Doon to Earth (Redux)

My company, Bonny Doon Vineyard, is in some danger, perhaps some real danger if we are not careful, and by extension, so are my great and vivid dreams. Yes, the company has had its ups and doons over the years—a fire or two here, a plague of lethal bacterial-laden insects there, some less than favorable write-ups (or alternatively and more problematically, the Cone of Silence) from influential wine critics, but never has there been anything like a genuine existential threat. Through it all, I’ve always imagined that I have always been able to put on my Doonce cap, work out a solution, and have always found a way to land on my feet.

The world is different now, maybe not so forgiving, certainly more complicated. It’s not as if no one is sympathetic, that everyone has become hard-hearted, but truth be told, everyone has their own troubles. To remain visible, audible, and above all relevant, within the highly distracted, attention-diminished, deafening agora that is the modern wine business, is truly a daunting work.

The reality is that nothing terrible will happen this month or next month, or on the mid-term temporal horizon, though our bank tells us that we really do have shape up rather sooner than later. In the effort to “right-size” ourselves, the company has sustained some losses since the divestiture of the large volume brands, Big House and Cardinal Zin. I’ve sold off assets—the winery building, a vineyard, and most recently the Pacific Rim brand. Despite the jettisoning of all of this ballast, we are still, in candor, continuing to drift, using some (though clearly not all) of our wits, to catch something like an updraft.

Our costs are still too high, the price of our wine still too low. This is apparently the gist of the problem; it costs more to make less (likely an artifact of our Doon-sizing). Without getting into the nitty-gritty, we need to improve our margins and cut our costs. Moving to a more efficient facility—(¡San Juan; si, si!) might be one way—but the easiest way to improve profitability would be to greatly improve our direct-to-consumer (DTC) business—e-commerce, wine club, tasting room and restaurant sales. It is said that DTC is the Holy Grail for small wineries these days, which is another way of saying that it is something everyone wants to do but few really have the know-how to pull it off.

So, we must become very agile, very adept, at boosting our business with our end user, to wit, the archetypical Doonstah. We have just hired a new General Manager, Jim Connell, who has had great experience managing restaurants and tasting rooms and is the closest thing to a true DTC maven as one will find in California. His consummate wish (if I may put words in his mouth) would be to enhance the experience of visitors to our tasting room and restaurant, imprinting them definitively and irreversibly on the Dooniverse. This is something that we have been able to do unselfconsciously for so many years, especially when we were up on the hill in Bonny Doon. Perhaps it has been a kind an enchantment that we gradually lost a sense of what we effortlessly did so well for so long.1

Jim talks about the need to engage our customers on a very personal basis—to greet them, make them feel welcome with good eye contact, and make the experience about them. This may be Enlightened Hospitality or may be Salesmanship 101, but it is a course that I have never personally attended. It has always been my style to enter a room, declaim wildly, weaving what I trust is a compelling story2 and having said my piece, discreetly slink away.3 Clearly, this is not a sustainable style for the New Era.

My fear is that some of the (tragic) elements of my own personality have become inculcated within the company culture. I write passionately, if not floridly, as you all well know, and have always imagined that I could make the written case for Bonny Doon Vineyard wine—no need for the messy business of actually talking to people in real time or space.4

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How this relates to the Land of DEWN: It was a couple of years ago that we came to the stark, chilling realization that we had lost a number of members of our club, some of whom were just not coming back, and most unfortunately, had not been adequately replenished by the addition of new members. (The fact that there was a global economic downturn of profound magnitude may well have been a contributing factor to this phenomenon.) We sent a few e-mails to the customers, inviting them back, half-heartedly attempted to call a few, but not nearly enough, nor with the real spirit and determination to bring them back into the fold.

I have persisted in the notion that, were our errant customers to really grasp the extraordinary things we were planning for the future, how could they fail to reënlist? It came to me in an eidetic moment. The seed! We would be growing grapes from seed in our new place in San Juan Bautista. No matter that no one has done this before, and that it is fraught with great risk—at the same time, it is a potentially extraordinary way to grow grapes and may well hold the key to producing a true vin de terroir.5 But, for our purposes, the seed is an incredibly powerful image—, the unfolding of the future, the fulfillment of latent potential. This is at least the one agricultural image that for me makes me misty-eyed. We would send our prodigal DEWNies a post card with a grape seed affixed thereto, and some stirring language, inviting them to rejoin the fold. Apart from the challenging technical issues of getting the seed to stick to the paper, surviving its postal journey and so forth, there was non-trivial expense in putting the package together, the daunting cost of the mailing itself, and the results in the end were less than wildly successful.6

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The message, which has taken some years to penetrate my dense cranium, is that in sales, one lives or dies in the immediacy and intimacy of the human connection with the consumer. It doesn’t work so well to mail, to email, to attempt to initiate a behavioral change in one’s customer at a distance.

I lost my father a little over a year ago, and have, of course, been thinking a lot about him. I remember very vividly that when I was perhaps eight or nine years old, approximately the age of my daughter now, my father decided that I needed to learn certain compulsory life-skills, and for him at least, the key one was that of salesmanship. At the time, he had a store in Hollywood, selling tools and general merchandise to a somewhat disreputable collection of customers, hustlers you might call them, who would resell the goods, out of their car or door to door. This was not anything I wanted any part of; some aspect of this commerce seemed less than above-board. One day, my dad brought home a case of first-aid kits—these were not American Red Cross issue, to be sure—but they contained band-aids, Mercurochrome, the typical gear to patch up scrapes and bruises. My dad “sold” them to my younger brother and myself, with the instruction that we were to mark them up three or four dollars and sell them door-to-door. “Don’t come back until you’ve sold them all,” we were told. Now, I had some difficulty with the whole concept of mark-up—this seemed to me to be something like profiteering to my young mind, but the real problem I had was ringing the doorbells of strangers, and trying to persuade them to buy my slightly suspect first-aid kits.

I was a total failure—I sold maybe two or three kits, but my brother was an absolute natural and sold all of his. My brother went on to join my father in his business, which became slightly more reputable as the years went by. But, I think that my father always harbored a deep sense of disappointment in me due to me absolutely non-mercantile sensibility. I think that he always feared that I could never take care of myself were the chips truly down. I am fairly certain that the trauma of the experience has led to my singular inability to “close,” or ask for a sale, a skill that every salesperson must have in his repertoire.

So, now the chips are, if not down, at least downish, and I am thinking about the lesson that my father tried to teach me fifty years ago. I have a notion that is perhaps slightly mad. It is my thought to personally call all of the ex-DEWNies and invite them back into the fold. In other words, take out the first-aid kits that my father had given me years ago, and not come back until they are all sold.

I don’t know if I can actually do this; it seems as if it will take an incredible amount of time, and perhaps I will be just as bad at this job as I was with the first-aid kits. But, it is an opportunity to come doon to earth, talk to people (gasp), and maybe set a personal example within the company of the need to really take our business and our wines, seriously.

Maybe this is the message of the new century: We are all vulnerable in some way, and in the end, can rely upon no one but ourselves. Maybe this is depressing news, but it also seems to be a deep existential truth and one that we have to take to heart. But, at the same time, it is also clear that we are ever more connected to others, that our fate is theirs. It has never been more important to not take our friends for granted, nor to neglect telling the ones that we love that we ardently do so.7 Whatever the case, my dialing finger is very itchy.


1 In the past, it seems that we were fortunate to have effortlessly attracted a certain kind of person to our fold, one who was greatly attracted to the downright fun aspect of our value proposition. Now, of course, things are more serious (but not pious, I hope), and there is definitely a more measured tack to be taken.
2 Who was that masked man? Why, the Rhône Ranger.
3 Put this down to unrectified narcissism, preternatural shyness, what have you.
4 There have at times been feints at so-called groundedness or presence, evidenced by the very clever “Doon to Earth” cartoon we produced after the divestiture of Big House and Cardinal Zin. I understood then that I needed to become a lot more grounded and focused. But one’s deepest life challenges are of course a kind of labyrinth and one keeps returning again and again to them until they are resolved or alternately, do one in.
5 If you are a wine geek, the prospect of this wine of the future is unbelievably compelling, rather like Citroën announcing that they are about to unveil a car with a radically new design.
6 As I have mentioned many times, I am a Luftmensch, one whose head is generally in the clouds, abstracted, not exactly connecting with the world in particularly concrete terms. The promotional piece might have worked far better if its audience were themselves all Luftmenschen, i.e. readers of the New York Review of Books.
7 While one might imagine that the content of this communiqué might be a bit of an, ahem, dooner, the reality is that I have never felt more alive, exhilarated about this business that I love than I do at the present moment. The old ways of doing things and the old ways of being—empyrean and aloof—just don’t work so well any more. But, this is just an invitation to really think about everything in a new and vital way, literally from the ground up. One thing I know with certainty: Making wines that are merely very good, even excellent is no longer a possibility for me, if they are not coming from a place of real originality and distinction. Making wines with soul, which also nourish our souls, is what I must always bear in mind.

25 Responses to “Doon to Earth (Redux)”

  1. Ryan Bond says:

    I just rejoined the wine club this last Sunday. TBH I was a member long ago but felt that the winery lost focus and I was receiving the same 3 wines for multiple months in a row. Now after tasting through with one of your stellar staff I’m back on board.

    • Ryan, We are so glad to have you back. Agreed that I definitely did lose focus for a while, but I am happier with the wines than I have ever been. Are they yet true vins de terroir? Not yet, but I believe that they are soulful and for the most part, reasonably elegant. Thanks for your confidence. Will not let you doon.

  2. I can totally relate to the relationship with sales…I was a youngster, in awe of the wheeling-dealing prowess of my pal who lived two blocks away, wondering how in the heck he had the spunk. Years later I remember that kid, and try to summon him when the moment demands. For what it is worth, we are DEWNsters, because of the honest and personal human connection, made over the dinner table, in a winter bound country cottage…good wine, food, and company. The allegiance continues, because of the quality of the wine, the intermittent digital repartee, and the fact that you have decided to go to seed.
    No need to call us, you know where to find us. If you do decide to ring your ex’s, it will likely be a character building experience…how much more character you can withstand is yet to be determined. No doubt, if you did it, you would make Mr. Vaynerchuk proud.
    Cheers.

    • Thanks so much, my friend. It generally serves us well to go into those uncomfortable places, which is where I have been compelled to live a bit these days. Alas, barring the possibility of a brain (or perhaps chutzpah) transplant, don’t think I will ever have the brass of Mr. V. But reasonably happy with the hand that I’ve been dealt.

  3. Carl Helrich says:

    Randall, what a pants-around-the-ankles baring of the soul. For those of us in the family wine biz, this is something we all can relate to. It’s something I deal with day-to-day. We create a wine that we share with people, and hope that they feel the same connection to it that we do. The hard-sell doesn’t become me, just as it may not become you. There are winery owners and winemakes and winegrowers, and ne’er the trio shall meet.

    I’m reminded of the idea of Forms in Plato’s “Republic”. We work with an ideal of a winery and we think it’s a Winery, but it turns out it may just be shadows on the wall. Turns out for me the my personal winery is less of a Form and more of a shadow, a messy, sticky shadow filled with the non-idealistic aspects of sales, marketing, P&L reports, and taxes.

    We are all connected, and there’s no better time to be: in this business, making wine, connecting to people. I’m psyched, too. When you get your Doonce cap firmlyu in place on and figure it all out, please share……–Carl

    • Your words are very sage, Carl, and thanks for sharing. Terroir is certainly the true Platonic form, and anything less than that is a mere flickering shadow on the wall. But to change traditions and move slightly eastward for a moment, all aspects of one’s life, even the messy business/bureaucratic ones can be incorporated into a sort of tantric practice. (At least this is what I tell myself on the 6th or 7th sales call of the day.)

  4. Adam Lee says:

    Randall,

    First off, thank you for the very honest reflection. Many of us that own wineries have us in similarly tenuous positions at one point or another, and perhaps never regain a full feeling of comfort. I wish you nothing but the best.

    It seems to me that one of the themes of this post is that of “loss.” You write of the “loss of your father”, the “loss of Club members” and the potential “loss of your company and your great and vivid dreams.” There are many potential pitfalls with the word “loss.” It is sufficiently vague to cover instances where loss in inevitable as well as cases where there was a choice of sorts in the matter. One of them is that it is often used in a way which exempts the speaker from responsibility. I see this often in my younger children (8 and 5) who far to often tell me “my shoes are lost.” While that is true, the more accurate case would be, “I misplace my shoes.”

    In the case of your blog, your father died. And it was inevitable (as it was for my father some 19 years ago, and will be for us for our children). We lost them surely, from our point of view, but using the term “loss” seems to ignore the inevitability of the situation.

    In the case of your Wine Club Members, they left the Club just as much as you lost them. Perhaps the term “loss” here is more like what my children do — rather than facing the fact that they were lost because of something you did (we, too, have had customers leave us). Obviously, the economy cannot be discounted as a factor, but one also has to look at what responsibility one has in their deciison not to to stay with you.

    The question that remains is how to approach the situation that your company is in. You are already doing much good…but hiring an individual with a different point of view and by picking up the phone yourself. My suggestion would be to stop using the word “loss” because of its vague nature and the fact that it can seem inevitable (at times) or can shield you from responsibility (at times). Change the words you use and changes in action will often follow. .

    I look forward, I hope, to meeting with you at some point…now that we share the same California distributor maybe we can share an event at some point in time.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

    • Thanks very much for your wise comments. Agreed that it is much more useful to look at one’s own role/responsibility in how events develop than to focus on exterior forces beyond one’s control. In the case of wine club memberships, there is always a natural law of attrition – a bit like erosion in nature or 2nd law of thermodynamics. It was not so much our doing that we lost these folks, but rather we failed to actively recruit new members. But the point is, for survival, one cannot remain passive in any way, and must really stretch one’s imagination and will to find appropriate strategies for success. I look forward to meeting up soon.

    • Jerry Starr says:

      Hi Randall, Looking forward to catching up with you tomorrow evening at the SF Four Seasons event. We’re very fortunate to have you there.

      As a long time fan and Dewny, you know my passion for wine, and how many tasting rooms I’ve reinvigorated, opened, and managed over the years. Our new company, SignatureWines.com, was created to drive qualified physical visits to tasting rooms (among other measurable goals). It’s a very new concept, and leverages the experience I have in DTC wine sales and marketing. We’ve touched on it from time to time when we’ve met. The event tomorrow night is an extension of those efforts, and intended to produce results.

      As always, would enjoy sharing what we’re up to these days.

      Cheers to you (and to all of us) for a successful evening tomorrow and moving forward.

      Jerry Starr, Certified Sommelier, Director, Client Services, SignatureWines.com

  5. John Dawson says:

    For the customers who have not been active since the pairing down of the brand, or the planting down in San Jaun Bautista, you have “a lot of catching up to do.” The unique approaches taken to get to and at SJB are fascinating. Inviting somebody along for the ride, or at least to watch you on this party of the journey, is probably the best out-of-the blue call from a winery they’ll ever receive.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. Indeed, a lot has changed. And to your second point, perhaps it has been rather too much like a party. Like Socrates at the drinking party, I aspire to continue to drink but remain sober.

  6. John Dawson says:

    Ahem, total Freudian slip re: “watch you on this party of the journey.”

  7. Raoul E Pinard says:

    An amazing letter, to be sure. I wonder what became of the millions of dollars gained in the sale of various properties such as Big House and Pacific Rim? One would expect those funds to keep the Doon-ship afloat for many years.

    The wines of Bonny Doon were, at one time, decades ago, unique and different (in a good way…sometimes in a very good way). Now some big marketing company owns the entry-level Doon label and there are dozens of cartoonish labels on the market.

    In Doon-sizing, numerous people were put out of work (oops!) and more maneuvers are having ill-effects.

    The issue with having lost “subscribers” or patrons is a result of boredom on the part of those whose wallets opened to pay for such enological follies. They, clearly, decided “Be there, Doon that” and chose to look for greener vineyards.

    Meanwhile, The Wizard of Odds (the head Doonster) issues forth wines which need more soul and labels them with a Rorschach-test of a label. Is that a balloon? Is that a condom? And in either case, or perhaps neither, do consumers want such an image on the dinner table?

    Good luck, but keep in mind, sir, there are others in this Doonaverse and you are not necessarily at its center.

    REP

    • Thank you for your note. I’d like to take small issue with a few of your comments. Please note that having sold our large brands, the acquiring companies do not own the “Bonny Doon entry level brands.” They own the brands, “Big House,” “Cardinal Zin,” and now “Pacific Rim,” which operate utterly independently from Bonny Doon. It was indeed most unfortunate that we had to lay off some people in the down-sizing of the company, but they were treated with fairness and generosity. I can’t speak to the reasons why some people people have recently left the club, but would humbly suggest that it was not a function of diminished quality of the wines. Maybe they were not compelling enough to hold people in these tenuous economic times, but the wines are truly better than they have ever been at any previous point. I’m sorry that you are not taken with the aesthetic of the sensitive crystalization on the label. While it may not be to everyone’s taste, it is important to remember that what is in the bottle is ultimately what is more relevant.

  8. Your dialing finger? Now, that’s funny. Looking forward to visiting in April – shall I bring some Sangiovese grapeseeds from Villa Ragazzi?

    • Never one to miss a chance for creative anachronism. Thanks for offer of sangio seeds, but we’re in pretty good shape seedwise. Looking forward to your visit.

  9. Rob Felton says:

    A fascinating post that manages to find itself at the intersection of my professional and wine-consuming life. I’m a former DEWN subscriber who was forced to cancel his membership because of a change in financial situation and geography – I was downsized at a company in NYC and ended up working from home in NJ, where shipping was unavailable. I won’t get into the utter stupidity of the shipping issue, plenty of other more-educated-on-the-issue writers have spilt plenty of blood and wine fighting that fight.

    So when fortunes changed, and I went back to work for a great company in NYC, I soon turned my thoughts to rejoining my various wine clubs, and which ones, if any, I should rejoin. And the honest truth is that my answer was none, DEWN included. I still enjoy the remains of the wines that I got over the couple of years we were down with the DEWN, I’ve even exchanged kind words with the head-Doon via twitter on a particularly delicious bottle. But the need to reenter the regular shipment fray, at least for Bonny Doon, was clouded with a simple problem, at least in my mind, and I suspect in many others out there: given the events of the last couple of years in Doon history, what kind of wine does Bonny Doon make – what does it do.

    That question, “what do you do,” along with its corollary, “who are you,” is the center of what I do professionally. I and my company help other companies be better, even great. And one of the things we sometimes encounter is exactly this lost at sea feeling I read here. Because while I have no doubt that Mr. Graham is still full of energy, what I don’t get from him or his wines is a sense of direction, a sense of this is what I stand for – something that can be explained in a (short) sentence or less. I follow him on twitter, so I know he doesn’t sleep much, loves his Sunday NY Times crossword, and is often on the road away from his daughter, whom he loves. I still have no idea of what he is trying to do with his wine. The subject of pears and verjus floats around a lot, and the challenges of selling when you don’t like to sell that he alludes to in this post, but nothing about his wine. Which is a shame, because we know he can write and he has a nice sized audience.

    Here I am, former DEWN member, asking the question – why should I come back? Convince me. Because, he’s right, the old ways don’t work anymore.

    Sell me.

    • Thanks so much for your excellent question. Note that I’ve answered a few others in front of yours, because I really wanted to give you a thoughtful answer. The reality is that there remains still a bit of a disconnect between the wines that we are currently making and the wines I aspire to make, and this is simply because I have such a strong vision of the wines of the future – they are/will be utterly startling in their originality. And perhaps for that reason I have not been banging the drum loudly enough for the wines that we are currently selling. The reality is, however, that the current line-up is fabulous. The ’07 Cigare is perhaps the best Cigare we have made in years; the ’08 Syrah “Pousseur” is a knock-out.. I drank it last night alongside a St. Cosme Côte-Rôtie, and it, forgive me, smoked it. When you taste a suite of BDV wines, you really get that there has been a sea-change in how we do things. The wines have life, vitality, soul; there is a sensibility that guides them. And you can drink them with great enjoyment. This is not a small thing. I am hoping to plant our vineyard in San Juan as soon as I can possibly manage. But know, that in in the interim, I will only bottle and sell wines that delight me. Besides, apart from the DEWN club, where will you find wines (Le Cigare Volant Réserve and Cigare Blanc) that have been aged 2-3 years in glass carboys, stirred fortnightly w/ strong magnets? #staydooned

  10. My father sold as well — put my brother and I through college calling on small business throughout the Midwest. He was very good at it, and It’s something that I never, ever wanted to do. Terrified me — going up to strangers and asking them for money.

    So what happens when I get out of the newspaper business in the early 1990s to freelance? I have to go up to strangers and ask them for money. Fathers can be very wise, no?

  11. Selling is indeed difficult – but so is growing grapes from seed – or growing anything ! Order from chaos. It never gets easier alas – The order turns into chaos – Stay sober ! Good Luck to you !

  12. Whitney Snyder says:

    Randall,
    If it means anything, the sole reason I have dinner at Millies Diner in Richmond, VA every trip I make there is because your Cigare Volant is on the wine list. Hold your head high!

    • It means everything, Whitney. I am incredibly proud of the wines that we produce. I just wish that I had a better business head on my shoulders. There was clearly some sort of genetic mutation in m own instance where the salesperson gene has become deactivated.

  13. I just read your blog, after learning who you are by listening to an interview of you and some other famous wine person on public radio. I like your style very much, and deeply empathize with your current plight. I’m so sorry that I don’t drink wine. HOWEVER, what I mainly want to say here is about “terroir”. In the interview one of you said that you were surprised when a European vintner of decades said they were still discovering their terroir. Well of COURSE (I think) because Terroir is constantly changing. Isn’t it like riding a wave, in surfing? about maintaining a dynamic relationship, not nailing down a formula? I guess. Thank you. I will now try some of your wines. cheers!

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