Joey Zwillinger was 2 years old when he began stomping grapes for his father's homemade wine. Now at 38, Zwillinger, a biotech engineer as well as co-founder and co-CEO of San Francisco-based shoe startup Allbirds, has continued his late father's hobby. Annually he brings his friends and family, including his three children, together to help with the harvest, which produces about 300 bottles of wine. As much as Zwillinger enjoys being able to stock his own wine cellar and those of his loved ones, the bottles are only part of the payoff: immersing himself in the act of making something complicated, step-by-step, offers the bigger reward.
Zwillinger says winemaking gives him a sense of agency, which he defines as taking action and trusting that you'll figure it out along the way, rather than waiting for someone else to bear the hard work. He says it's the same ethos that has helped Allbirds pioneer new ways to make shoes sustainably. The startup continually invests in and develops eco-friendly materials, such as sugarcane, Merino wool, and responsibly harvested eucalyptus tree fibers, an approach that has helped the company become a global brand. (Allbirds joined the unicorn club as of 2018 with a $1.4 billion valuation, according to the Wall Street Journal.)
Whether it's shoemaking or winemaking, Zwillinger says the act of getting your hands dirty is a valuable one.
"It's about using your hands to make something from scratch and developing an understanding of the process, and constant improvement in how you do every year to make sure that each vintage is at least processed in a way that gives you the best shot of being better than the last," he says.
To make his homemade wine, Zwillinger invites friends to pick grapes with him. Last fall, the grapes were harvested from a vineyard just north of Healdsburg, California, in a town called Hopland. The grapes are then crushed and stemmed in the driveway of his Mill Valley, California, home and aged in a 60-gallon French oak barrel in the basement.
"It's something that I love. I keep a log and I track it all from what we do from one year until the next," he says. "And it's incredibly similar to how we run [Allbirds], too."
He says his hobby and his day job have one very important thing in common: fermentation. The methodical process is critical for how Allbirds makes the renewable foam on the bottom of its shoes, and, of course, key to turning grape juice into wine.
"You have to keep things incredibly controlled to produce something that doesn't spoil and tastes great," he says.