the 5,000+ small producers evolved from there. I left the law firm at the end of 2014 to start Qorkz Wine.

"As an entrepreneur, I see the value in not just the business proposition of a successful and profitable venture, but how this effort can support and maintain an important part of the California wine industry." — Jill James Hoffman

What's the appeal for you in running this business?

The appeal is seeing the opportunity and challenge to enable the small producers to access the direct-to-consumer sales channel, which from a business perspective is their best and most profitable channel, but also the most underutilized. It is a constant and challenging but exciting puzzle every day. As an entrepreneur, I see the value in not just the business proposition of a successful and profitable venture, but how this effort can support and maintain an important part of the California wine industry.

How is your UMKC education relevant in your life today?

The habits instilled by a law degree come into play every day. Almost every effort I am involved in somehow references back to the legal perspective, from working and developing Qorkz Wine and my Naval Reserve work, to volunteer efforts with my son’s schools, on the Sausalito City Council or other volunteer efforts. My experience has been that as an attorney, particularly a litigator, I become a source of empowerment and ability for whatever effort in which I engage. These organizational and analytical skills, as well as the basic Midwestern Kansas City work ethic, integrity, toughness and grit, are embedded in my DNA.

This article was featured in Res Ipsa, the UMKC School of Law alumni magazine.

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Published: Jul 24, 2019
Posted In: Our People

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