Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
It’s a luxury, a frippery, a fantasy — or something handed down through an overbearing family.
Or, perhaps, none of the above.
It may well be that the likes of golfer Greg Norman, rapper E-40, football coach Dick Vermeil and even Brat Pitt and Angelina Jolie all have their own wine labels. But a couple of well-traveled, worldly-wise Californians insist you don’t need money or fame. You simply need a love of wine and work.
Ben Larks and Ari Heavner are Idle Cellars.
“We didn’t name it after ourselves,” Larks told me. “We named it after the mood we want to create.”
This oddly unegotistical gesture is just one component in Idle Cellars slowly growing via unconventional means.
Larks and Heavner don’t own a winery. They didn’t inherit a vineyard. Instead, they were lowly employees at the then understaffed Deerfield Ranch Winery in Sonoma.
They met in 2006 while hanging around outside someone’s office. Soon, conversations about wine turned into conversations about life. Slightly later, conversations about life turned into conversations about making wine.
At the time, Heavner was living in a trailer in the winery parking lot. Larks was training to become a teacher. “I thought I’d end up teaching pottery or something,” he said.
But they both loved wine. Heavner first tried it when he translated for his dad on a visit to a French vineyard. Of course he liked it. He was a 10-year-old at the time.
Neither of them has a wine-making qualification. They do both have a life-making qualification, however.
They’ve both traveled extensively. Larks, for example, has a degree in Permaculture from Ecuador. Heavner went to a French high school. This despite his heritage being German, Jewish and Welsh.
Both have stories. Both have a lot of stories.
A Wine Label Built From Nothing.
However, how did they manage to build themselves a wine label? It seems they simply started making it.
“We do everything ourselves,” Larks told me. “We do the work.”
They rent certain facilities that involve machinery and occasionally manual labor. In fact, all they own are the grapes they buy, the wine they make and the barrels they use. There is no office. There is no tasting room.
“We walk the vineyards together, we taste the grapes together, we pick the leaves together, we sort the fruit together,” said Larks. And they still appear to like each other. This seems, frankly, improbable.
“We started with 75 cases in 2006,” Heavner told me. “Then it was 125 cases in 2007, 250 in 2008, 750 in 2009, 1,000 in 2012.”
Now they’re making 2,000 cases.
So who put up the money? Where did they get their loans? Who’s their investor? Who’s their sponsor? Who’s their VC?
“No one,” Heavner told me. “We put all the money we make back into the business. And we started just with our own savings.”
No, but really. Who’s their sugar daddy? Someone must have slipped them half a million. Heavner insists that they neither want nor need anyone’s money and are in fact suspicious of anyone who tries to invest in them.
We do the work.
They both keep other jobs, just to ensure that every ounce of energy is being expended, cash is flowing and wolves don’t even approach doors.
It wouldn’t be quite true to say they are self-taught. They decided to learn from the people who knew most: the older vineyard owners and winemakers who loved the land, the wine and the vicissitudes.
“They loved teaching the younger winemakers,” said Larks. “They loved that we respect them. They’re lifers, some of them are Vietnam Vets. They wanted to pass on what they knew.”
Larks and Heavner learned about shade, about how the slightest change in elevation can affect the wine and, equally importantly, about how things can go wrong.
Larks describes winemaking like this: “It’s like cooking. You’ve got the ingredients. You have to make sure they’re good. And now, what are you going to do with them?”
We do the work.
They make a broad range of varietals, from Grenache Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon. Their Grenache can be found in some well-known Northern California restaurants, as can their Sauvignon Blanc.
“We decide what kind of wine we’d like to make. If it’s one we haven’t tried before, we learn about it. Then we make it,” said Larks. “It’s still trial and error all the time.”
Taking The Unlikely Path. Being Present.
They’re not the likeliest of pairs. Larks looks like D’Artagnan’s progeny after a long night with a very fair maid. Heavner has shorter hair, an imposing presence and a DJ’s concentrated commitment.
How do they divide their duties?
“We don’t,” said Larks. “We both do everything.”
Whether it be winemaking decisions or business decisions, they say they make them together. They’re there together at every stage of the process. Of course they have disagreements, but they say that all the talking about life back in 2006 has prepared them for a growing business.
We do the work.
How have they achieved that growth?
“Word of mouth,” said Larks. ” Social media, guerrilla tastings, we do one event a month. We do underground dinners.”
He added: “I do Facebook, Ari does Instagram. I’m too old to understand Instagram.”
Larks is 42, Heavner is 33.
Through connections and random Facebook and Instagram contacts, they’ve developed a following in Georgia and Washington DC. When you go to one of their winemaker dinners, servers don’t pour the wine. Larks and Heavner do.
What about the wine? Is it actually any good? Well, their 2012 Viognier won a silver medal at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Oh, and their 2011 Petit Syrah won the gold medal at the 2015 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The wines retail in the $20-$40 range.
They describe their brand’s style as “approachable, elegant, Californian and artisanal.” At heart, though, they want to be the heart of people who bother to have a good time.
On the organizational side, their business is only one thing: relationships. They know the vineyards and their owners. They talk and they listen.
On the customer side, their business is only one thing: relationships. They build them online and offline, but never straying from being personal. They hope people like the wine and the mood that their tastings and dinners create around it.
They’re selling to younger people. They’re using younger people’s ways, even though Larks is an ancient 42.
Their ambition is to make 3,000 cases. That’s it. “Any bigger than that and it wouldn’t be ours anymore,” Heavner said.
Larks presents their business in life terms: “People forget to really enjoy their lives. Idle is about being present.”
It’s also about doing the work.