Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey – Workplace Culture Experts & Barefoot Wine Founders

By Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey – Workplace Culture Experts & Barefoot Wine Founders

The Romance of the Wine Business – Not!

The Romance of the Wine Business – Not! 200 300 MIchael and Bonnie Harvey

The wine business has always had an aura of romance about it. You know – swirl, sniff, sip. Say a few words in French and talk about mid-notes …Forget about it!

Take it from folks who actually succeeded in the wine business. It’s more about forklifts, warehouses, trucks, and clerks! It’s about meeting a price point, staying ahead of the competition, staying in stock, and not breaking a multitude of laws. And it’s about dusting bottles, pricing items, and putting up signage! So much for mid-notes.

Mystery…

Just like any business, it’s hard work, it’s hiring and firing, it’s cash flow management, and it’s earning and maintaining credit from vendors. And it’s sales, sales, sales! You may need a drink by the end of the day, but romance? Not even close!

This is not to say that the wine industry doesn’t like to portray itself as somehow mystic, ethereal, and mysterious. As our friend likes to say, “Where there is mystery, there is margin.” But at the lower, more competitive price points where we produced, there was neither mystery nor margin.

Velocity

We had to distinguish ourselves on the basis of value for price. Our mission was simple, four words: Best Wine, Best Price. The best price was the price at which most wine sold, which was the price that wine sold the fastest, referred to as the velocity price point. In every category, there is a velocity price. Whether it’s a bicycle or a can of beans, you already know what you can expect to pay. That’s the velocity price.

But what did we mean by “Best Wine”? Everybody says their product is the best. For us best meant the greatest number of medals awarded in industry-recognized third-party competitions. So for us, “Best Wine, Best Price” simply meant most medals at the velocity price.

Next!

So aside from entering every competition, we could find, how did we win? That’s all about the sourcing, winemaking, and adherence to taste profiles. And that’s all about the winemaker. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Chapter 7 of our business audio theatre, The Barefoot Spirit, opens with the unlikely events that led us to hire the world’s most awarded winemaker – which she soon earned after a few years making Barefoot Wine.

At the time she was also conspicuous as a woman in a heavily male-dominated profession and was, in fact, one for the first women winemakers in the industry.

Our previous winemaker advised our salespeople to slow down on sales because there was a shortage of wine. He was right about the shortage, but the real shortage was a shortage of optimism, ideas, and innovation at a time of very limited supplies. This is when we say, “Never, but never, tell a salesperson to slow down on sales!” When we heard about this, we just looked at each other and said our favorite four-letter word, “Next!”

Assertive!

We called a friend who was a winemaker in his own right and asked him if he knew of any winemakers we could hire. He said, “Well, last week there was a lady winemaker who came through here. I wanted to hire her, but the board members thought she was too assertive!” We said, “Get her over here right now!”

She came over we talked for hours and she was hired just like that! Jennifer Wall distinguished herself as not only assertive, but imaginative, resourceful, and practical. She proceeded to overcome the supply, inventory, and quality control challenges and rack up tons of awards in the process. (She still makes Barefoot Wine, and still wins tons of awards!)

Somewhere in the World

Meanwhile, back at the shortage. We asked, “So, Jen, how are you going to overcome this wine shortage?” Her answer was a very big picture, “Somewhere out there in the world there’s too much wine and we are going to find it!” And for the wine drought of 1995 and 1996, we use reds from France and whites from Chile. We were able to hold our price point, deliver gold-medal quality, and stay in stock! All the while insisting that the salespeople increase sales! No romance, but a huge amount of hustle!

The rest of the chapter is replete with entertaining short scenes that recount the real nitty-gritty challenges of the wine business including the myriad of laws that created roadblocks in each state, until of course, you figured out the legal work-around.

No Free Wine!

In Nevada, for instance, we got an ad in the Safeway chain and thought we would entice the store managers to bring in multiple cases and display them to get the most out of this opportunity. Our idea seemed simple enough, “Buy 10 cases, get one free!” But no! That was illegal in Nevada! You can’t give away free alcohol in Nevada.

Gambling is legal, walking on the street with a drink in your hand is legal. Heck, prostitution is legal! But you can’t give away a free case of wine. – So, “How do they do it in Nevada?” we asked. Our distributor replied, “Well if that’s what you want to do, we usually give them eleven for the price of ten!” …Done! And it goes on like that throughout this amusing and informative chapter.

Superstars

At Barefoot Wines, there was so much new information coming in every day that the learning curve was getting steeper and steeper – it was like running into a wall. But what kept the company going was its ability to attract and keep incredible talent that invented their way out of the obstacles driven by the belief that there WAS a solution. Just keep asking and trying until you find it! THE ANSWER IS THERE!

Another Barefoot superstar was none other than Randy Arnold who understood that the wine business was won one customer at a time! He believed the days of mass marketing were over. He believed in micro-marketing. It’s hard to believe that in this 21st century, hyperconnected, social media world, there was ever a time when a wine bottle did not have an 800 number. So we decided to go for it!

The lawyers told us not to. They said we would increase our liability and get calls from inebriated patrons late at night. They were right and some of them were quite entertaining. But more importantly, we got feedback that gave us a real edge.

The Barefoot Guy

In one scene, one of our salespeople shows up at a customer’s door and introduces himself to an astonished consumer as the Sales Manager from Barefoot Wine. “I hear you got a bad bottle of Barefoot and I’m here to replace it and give you a tee-shirt!” Now, just imagine this kind of personalized attention in today’s so-called interconnected world!

In another scene, Randy Arnold returns an 800 number call to an on-going party in Chicago. The party-goers can’t believe it! A real person, the National Sales Manager, no less! He said how much he appreciated their calling to say that they were enjoying Barefoot Wine. With the loud party going on in the background, the person answering the phone yells, “Hey everybody! Be quiet! It’s the Barefoot Guy!” And that handle stuck with Randy thereafter!

So, to be successful in any business, ultimately “romance” has to take a back seat to innovation, hard work, hustle, and stellar customer service. No mystery there!

Please enjoy a “taste” of The Barefoot Spirit business audio theatre by being our guest to a free chapter!