When you work in the wine business, you soon discover the reality is not the vision guests to wineries have. When a guest comes to a winery, they are greeted by owners and tasting room workers poised for hospitality. They have their best foot forward. And just like all of us, what you present to guests invited for dinner isn't reflective of the struggles you had during the day. In the same way, the wine industry puts out an image of a gracious lifestyle, but that's not the heart of the business nor is that what makes the business sustainable. This is a business that has its makeup and culture rooted in the reality that you really can't do this alone. At a minimum, you have to depend on God, Mother Nature, and luck to make a year. You have to depend on farm workers to execute and harvest on time in the right way. In fact its really harvest when that all comes together. That short window is all you get. That is a whole year's worth of sales and that intense period is the canvas that underpins the true culture of the community and in the end makes the wine business sustainable.
When I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I was hired as a management trainee at a major unnamed west coast bank, given 3 months of lending training (no kidding .... 3 months) and assigned as an Agricultural Officer in Lakeport, the County Seat of Clearlake CA. You'd think I'd have some feel for the Ag business because I grew up with a farmer's field in my back yard. In the summer, I'd push through the old redwood gate, cross the train tracks and ask to "help" the Mexican workers harvest. I think they were more entertained by me than anything else because they worked fast and I could barely walk to keep up with them working on their knees. But I'd help as best I could and they would pay me by giving me all the culls. I'd take them around the neighborhood in my wagon and make a buck or two. Anyway ... not to get too far off task, as a lender I had absolutely no clue what I was doing nor did I have a sense of the depth of emotion and culture in the farming business. I was too young when exposed to it. But as a lender now .... a guy making loans to farmers in Lake County, that was a totally different world. What was I going to tell a farmer who had 40 years in the business?
That first year in 1981, I was handed a case of wine, boxes of cookies (with walnuts), candied walnuts, walnut oil (Lake County had lots of walnuts) a freshly butchered turkey, and several lugs of kiwi, apples and different varieties of pears. I was dumbfounded my customers would want to give me anything, but in those actions I discovered a commonality in the farm community; they shared the bounty. It was an act of gratefulness and tradition.
In the end, that pragmatic acceptance of whatever the year delivers a farmer is reflected in a spirit of sharing and gratitude, and that more than anything else is what I believe makes the wine business a sustainable industry and one that will outlive us all.
Please feel free to offer your comments on your own impressions of my comments, the wine business, its culture and future sustainability.