This is a speech that Randall Grahm delivered in Washington, D.C., at the Inc. Magazine Conference, September 2009 (part 3 of a 3-part series).
While I have been hoping to elevate the level of discussion about our wines, what seems to be happening is that many of our most loyal customers just miss our old wild and crazy labels and are somewhat disappointed with the relative placidity and mysteriousness of the new ones. The problem of course is that it is not so easy to redefine yourself once there is a reasonably well-embedded image people have of you. In my case, it is perhaps that of the ADD-afflicted joker, someone who just can’t get serious, flitting from one wine style and grape variety to the next, and of course there is certainly an element of truth in this characterization. It’s been difficult to shed the negative association with Big House the perhaps a few slightly iffy vintages of Cigare. It brings to mind the old joke about having carnal relations with “just one goat” and what do people call you?
On the face of it, it would seem that we are doing so many things right these days, and yet it is still a real struggle. Maybe I should have tried to be a lot kinder to major influencers when I had the opportunity. We are in fact at this moment a winery in transition – one that for many years did frankly rely upon marketing to create a buzz around what we were doing. There is a correlative in the winemaking end of things – what the French call “vinsd’effort” or “wines of effort,” that bear the strong stylistic imprint of the winemaker rather than an articulation of the personality of the site. They are a reflection of man’s limited intelligence rather than the vast complexity of nature’s intelligence. I am sincerely attempting to move our wines from “wines of effort” to “wines of terroir,” wines of real distinction, soulfulness and a sense of place. I think this ultimately represents true value, a precious stone (quite literally), not a bauble, which I believe is what will be needed as we as a society reset our values and priorities.
So, I don’t have the great Estate just now up and running – too bad for me, but like Monty Python’s knight, I’m still in there fighting. I was hoping that I would not have to resort to my old marketing tricks and could simply sell wine without the gross signifiers of pedigree, i.e. an Estate Vineyard, simply based on its inherent quality. And yet, marketing qua marketing, even though it seems essential, is now oddly ineffective. It bugs me to have to wear our groovy, biodynamic credentials on our sleeve, to publicly trumpet our virtue. Being publicly virtuous is hardly enough these days. We took the initiative of voluntarily indicating all of the ingredients that touched our wine on the back label partially out of self-interest and partially because it actually is a really useful and virtuous thing to do. This called attention to the brand for about five pico-seconds and then we receded again to the rear of the collective mind-bus.
We are, in fact, doing some very cool things in the cellar, particularly with the “Snow White protocol” – where we’re “putting wine to sleep” for a number of years by putting it in 5 gallon demijohns, with no oxygen permeation, to repose in darkness. I think that I will have some pretty amazing wine to sell in four or five years, a uniquely differentiated product, but the temporal horizon of this project is not so brilliant in considering such pesky issues as cash-flow.
All I can really offer as advice to anyone – and this is really mostly to myself: Move in the direction of the real, the authentic. Get down to the most basic level, which I think in business is connecting with people. Myself, I have been too comfortable in the past being an aloof figure, allowing my shyness and social awkwardness to take the upper hand. I’m now out on the streets, peddling wine, talking to people, rebuilding a customer base very laboriously, one relationship at a time. We opened a little café at the winery against everyone’s advice. “This is not our core competency, Randall.” “We can never make any money at this, Randall.” Perhaps it was a foolish thing to do, but it seems to be connecting me and the business itself to our customers in a much more intimate way. The fact that the food is absolutely amazing is very helpful. I’m not saying that there is salvation through gourmandizing, but engagement at this sort of primal level seems to bring a positive energy to the business that permeates other aspects.
I am sitting down and eating with our customers. Our wine club membership, the Distinctive Esoteric Wine Network is holding steady and actually growing modestly. I am really trying to be open to my own intuitions about the path forward – not in the grandiose way of before, but always seeking authenticity and connectivity. I am twittering up a storm (maybe while Rome burns) – and it is seeming to help me get connected. Most importantly, I’m thinking about redefining success. It is not now about acclamation, nor less about positive EBITDA (I’d love for our bankers to share this same outlook). Rather, it is the ability to continue to do creative work on whatever scale might be possible. If I end up with just one or two acres of fabulous grapes, I will try to produce a few barrels of extraordinary, original wine.
For me, it is about learning how to come down to earth and to forge connective links wherever I might. I am hopeful that if I am absolutely congruent to myself, this will generate the sympathetic vibration people are seeking to discern within the cacophony that surrounds us.
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