In the fall of 2011, on the heels of an "epic breakup" (you know the ones), I decided to channel my inner Elizabeth Gilbert and take a dear friend's mother up on an offer to live with her in Sonoma, California--until I decided where I wanted to rebuild my life.
At the time, I was commuting between San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York for work almost constantly and welcomed the idea of "coming home" to wine country. Cuz there ain't nothin' better than a little Pinot Noir and a house full of Mama G's cooking to put someone's heart back together again.
Now, I couldn't tell you a floral note from a hazelnut overtone, but I knew after spending only a few months in Northern California that much was to be learned from this artistic, farming culture we simpletons know as winemaking. Not wanting to miss out on my once in a lifetime opportunity to become a semi-pseudo wine aficionado (note: not "snob", that's so provincial), I began observing the best of Sonoma and Napa and attempting to relate the experiences to my own, as an entrepreneur. For me, this was the best way to cultivate a deeper appreciation of wine culture and ultimately for those who make it a reality.
Spoiler alert: Wine doesn't magically fall off grapes then land in a bottle, which is subsequently teleported to your local grocer, wine shop, or personal wine cellar.
On one such occasion, during the region's Festival Del Sole celebration, I had a unique opportunity to corner some of the industry's best to learn, first hand, about the risks, challenges, opportunities, and overall joys of winemaking.
Approach your business as a passion-flavored investment
My conversation with the interminable Tatiana Copeland, co-founder of Bouchaine along with her husband Gerret, turned up deep insights into the parallels between entrepreneurship and winemaking. I must mention here, because it is relevant and astounding all at once, that Tatiana's great uncle was composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and her grandmother was the first woman to drive a car through Moscow's Red Square. I was awe-star-struck. That is a seriously innovative and risk-taking gene pool.
She remarks: "We approached Bouchaine as an investment--the passion was second. Most people don't realize the expense involved. It's one thing to make bottled wine in mass quantities, but for luxury wine it requires enormous capital. In general in the wine business, the heirs will benefit, not the current owners."
My favorite quip from her husband, which I believe is likely a running joke in the industry: "How do you make a small fortune with a winery? You start with a large fortune."
Building a successful business requires yin and yang
Entrepreneurs come in a variety of flavors; some are more adept at business endeavors while others bring a level of domain expertise that breathes life into an otherwise flat concept. According to Mrs. Copeland, building a truly successful business requires both aspects:
"You have to be a little crazy to choose to invest in a winery, so you really have to have it in your blood. It's like being a writer or a composer. You don't have to love commercial buildings to be in real estate. For us, my husband brought the love of wine, and I brought the love of the business of wine. This has been our key to success."
Make every key decision with a tremendous amount of thought
Another conversation with Mike Reynolds, President of HALL Wines and award-winning winemaker, furthered my understanding of the drive and patience it takes to build a successful wine business; and ultimately, to create--yes create--wines that people love.
"Winemaking is the result of hundreds of decisions including location, grape variety, pruning, planting, harvest, winemaking techniques, barrels, aging profile, bottling, and storage," he says. "Each decision has to be made thoughtfully for the best result."
This gave me pause as I thought about the hundreds of decisions entrepreneurs are required to make within a given week, month, or year. Do we spend the time to actually think through those key decisions, or do we push things through to just get it off our list? And would we have more optimal results if we took the time and thought to cultivate--rather than make--decisions?
Adapt and move quickly toward change
While it may seem in contrast to above, adapting and moving quickly is also necessary for any business to thrive and grow. As Mr. Reynolds so aptly suggests:
"Each vintage (or business challenge) is unique and should be treated accordingly."
A vintage, for the non-wine-folks, refers to the entire process of picking the grapes and turning them into a finished product. If you've ever tasted different types of wines, you get the point. Refusing to adapt in business often means we are not applying the right solutions (or processes) to problems. This slowness to move will often set us up for a less than ideal product--or outcome.
Embrace the risks and enjoy the fruits of your labor
The founders of HALL, Kathryn Walt Hall and Craig Hall, summed it up effortlessly as they told me about their decision to jump into entrepreneurship nearly two decades ago:
"The stronger the desire, the easier the decision to take a risk. If we knew 19 years ago when we bought our first vineyard how much time and effort are required to build a brand, we might have thought twice. But our knowledge was limited, which proved to be an asset.
"Now, we take the time to appreciate our success...something entrepreneurs often forget to do along the way."
Amen to that. And may I suggest, a bottle of HALL Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Bouchaine Pinor Noir to help celebrate our collective entrepreneurial success.