Wine Making vs the Business of Making Wine

Wine Making vs the Business of Making Wine

I am a bit biased. I like what our wine-making team does. They take what Mother Nature throws at them and do their darndest to produce a wine that simultaneously caters to the palate of the consumer, is in line with their style, and is an expression of the vineyard and winery. Also, when they talk to you about wine and winemaking, they don’t talk at you; they don’t talk over you; they talk to you.

Three years ago I came to Zaca Mesa from a manufacturing background where innovation was not only encouraged, but necessary to remain competitive and viable. The first thing Eric Mohseni, our winemaker, approached me with was his team’s desire to make non-estate wines. Zaca Mesa for years had relied on producing estate- only wines, but that limited their market reach and their winemaking team’s ability to produce new wines. He not only knew what he wanted to produce, he knew where he wanted to source the fruit. It was time to let the genie out of the bottle.

There is another angle to winemaking: the corporate angle. Shortly after I started at Zaca Mesa, I attended a UC Davis wine exec program. One evening the whole class went out for dinner. On the bus ride over to the restaurant I sat next to a winemaker from a very, very large winery. She lamented, “Marketing tells me what to make; accounting tells me how to make it; and I get blamed if it doesn’t sell.” Her wine-making heart and soul had been sucked out of her by the corporate approach, which also conveniently positioned her as the scapegoat if things went south. The problem with this approach is that corporations run this way can only grow through merger and acquisition, not by innovation, because they are innovating spreadsheets instead of wine. How boring.

Nevertheless, there are reasons for this corporate approach to winemaking, many of which are caused by winemakers who fall into any one- or combination of- the following categories:

  • Do not understand the commercial aspects of business (witness how many wineries run by winemakers run into financial problems or are continuously funded by some outside source)
  • Are not good at developing and managing relationships with other departments- namely accounting, marketing, and sales.
  • Can often be pretentious (nobody knows anything about winemaking as much as they do- not even other winemakers)
  • Have thin skins (are easily insulted if someone does not like their wine)

There are more reasons, but you get the idea. It pretty much boils down to how big their ego is and/ or how naïve they are about running a business. So, the assumption by corporate is that winemakers are not in touch with the market and/ or not astute businesspeople. That assumption leads to the disgruntled winemaker who sat next to me on the bus.

What is needed in the end is to have a winemaker that respects the commercial aspects of business and a business that recognizes those winemakers and gives them the benefit of the doubt with their winemaking approach. Anything other than that will result in a failed business run by a winemaker that is clueless about business or a corporate winemaker that has no winemaking soul.