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What would you do if you were going to get into the Wine Business? Pt. I of II

Last week, within just a couple of days of each other, the same query came from two different people, “What would you do if you were going to get into the wine business?”

The question is simple, even if the answer is anything but …

On the surface, it’s innocuous, something that fills conversational space like a Jimmy Page guitar run on “Stairway to Heaven.”  Yet, a dashed business plan to open a wine retail shop (with Howard Schultz-like world domination in mind) and a subsequent 18-month professional rebound relationship in Napa working for a technology company that serves wineries act more as a lingering scab than scar with a story and wisdom attached.

My answer to both inquiries?  A plaintive, “Not sure.”

It was an honest response albeit unexciting.  Frankly, I suspect that most people, when posing the question, expect that an exciting story SHOULD be in the offing.  Most are infinitely curious about the wine enthusiast, figuring that a plan to follow the dream is only circumstantially separating the wine enthusiast from manifest destiny; of course, this is something I don’t think is expected of the weekend woodworker. 


I’ve spent most of my professional career with a knack for spotting good opportunities, a humble -leaning, though sometimes faulty cocksure belief in myself, and timing that is usually three years ahead of being in the right place at the right time.  When transposed to a “pie in the sky,” open checkbook, ponderous question, I’m left staring blankly like a three year old who just drew a Picasso on the living room wall.

“Not sure” standing in for the wee ones, “I dunno.”

The fact is, these are turbulent times and making heads or tails of where to position for success in the wine industry seems anything but sure and I’m not even encumbered by the proverbial forest for the trees.

I’d rather bet black or red on roulette.

My flaccid performance anxiety in answering a simple question notwithstanding, I need to get my shit together.  I’m meeting a venture capitalist at the end of the month with no agenda other than we’re mutually curious about each other’s interest in wine.  Still, I need to have a better answer than, “not sure.”

That said, I do think these are very exciting times for the wine business.  Order always comes out of chaos and that’s even when the wind isn’t at the back of an industry as it is with domestic wine these days.

To paraphrase Earl Nightingale, one of the early forefathers of self-help, “You are, at this moment, standing right in the middle of your own ‘acres of diamonds.’”

With my venture capitalist friend in mind, I think there are ‘acres of diamonds’ in the wine business.  Ironically, it also fits within a quote from another self-help guru from way back, Zig Ziglar: “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”

On a couple of occasions, I’ve written about the development of a new Top-Level Domain for the web address extension, .Wine. While that’s one exciting area for sure, even more interesting to me is the shifting dynamics in the automation and services that are happening around the wine business.

Quite simply, wineries need help.

Any management consultant will tell any business, anywhere … “Focus on your core strength.”

The fact is, most of the challenges that small to medium size wineries face are completely unrelated to their core strength – making wine.

In my next post, I’ll get into detail on what I would do if “I were going into the wine business” and where I think the shifting dynamics are occurring … a hint … Wilson Daniels and Folio Fine Wine Partners have business models whose time has come. 

In the meantime, hit the comments and let me know what YOU would do if you had a blank checkbook and open opportunity in the wine business!


Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (12) |


On 06/02, Heather wrote:

Interesting post! I’m currently moving into the wine business myself, though I don’t have a blank cheque grin The decision involved moving countries, leaving my career, and about 1 year of planning/getting the finances together. The ‘wine business’ in this case is a small wine bar in Nova Scotia, Canada - the first ever in these parts! Hoping for a late summer opening… Eeek.

On 06/02, Christy wrote:

I’ve been asked this question is a million times and have a pretty quick, down and dirty answer – get a part-time job at retail, either off- or on-trade.  It’s terribly unglamorous, but it’s massively useful.  At the right shop, or even at the just-OK-shop, you learn a ton, you meet people in the industry, and you prove that you’re serious enough about the industry that it makes the next step that much easier.  You may even learn that you’d rather just engage with wine as a (possibly all-consuming) hobby. 

And full disclosure: I do own a wine shop, but I’ve been spouting off this same piece of wisdom for much longer than the shop’s been open.

On 06/02, Thomson Vineyards wrote:

Looking forward to post II of II. I believe you’re spot on in your assessment of what to tell people - stare at them blankly and grab for a shot of Jameson. I was born into it, 4th generation Napan. I intentionally steered clear from Napa and the wine industry. Going away to college and even further away to grad school in Florida. This past year, my Dad - The Farmer was at a breaking point where he could only manage the farming aspect of 80+ acres, so I stepped in have been running the business side for one year. A week ago I announced my hiatus from the wine industry for the next 90 days. It sucks the life out of you! I need a breather. But business must continue to happen, we still have Carneros Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sale.

Three months ago, I also attempted to bet our 2010 grape contracts on the 2010 NCAA Bracket Throwdown I had with one of our wineries winemakers that we work with. He told me, “I’m not a gambling man” yet his wine comes into its first year of production in 2010. I tell him he’s a wine industry romantic, he gets annoyed.

Solid business plan, capital - DO NOT finance, and an affinity for betting on black. That’s what I’d tell someone who wants to get into the wine business. Or just read about my boycott of the business for the next 90 days and that should placate you into just drinking it, not getting into it Cheers!(with a shot of Jameson) Jen Thomson

On 06/03, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

I’d read The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Starting and Running A Winery.

What did you expect me to say, Jeff???

On 06/03, Mark Cochard wrote:

You hit the nail on the head for my own experience. I did exactly as you said 18 years ago and stayed out of the wine biz as a vocation but remained in the biz as an avocation. Others I have worked have moved into the biz fulltime starting out the way I did.

On 06/07, Stephanie L wrote:

this only applies if one might consider getting into the biz as a vineyard owner and wine-maker combo: we’re heading into the biz with our first vintage this year, so we’re really not in it yet, although our yearly tax returns since planting our vineyard some years ago would say otherwise. to me the most important thing to remember is to stay true to yourself. don’t follow the yahoos by trying to emulate, or become some score-hound. and ABSOLUTELY don’t buy your grapes. grow them—they are essentially the only proprietary thing you can have—everything else can be copied. and then rely on your decades (or hopefully years) of building up wine lust and knowledge, and the funds you scrimped and saved for years, and then go for it. find the best ground, don’t settle for mediocre, don’t settle for people saying “but this is how it’s done” if you have your own ideas, and don’t waste your energy on those afraid of you rocking the status quo. keep your head down and keep going. it goes without saying that one must focus on their core strength, but i’d fire that biz consultant if s/he tried to tell me that. for with the proliferation of labels and the quality of wine like it has never been, it’s equally important to focus on WHO you are, not simply what you can do. that’s called the brand, elwood, the brand! an ugly and misunderstood word to many, but that’s what you need to do.

On 06/11, Mart S. wrote:

Great insights you got there! I believe every business has it’s own stage of “not sure” along the way. I believe your holistic passion with wines will lead you the way to excel in every aspect of the wine business.

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