So, you want to buy a winery?
… is a question I never asked or thought I would ask.
Here begins our story.
I grew up in Maine. A place everyone seems to have vacationed to but no one is actually from. My first alcoholic beverage was the #1 Best Selling Allen’s Coffee Brandy. Wine? I am pretty sure the only wine there was made from Blueberries or from this idyllic sounding place called Boone’s Farm. As for whether or not to buy *anything* let alone a winery, that decision was limited to whether or not I could afford to buy gas for the 1984 Nissan 300zx which served double duty as both my car and home.
Yet last weekend my wife Julie and I were sitting in our “new” winery’s conference room interviewing marketing firms (agencies?) about why they should be the ones to help us create a new brand, assist with the existing brand, and sharpen our strategy. As they asked us questions I am sure our confused faces looked like this:
How did we get here?
In October 2020 we purchased the historic 35 acre Rotta Winery & Vineyard property in the Willow Creek AVA in Paso Robles. Our top notch neighbors are Guyomar Wine Cellars and Turley Wine Cellars. In the past 9 months we went from having zero plans to own a winery, to now owning one of the 3 oldest wineries with a facility sized to make 20,000 cases a year. We have had to learn on the fly how to run a tasting room, service a wine club, hire a new team, assess the 30,000 gallons of inventory, blend and bottle a few thousand cases, rip out and replant 75% of our vineyard, choose the vines and rootstock, choose new equipment and barrels, find architects / contractors / engineers / government liaisons, design multiple buildings and landscape, install WiFi, fix clogged toilets, drop an entire pallet of a friend’s wine on the floor, yell at Quickbooks, all while working our day jobs and trying to be good parents. Phew!
Throughout the past year we have been asked multiple times:
- “What is your vision?”
- “What wine style do you want to make?”
- “How do you want to be portrayed?”
- “What is your voice?”
- “What is your plan”
For a long time I could not answer those questions andI don’t believe people would accept:
- “I don’t really have vision yet.”
- “We bought the winery as an accident.”
- “I love all types of wine, why do I need to choose?”
- “My voice is extremely loud and loquacious and I am a tech nerd, who most people love to hate these days.”
- “Do I need a plan? Can’t we just wing it and figure it out while we go?”
When I looked around at the other winery properties in Paso Robles and Napa they all have an “About Us” or “Our Story” page that details how on a hill in Tuscany they met the love of their life and shared an amazing bottle of 1982 Brunello di Montalcino. From that moment on the couple knew they were destined to search far and wide for just the right soil and terroir to plant their sustainable and organic vineyard that they would farm by hand to make the penultimate wine in the world. Add in a few vineyard photos, get a well known wine maker or consultant, and you are off!
All I know is … that is not us.
We have a track record of just jumping in and figuring things out as we go.
- I dropped out of high school and moved out without a plan
- I moved to San Francisco to live on a boat, but I had never slept on a boat or driven (pilot?) a boat
- Julie and I bought a vineyard in Paso Robles but we had never farmed (So you want to buy a vineyard?)
- I went to work at a Network and Security company, but I have never done Network or Security
What qualifies us as wine makers or winery owners?
Not much. I am pretty good at business, technology, and thinking outside of the box. We do however consider ourselves to be wine and winery fans. We have visited over 50 Napa, 35 Livermore, 187 Paso Robles wineries and visited the wine regions of Valpolicella Italy, Tuscany Italy, Barolo Italy, Bordeaux France, Moravia in Czech republic, Yarra Valley in Australia, Duoro Valley in Portugal, and even a winery in Maine (not Boone’s Farm). It is something that we enjoy doing as a family (mother in Law and 6 year old daughter too). Our favorite places have had areas for the kids or dog, great views, education, and great people.
There is no better motivator than a fear of failure. More importantly we have a desire to learn and experience things. Luckily there are great resources out there:
- Where Wine Takes You by Adam Montiel Podcasts
- Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog
- Fellow winery owners and operators (Paix Sur Terre, Tablas, Epoch, Booker, Grey Wolf, Copia, Denner, Villa Creek etc.)
- Leading and Managing Geeks and Nerds
The last entry above is a blog I have written over the years to document my lessons learned in the tech industry. People assume I authored it to educate others. The truth is, it is how I force myself to slow down, reflect, and simplify things. If you can convey stories to others and help them learn then you have just simplified for yourself.
Back to the Vision and Voice of our new winery. With help we will develop it, but here are some principles:
- CURIOSITY, EDUCATION, EXPERIENCE: when a person experiences something positive they feel good but the memories fade. I have been fortunate to have consumed a lot of fancy dinners in my life, but other than a general positive feeling I couldn’t tell you what the dishes were. However, in Italy a woman invited us into her home and taught us how to make carbonara with fresh pasta, raw eggs, guanciale, and parmesan cheese. I can remember not only the exact ingredients but how her kitchen looked and how much fun my daughter had. Combining Education + Experience has made me Curious to learn and do more.
- TRANSPARENCY & AUTHENTICITY: I learned in my career that we portray versions of ourselves that we want others to believe. I think that wastes a lot of time and energy. When we purchased the winery we were advised us to be super secretive, not to share our ideas or people will steal them, never look anything other than cool or hip or accomplished or in control, portray a vibe that makes others want to aspire to be like you. I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think we would want to do this. The approach that has worked for me is to be transparent and authentic to who you are. If you are transparent and authentic then even if someone doesn’t like your decisions they can at least understand the rationale behind why you made them.
- COMMUNITY & PEOPLE: when I reflect back I can see how lucky I was at key points in my life to have people or advisors nudge me one way or the other. Julie and I are fortunate to be in a place where we can pay this support forward and support our local community, the environment, and our team. If someone is willing to work hard and stretch themselves then how can we help with our experience, knowledge, or facilities?
A good test of these 3 principles came up when authoring our first job posting. I collected all of the examples I could find from fellow wineries and tried to merge them all together. It took hours. I was struggling. I felt the life and enjoyment leaving me with every key typed. So I stopped and reflected for a minute. “This is our winery and we don’t have to be like everyone else. What is the job YOU would want? What would be authentic?”
What does any of this have to do with a Winery?
I know I know, you just want the juice, the fermented grape juice. I promise you, that will be coming.
We may not have started with a plan to own a winery, but we have definitely developed one since. Julie, our team, and I do not want to build a traditional winery where you come, taste at a bar or have a 1 on 1 seating, then buy your bottles and leave.
We want to build a place. A place with potential in the soil, the vines, the buildings and most importantly, the people. A place that creates wine that will outlive both ourselves and the trends of today. A place where we can meet like minded people, socialize with each other, and build relationships. A place where we can be hands on and learn not only about this place, but other places and wines near and far. A place that you don’t just visit but that is your home away from home and your friends’ home away from home. A place we would be proud to leave to our daughter. A place that our daughter would be proud of us for creating.
This is the type of place I would like to build, that I would like to be a part of.
Come along for the ride
It would be great to have you join us on this journey. We decided to go down this path as we believe that what we wanted didn’t exist yet. We have already met countless interesting and helpful people who have become friends. That is something money can’t buy. I am sure we will make mistakes. I am sure lots of people won’t understand what we are doing or enjoy everything we do. That’s ok, there are lots of things we don’t like too.
Below are a list of future blog post topics and dates that will help fill in the blanks on our project and efforts.
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Sep 5: It may be good to diversify and get more real estate…. or a winery?!
- The Day Job was successful … we should probably diversify our gains. More real estate perhaps?
- The accidental journey to purchasing the historic Rotta Winery property
Sep 12: Rosé all Day…
- Day 1. Sign ownership documents on the patio
- Day 2. Phone your friends, pick fruit, make wine, friends leave
- Day 3. Realize you have no idea what you are doing, phone more friends…
Sep 19: You can do whatever you want with the new winery … except make and sell wine.
- The one agreement Julie and I had when buying the winery is that we did not want to get into the business of making and selling wine via a wine brand and competing with our friends in the business.
- That agreement lasted about 45 days.
- The story of the people and individuals who changed our mind and set us down a very different path
Sep 26: Hump Day. 27 things that have gone … not according to plan
- This 350 year old oak will be the centerpiece of our garden! … and then it chooses year 351 to die.
- Old Vine Zinfandel! … and then you learn it was planted on its own root stock and you have Phylloxera
- I am a hands on owner! … and then you tear your bicep off
- … 24 other surprises
Oct 3: Well Bill, what will your wine making style be?
- Deer. Headlights.
- “I dunno… I like all wine, let’s make the best wine?”
- The (beginning) of how we decided on our vines, wine, and factors that go into developing your wine style.
Oct 10: Crushin’ it with Friends
- When I was a headstrong high school drop out a few people took notice and challenged me to do more. One person wagered that I could go to college and get passing grades and if I did so I wouldn’t have to repay the tuition. Another pushed me through the application process and made sure I didn’t quit.
- It wasn’t the money that was invaluable, it was the support and infrastructure. How do we pay that forward?
A bit of background on the author…
I started my illustrious career by dropping out of high school, moving out on my own, and working in auto collision repair. After realizing that I have a complete lack of hand eye coordination and had ruined one too many cars I re-enrolled in high school. Upon completing my BS/MS in Computer Science I timed the job market perfectly by graduating in 2001, a time now referred to as the ‘Dot Com Bubble Burst’. I quickly accepted a job at MIT Lincoln Laboratory that provided plenty of fun and sun on the beach, but I neglected to read the fine print that the beach was in the middle of the South Pacific and I would be responsible for tracking and shooting down nuclear missiles.
After shooting down an ICBM or two and saving the free world I observed my colleagues jumping on the corporate hamster wheel and thought “the grass is always greener” right? I hear cubicles are cool. I re-enrolled in school again, received my MBA, and spent 20 years being a software nerd, handling crisis management, and being a geek who could speak (a.k.a sales). Most recently I have been able to ring the opening bell at Nasdaq in NYC Times Square and continue to build a team of super nerds who can help countries and companies be same from cyber attacks and successfully work from any during covid and beyond.
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