I’ll Tell You My Dirty Little L.A. Secret
This post was originally published at Medium on August 22, 2015.
I might as well just spill the beans: I’ve started a winery. There, I’ve said it. I’m out of the closet, so to speak. It’s stupid, it’s crazy, it’s probably really reckless, but I can’t help it. I don’t even think this is a decision I've made consciously - I think I'm being pulled there entirely by my 'id'. But I can't stop it. Not now. I've only just started and already I feel like I'm too far-gone to change course. What is inevitable is that I'm doing this - what's not is that I'm going to succeed. That's where you come in. I need all the help I can get, so I'm sharing my story in the hopes that you'll share your wisdom - and we can keep this train on the tracks.
What happened? How did I get myself into this? All I can tell you is that one afternoon in 2011 my wife and I were riding our bikes through the North Fork of Long Island. You know how it is: you booze, you ride, you booze, you ride - and before you know it you're rolling along through the country side with the afternoon sun hitting your face (and wind in your hair, if you've got it), feeling like there is no place on earth more perfect than that. OK, picture that feeling. That's me. Then before we know it we're sitting in the Tasting Barn at Croteaux Vineyards when I - full of bliss - look at my wife and say... 'What am amazing idea...we should do this, right?'
What was it about their approach that felt so perfect? One word (and one accent aigu): rosé. We were already deep into our obsession with it when we realized that the circulating servers were carrying around flights of wine in various dazzling shades of salmon & pink. We hadn't even had a chance to taste anything and I was already hooked right through my boozy gills. For a guy like me who had , by that point, spent the better part of a decade in the innovation business - helping companies develop fresh new ideas - this seemed like such an obvious one: a rosé-only winery. But while I'd found a captivating idea, it took 4 years for me to find my way back to it.
That's where L.A. comes in. Since that bike ride four some-odd years ago, we've moved to this great city. We came for my wife's job (TV Writer), but quickly fell in love with all the things everyone else falls in love with when they move here: the weather, the lifestyle, the drought...maybe not that last one. AND we're less than a two-hour drive from one of the best wine regions in the world: the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo AVA's. This is where it all started coming together. We would drive up and spend the weekend drinking wine, talking about how 'someday' we were going to get our own land and make this dream of ours a reality. We just needed to bide our time and save our money. Then I lost my job - but that's another story.
There was one other pressing factor on the horizon: my impending 40th birthday - and by impending I mean I had just turned 39. I was itching, I was restless, I couldn't focus on work, it just felt like there was something wrong inside me. It wasn't my relationship (my wife rocks), it wasn't money (we were doing fine), it was just this general sense that whatever I was doing just wasn't 'right'. That's the only way I can explain it - I just had a sense of being stuck at only 80% happy. This feeling had been chasing me a long time, but with death staring me in the face (OK, from 40 years into the future), I knew I couldn't ignore it anymore. The only way to fix it, as I saw it, was to start working on my own ideas. So I immediately set about chasing down the closest idea I had - and it absolutely wasn't a winery. Don't ask...
"There was just one problem...not only had I never run a winery, or for that matter run my own business - I hadn't even made a single drop of my own wine."
Needless to say, after 6 months I realized this new idea wasn't the one. Something still wasn't right. For all of the time I'd spent thinking about wine, it took me a remarkably long time to figure out what to do next. Then came that forehead slapping moment: just go and start this bloody winery, you idiot. There was just one problem...not only had I never run a winery, or for that matter run my own business - I hadn't even made a single drop of my own wine. Ah, right, just that.
There have been several thousand articles written on the traits of a successful American entrepreneur. We're pretty obsessed with it as a culture. But let's just say that, after all the Type-A, Early Rising, Be-A-Doer-Not-Thinker bulls**t is said and done, the basics are this: most start in their 40's, typically in a field they have deep experience with. They take their knowledge and their network, perhaps poaching a couple of clients from their current boss, and go off and do the same job they've been doing, but this time as their own boss. Fairly simple and easy to replicate.
But that's not how things look in my case. Besides being 40, and that I've cooked up successful brands and products for other companies - I have little (read: no) experience in the wine industry. I was a waiter for a decade, which isn't nothing, but recommending wines and making wines are NOT the same thing. Outside of Silicon Valley, where you're actually not expected to know about the business you're getting into, very few people choose this path - mostly because it's incredibly hard, risky, and the failure rates hover at around 90%. I'm just such a bloody romantic that I kind of don't care - and for the first time it feels like I'm doing totally satisfying work.
So here we are present day. I've actually made some decent inroads: I've got a brand and a product strategy; an R&D strategy; a nascent business-strategy (this is where, in truth I have the biggest capability gaps): a digital strategy; I've even made my fist batch of wine and started transforming the garage into a wine-making facility. All of this will be the topic of future posts, but for now here's what we're building: an LA-based urban winery - dedicated to the art of rosé. That's it - hopefully simple and easy to understand. The reasons why came from a few simple insights we've had along the way:
- We love discovering new wines, but the whole wine-country scene isn't entirely our bag. We know there are more people like us: looking for something more urbane, less genteel, and a heck of a lot easier to get to.
- L.A is going through real urban renewal. From the west side to downtown, there are new pockets of cool popping up all over the place and we want to be a part of it.
- Rosé is under-appreciated, but there are significant market indictors that times are changing, with people all over the country bringing more pink wine into their lives.
- Urban wineries are popping up in several cities throughout the US - San Francisco is a great example of a thriving community. We think it makes a ton of sense - bring the winery to the market, not the other way around.
- Access to supply. We don't need a vineyard, the state is full of amazing ones - and many are less than two hours away. For now, we can focus on the winemaking and leave the viticulture to the real pros. One less thing to worry about.
Which brings me to this blog. I have a basic understanding of the importance of content marketing as a brand building tool, so this feels like the right place to start. As frequently as I can I'll be posting new articles on every aspect of this new venture, including marketing and branding, licensing, winemaking, sales, other aspects I'm forgetting... My hope is that we can learn from each other. My aim is to be radically transparent and share everything I can in the hope that it a) helps or entertains you and b) helps grow fans, advocates and ultimately customers for me. I've no idea how long it's going to take to stand the business up, but to be sure this is just the beginning of what's shaking up to be a hell of a ride. Please come back if you think watching me fall on my face a bunch will make you laugh - or if helping me succeed might make you cry tears of pure joy. My dirty little secret is out now - time to shine some light on it.