The startup mentality that pervades the wine industry is front of mind this week, but it isn't for the reasons you'd think.

It isn't because there's a new urban winery opening up, or because a satellite company is homing in on vineyard analysis, or because a forward-thinking company has iterated their packaging with a new AI twist. All of which are cool and real startup ideas in the wine space, but that isn't what's front of mind this week.

This week the wine world's eyes will be on Sonoma, where one of the most significant wine auctions of the year gets underway on Saturday. The entrepreneurial twist has to do with philanthropy, and how this agricultural community channels resources -- with a startup's mindset, and in a way that's authentic to them and to their businesses -- to help recover from the Northern California wildfires that devastated Sonoma County barely one year ago.

The most recent account estimates that 39 percent of people who lost homes in the fires remain "homeless." Local businesses and philanthropists are stepping up to rally around the theme of affordable housing; the Sonoma County Wine Auction, held in Windsor, California, will be the center of that hive of activity. You don't need a wine auction to support a local cause, but we can all learn from their model. Here's how to do it, broken down into three steps.

1. Start where you are. Literally.

Practical ways that business owners can help their communities are sometimes painfully obvious. During the wildfires themselves, the need was for volunteer firefighters, rescue efforts, and initial recovery essentials like food distribution and shelters. In the weeks and months that followed, those needs evolved into longer-term, less urgent and more sustainable initiatives, like affordable housing.

Both phases of offering help are critical for local businesses in a time of community need. The point is to set your sights close to home, perhaps in the neighborhood where your business is based, or else with a social need that's a corollary to your business' mission. It's already an ecosystem that you know well, and you don't need to wait for a devastating event like wildfires to direct resources where they can help. Just do it in a way that's authentic to you and your business.

2. Identify the unique contribution you can make.

Fire engines were positioned for days on the property of George Hamel, this year's honorary chair of the Wine Auction. The Hamel family home in Sonoma burned down. He spent time with the firefighters, most of whom were volunteer and had "real lives" elsewhere, and he came to a realization.

"I'm not that handy or brave or any of those things," Hamel said. "Other people were helping us fix things and delivering food, but I can't do those things very well. But I want to be involved. What can I do to help?"

Hamel's unique contribution -- asking people for money and contributions as Auction chair -- extends from his work in investment banking, which he did for over 30 years prior to starting his wine business. Raising money for fire relief catalyzed him personally, and brings to fruition the connection between wine, hospitality, and helping local people in need.

Knowing your limits, and also knowing your strengths, is where you can make the biggest impact. Are you a tech company? Consider letting your staff volunteer their skills for a few on-the-clock hours a month at a nearby public school's STEAM program. In the food business? Open your kitchen during off-hours to volunteers to make lunches for the homeless, then join them for the delivery.

3. Respond to what's happening now.

Anyone even slightly familiar with the wine industry knows about the devastation caused in Sonoma County by last October's wildfires. About 200,000 acres burned and, more crucially, 22 people died and more than 5000 homes were burned. Almost a year later, residents and the wine industry itself are still in recovery mode.

That's why this year's Auction theme is "Revival," with proceeds from the event targeted to benefit affordable housing.

Only targeting affordable housing, however, would be a mistake. Hamel points out the more than 100 not-for-profit organizations that are active in Sonoma County, that the Auction also funds annually. "We also have to be a player there, we have to do both," he said. "There's money going to sexier things like fire relief, but there are also homes for unwed teenage mothers" that still need help. 

If your industry, or your neighborhood, has experienced a devastating blow, it's likely to attract the lion's share of the attention and resources. But your own attention may actually be better directed toward the less-sexy, less of-the-minute efforts whose ongoing, consistent work actually maintain the fabric of the community over time.

Published on: Sep 17, 2018