Life as a Napa Valley winemaker seems like it would be idyllic.
But in reality, the winery business is one of the toughest around, especially if you start from scratch. First, you have to plant the vines. Next, you need to successfully harvest the grapes, barring things like a drought or pests spoiling your crop. And then, once bottled, the wine itself need to age.
"They say it's about seven years that you get to see the first penny out of your investment," says Delia Viader, who started Napa's Viader winery in 1986 on a rocky piece of land on Howell Mountain.
That's why it was particularly painful for Viader -- who successfully built her winery into a multimillion-dollar business -- to experience a major freak disaster in 2005. She was just about to sell her 2003 vintage to restaurants, distributors and exporters, when an arsonist set fire to the warehouse where it was stored. Her entire inventory (of 84,000 bottles) went up in smoke. "I had all the bills of making the wine, but no wine to sell," she says.
I spoke with Viader about the setback for a podcast I helped produce for the media nonprofit, The Story Exchange. In the full interview, "A Winemaker's Pleasure and Pain," Viader talks about how she survived arson and ultimately found a better business model for her winery. Find the Story Exchange podcast on iTunes.
Meantime, here are a few tips from Viader on recovering from setbacks.
1. Think quickly. Viader was walking into a private dinner at a Napa resort when she got the news. As the fire still burned, she asked her banker (who happened to be at the dinner) for a $1 million bridge loan. Even though she had fire insurance -- she knew it would be months or years before a payout, and she predicted (correctly) that it wouldn't cover her losses.
2. Get all hands on deck. Viader enlisted the help of her son Alan, who managed the vineyard, and daughter Janet, who joined the company to run sales and marketing. "It was -- in the sense of the family -- a call to arms," she says.
3. Don't be afraid to try something new. Post-fire, some 19 years after starting up, Viader changed her business model. You can't quickly replace inventory (new wine needs to age), and Viader knew that restaurants and distributors wouldn't wait for her. So she decided to focus on a direct-to-consumer model instead.
Viader, who lives at the winery, turned her guesthouse into a tasting room. Customers now stop by to purchase Viader's signature Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend -- which she calls "liquid cashmere" -- for $150 a bottle. Daughter Janet has added cave tours and barrel tastings for exclusive "money can't buy" wine experiences.
The winery, which has about 15 employees, is once again making $4.5 million in annual revenue (the same as it did, pre-fire) selling 4,000 cases of wine a year. "I'm doing fantastically well," Viader says. "I consider myself privileged."