10 Years of Lessons Learned in The Wine Business
As we wrap up our first decade as wine business owners, I've been thinking quite a lot about the lessons I've learned over the years. What would I distill and pass along from our first 10? In that spirit, here is a (slightly salty) musing -- the top 10 things I’ve learned from a decade of running our own wine business. This could also be entitled: "The best advice I could give someone starting their own brand."
1) Get a good lawyer. Get an even better accountant. Love your label designer. Adore your customers. Know many others will just be there to blow smoke up your … or sell you something.
2) You’ll probably get a little fat. Because wine is not calorie-free, and either is all the amazing food – and amazing friends who cook – that come along with it. But it's okay; you're in good company.
3) You will wear three to 10 hats each and every day. Being in the wine business for yourself requires at least some knowledge of many things, from botany to meteorology, to chemistry, to accounting, to finance, to customer service, to food service… I could go on. If you enjoy never quite knowing what you’ll be up to each and every day, this may be the job for you.
4) Drink less of your own wine and more of others. Too many winery owners only drink their own product. Because, well, it’s there, and you can justify it because it’s your product, and because you like it (let’s hope). But understanding what others are doing is paramount. Tastes change, styles change, and “cellar palate” – where only your own wine tastes right – is a real thing.
5) Don’t. Ever. Stop. Running your own business is pushing the rock up the hill. Especially in the beginning. But just because there are little plateaus that get easier, and because you keep getting stronger and more adept at pushing, it doesn’t mean there’s ever a time you should let go. Because that rock will, eventually, roll back downhill. Owning your own business is deeply rewarding, but you have to push every day, until you sell or quit. The thing I’ve heard the most, from all the entrepreneurs in all the various businesses I’ve talked to over the years: you get out what you put in. When you stop is when the trouble starts, so be relentless instead.
6) Do not underestimate the amount of time you’ll spend doing paperwork. The wine business is romantic, yes, glitzy, sometimes, down-and-dirty, often, but it’s also one of the most highly regulated industries in the United States. Your county, your state and your federal government all want their piece and those records that go along with it. And so will all the other states where your product finds a home. And then there’s inventory, payroll, bills, label approvals, supply ordering, and on and on.
7) Know that tax law is not on your side as a wine business. Wineries are generally required to use the accrual method of accounting. This means that, even though you incur the costs of manufacturing your product as they happen, you can’t write those costs off until you sell the product – often a year or more down the road.
8) Schedule your time off. Bake it into the cake, as my husband says. Because if you follow #5 and never stop pushing, you’ll be hard-pressed to take it. But also know that you’ll only take half of that scheduled time off, because you like what you do, and you've got shit to do, you know?!
9) Make your business profitable. Because vanity or lifestyle wine businesses don’t work unless you have multiple, multiple zeros in your (or your family’s) bank account. And even if you have a lot of zeros, you’ll only want to lose money for so long. My best advice, for what it’s worth: work a side job, build reasonably, get into DIY in a semi-masochistic way, and build a business for the long term. Because it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to buy someone else’s wine than to make your own just for kicks.
10) You will lead a very rewarding life. Crafting a product that people will enjoy, appreciate, wax on about, share with friends, and use to console themselves, is pretty awesome. There’s an inherent satisfaction in being behind a well-made product. This business will also keep you grounded: close to the earth, close to the weather, close to what you can see, smell, taste and explain. Close to your senses, and to family, and to all these amazing parts of life. This is what makes #1-9 worth it. Because THAT taste of THAT wine from THAT vintage causes amnesia in the best way, much like the amnesia that happens after you have a child. The hardships of the first years just slip away, among all the precious moments, like the trials of each harvest fade, and you jump back in again the next fall. Having children and making wine seem to be the same sort of happy insanity.
Happy New Year! Here's to an amazing 2017!