July 17-24, 2016
Avignon – Lyon
Aboard the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s New Ship: The S.S. Catherine
Prices start at $4,274 per person, all inclusive
Maybe not enough time has gone by to really breathe the deep sigh of relief that I am longing to breathe. And maybe I’m being a bit indiscreet in talking about matters that are generally not spoken about so openly.
I almost lost the Doon. Not because the wines were no damn good. Really, rather quite the contrary.1 After selling off the large brands eight years ago, it proved unexpectedly to be monumentally difficult to right-size the company, i.e. find a scale that was profitable, whilst remaining more or less congruent with my truest values and the stated aspirations of the company.2,3 Further, rebranding, is/was, as they say, a bitch, or at least it would so appear in an age of complete information (and misinformation) overload.4 There is still an enormous amount of misleading noise that continues to circulate about the company, or the “brand” as it is known, even so many years after the sale of Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim.5
We came perilously close to the edge with an impatient lender, who was tired of seeing red ink, and, despite the fact that the company possessed significant assets, and the amount borrowed was relatively paltry relative to those assets, the aforesaid lender remained uninterested in extending the precious lifeline of a credit facility. This was despite evidence that the service of the debt was, at least to my green eyeshade wearing viewpoint, more or less a morÃ§eau de gÃ¢teau, a piece of piss, as the Brits would have it; indeed, certain structural elements had been put into place that would allow for the virtual certainty of sustainability if not imminent profitability, but “loan fatigue” as it is known in the business had enervated the banco to the point where it had to lie doon in a darkened room with cold, witch-hazel soaked compresses on its febrile P and L statements.
I learned a lot about people, viz. bankers, lawyers and other diverse algal slash muciligenous life-forms, specifically how utterly greedy and gratuitously craven they could be. But mostly I learned that it is a very cold world; you have to look out for yourself and cannot necessarily count on having an angel at your back simply because your cause is virtuous (or your wines have much improved).6
The company is now making money – not tons of dough, of course – but on a nice pleasant upward inflection, one that will take some time to build to any real significant accumulation of capital density, if you will. Our new lender7 has us on a relatively short leash, which is not entirely a bad thing,8 as the very last thing we wish for is to be caught in a cash crunch, unable to promptly fulfill our obligations to our sometime long-suffering vendors. And yet there are a number of projects that I am extremely keen to move forward and prontissimo of course, it goes without saying. These projects largely focus around getting the very ambitious Popelouchum germplasm-diversity plantation back to full-speed ahead, as this project has a non-trivial temporal horizon, which, to my great consternation, already seems to have begun to recede into the mid-distance.9
So, instead of spending my days in glorious rapture at Popelouchum, sunscreen-slathered, Tilley hat bedooned, diligently at work in the springtime castration of the male flowers of carefully selected vinifera grapes (with the intention of pollinating them with a worthy male parent),10 and in the fall, making careful observation of the results of these breeding experiments,11 teaching myself the rudiments of plant genetics in the evening hours, here’s how I spend my time these days: repairing and goading/enlivening our wholesaler distribution network.12,13,14
I am far from a maven on the subject of the 3-tier system in the U.S.; there are some strong plusses and minuses to it, but the amount of effort it takes to sell wine through the system is now truly ridiculous for wineries of our size who are on a limited budget.15,16 We have a relatively heterogeneous distribution network – a few large distributors (generally relics from the Big House era), a few very small ones (possibly a function of my desire to distance myself from the Big House association), and a number of mid-sized ones, a scale which seems to work reasonably well for our portfolio, apart from the vexatious fact that they seem to continually be getting snapped up by the large ones.17
I’ve learned a lot of interesting things in this quest to shore up our sales network, many of which I should have assimilated when I was in junior high. Some of our distributors have been enormously successful in selling our wines; others significantly less so. But, it’s the same damn wine! What inferences might be drawn as to why the wines work some places and not in others? I have to think that it comes down to the matter of perception, and as such I can’t help but feel like I’m back in junior high school again. When you’re in junior high, you’re either riding high (relatively speaking) with a coterie of friends who think you are the coolest, or you’re on the outside, looking in, which can be very lonely, indeed. (In elementary school, a few years prior, this dichotomy was represented by whether or not you were believed to possess the “cooties” contagion by the alpha members of the savage clan.)
Now, as grown-ups, if your brand is large enough, you don’t really care if you’re thought of as being cool or not.18) (You are rather more focused on whether you are growing marketing share and/or making reasonable margins.) But if you’re smallish to middling as we are, how you are thought of by the people who sell your wine is absolutely crucial; they are truly the gate-keepers, and will determine whether that Cornas-loving independent retailer somewhere in the wilds of the mi-ouest will ever be shown Le Pousseur. Dealing with wholesalers (properly) requires a significant amount of care and feeding. The point of all of this discussion of the vagaries of the wholesale system is that while I am personally quite fond of a number of our distributors, the reality is that excessive reliance on this channel makes us somewhat subject to the whims of fashion – are we hot (or not) this decade? And more significantly, it makes us subject to any number of forces well beyond our control. Will the brilliant, sensitive and responsive fine-wine distributor with a soft spot for Rudolf Steiner, suddenly get acquired by an Evil Mega-Wholesaler from, say, a major Southern state?
But, most significantly, I am just tired of all of the schlepping; I would like a simpler life, and not have to work so hard, spending so much time on airplanes and air-conditioned hotel rooms.19 We must learn how to get a lot better at selling our wine directly to customers (DTC), which, if we play it right, could take a tremendous amount of pressure off of the wholesale channel.20
The light recently went on when I realized that not only am I planning to engineer possibly the coolest grape-growing project in recent wine growing history, i.e. the creation of perhaps 10,000 new grape varieties at Popelouchum, through a very focused grape breeding project,21,22 but perhaps I needn’t necessarily wait until the company is throwing off massive amounts of cash to finance this laudable, if slightly risky, venture. The project is not obviously monetizable – it will take a very long time before it yields any real tangible results – but it is a supremely interesting project and one that has potentially real value to the viticultural community as well as to the larger world.
I am turning over in my head the opportunities we might be able to proffer to a potential investor. For an investment of X, perhaps you might have a grape variety named after yourself, and achieve some sort of immortality. Maybe the Bruno Koslowski grape, for example, might become the next Pinot noir? The Wanda Berkowitz grape the next Nebbiolo?23 I would certainly wish to design the creation of this multitude of new varieties to exist as something like “open code.” No doubt that figuring out the logistics of just precisely how to do this might be a bit challenging, but let’s say you are a viticulturist somewhere in the world, for the investment of Y, you might be able to tour the vineyard (when it comes to fruition), and pick out the one or two or ten varieties that truly speaks to you, and secure cuttings (phytosanitation restrictions permitting, and all waivers duly signed) of same to take back to your planet of origin – Texas or Australia or South Africa or wherever. Maybe it would just be the ability to attend a great party once a year at the incredible site or the ability to purchase Bonny Doon wines or the first produce from Popelouchum at a significant discount?24 But, it would seem that there is certainly something of real value that we might offer above and beyond the knowledge that one has done something useful.
But for now, it’s pas mal d’aeroports and beaucoup de Marriots and Daze Inn and highly caloric winemaker dinners (I try to remember when I can to eat vegetarian while on these trips or at least to skip at least one of the intermediary courses), and the Midwest in the summer and the Southeast in the spring and winter, and remembering to pack my 200 mg. of Zen in order to stay focused at all of those sales meetings.
I’m writing this to you from a Starbucks in a very pleasant town in the Midwest, one that I will certainly visit again soon; the 3-tier marketed schleppeur du vin follows Nietzsche’s Law of the Eternal Return. But jet lag and insomniacal thrashings and Nietzsche aside, there is a slight spring in my step, knowing that with a little planning and the beneficence of some enlightened Doonstahs, this need not be something I will do forever.