President for a Day:  Two Tasks for Boutique Wineries

An oft-asked interview question from writerly types of their celebrity subjects is, “If you were President for a day, what would you do?”  I am taking the premise of that question, flipping it for the wine enthusiast being the presumed owner of a boutique winery, and answering it myself.

Now, mind you, I don’t have the hubris to believe that I’m anywhere near qualified to run a winery – a sucking vacuum of knowledge about things like balance sheets and viticulture preclude that, perhaps a reality I’m more inclined to admit than an actor with their cause célèbre.  However, I do believe that there are two very important issues that small wineries need to embrace to succeed in the future, fortifying themselves from the inside out.

Culture

On any given day, there are dozens of articles written about winery marketing.  Do this, don’t do that ...  These articles are fine for what they are, but they fail to acknowledge a very important fact:  All of the marketing in the world won’t do any good if a winery is rotting from the inside out.

The most important culture in a winery doesn’t come from yeast; it comes from the esprit de corps created by leadership.

Quite simply, no organization in the world can convince consumers how great their product is if the people that walk into the building and work every day don’t believe it themselves in their heart of hearts.

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The cold hard truth is that most companies battle their own demons more so than they do the vagaries of market dynamics.

The other cold hard truth is that most organizations reflect the work ethic and values of their leadership, for better or worse.

If I think back to the company’s that I have worked for that were succeeding – growing the right way with delighted customers—nearly 100% of that success could be attributed to strong organizational leadership that created, fostered, supported and celebrated a focus on serving customers in a singular fashion while eliminating three soul killers – mediocrity, avarice as a decision-making tool and festering politics by a dearth of communication.

People work for a paycheck, yes, but only if you let them.  Most people work because they want to win and they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

The shopworn phrase, “Once you love yourself, you can love another” is true and true of an employee and the manifestation of their love for where they work outward. 

If I were a winery President for a day, I would ensure that my company culture reflected the beliefs, habits and action of a champion with integrity BEFORE I worried or spent a nickel on marketing.

Go Bespoke … Out Loud

In my opinion, terroir is the least understood, most misused concept in the world of wine.  Yet, it is becoming THE way for a small winery to differentiate itself, but perhaps not in its current form. 

With:

The continued growth of wine consumption

Pressures in distribution with consolidation

An onslaught of competitive, low-priced imports

According to Wine Spectator reporting on Impact Databank data. “In 2010, 23 brands sold at least 2 million cases each, and collectively their sales increased by 2.1 percent, more than twice the industry average. All other wine brands combined for a loss of 200,000 cases”

This means that small-to-medium size wineries are facing increasing odds against becoming a growth organization and no amount of branding is going to save them. 

However, the proverbial arrow in the quiver that small wineries have against their larger competitors (who are sourcing wine from everywhere) is the piece of dirt and the vines that makes their wine all their own.

Sure, everybody talks about his or her terroir, but have you seen a wine tech sheet lately?  Current tech sheets are an afterthought put together for the trade that say very little and are paid attention to accordingly, usually having nothing on a roll of Charmin and perhaps less …

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I’ve seen better conveyance of information from a braille menu, and I’m not blind.

The strength that a small winery has in presenting themselves is:

An ability to convey information down to the nth degree in a way that provides contextual meaning and value.

Yet, a winery’s “story” and their “terroir” typically aren’t bedfellows in the same story and rarely is it interesting.

This should change.

If I were a President of a winery for a day, I would articulate the wine inputs to a degree that would make my wine look like an affordable Savile Row suit monastically stitched to my specifications compared to a big box off the rack suit machine made by child labor in a third world country.

Geography, soil, slope, irrigation and micro-climate for the vineyard?  Check.  Vintage report?  Check.  Clone selection and characteristics imparted?  Check.  Yeast selection and characteristic?  Check.  Winemaking practices?  Check. Oak program?  Check. 

The devil is in the detail and the detail gives meaning to “terroir.”  Or, put another way:  tell me why I am not going to find a wine like this from any other place in the world.  Why has time and place created a confluence of circumstance to create a singular representation of sunshine in a bottle?

In sum, playing the game of “President for a Day” is ultimately an exercise in personal indulgence and armchair quarterbacking, particularly when it comes to wine, a subject of pleasure with little consequence.  It’s certainly not George Clooney’s crusade against genocide in Darfur, Sudan, yet, perhaps that’s why wine and small wineries are so important, our rock in the real world and every bit the reason to sound off, attempting to ensure their safety.

More information on the power of company culture:

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix on Creating a Powerful Company Culture

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com on Building a Customer Focused Culture