An Intoxicating Recipe for Business Success

I’ll never forget the first time I visited Healdsburg, the gem of California’s Sonoma County wine country. We were shooting pool in a bar off the quaint little town square and got to talking to another couple.

They had both recently quit their corporate jobs and jumped into the wine trade. They said they’d never go back to their old lives and I could see why. The wine business is intoxicating in more ways than one, which is why it attracts so many retirees, investors and entrepreneurs from other industries.

If you have a passion for it, you can’t beat the combination of a beautiful setting of rolling hills with rows of grape vines as far as the eye can see and a growing industry that’s relatively laid back compared to the brutally competitive corporate world.

While the San Francisco Bay Area is literally surrounded by wine country, wineries have popped up in nearly every state of the union. In fact, the U.S. is now the world’s largest wine-consuming nation and the fourth largest producer behind Italy, France and Spain.

During one of our many wine country trips over the decades, my wife and I visited a relatively new family-owned winery in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley named Unti. After a nearly 40-year career with Safeway, George Unti returned to his family’s farming roots and cofounded the winery with his wife Linda and son Mick.

We tasted wine in Unti’s no-frills barrel warehouse while George regaled us with tales from trips to Europe’s old-world wine country. That’s what led to the Unti’s fascination with French Rhone and Italian varietals like Syrah, Grenache, Barbera and Sangiovese -- somewhat unusual for California, at least at the time.

When Linda arrived I was surprised to learn that we had both held the same job as vice president of communications for National Semiconductor, albeit a decade apart. She went on to run communications for Visa and had retired a few years before. I had recently quit the corporate grind myself after a couple of startup gigs.

More than a decade later, we stopped by their newly completed tasting room among the 35-acre estate and this time got to know George’s gregarious son, Mick, who runs all vineyard operations. We were supposed to be tasting wine, but the conversation took an interesting turn and I was so impressed by Mick’s business savvy I wanted to share some surprising insights that apply to companies big and small.

Focus … once you figure out what to focus on. Sonoma Valley has hundreds of quality wineries but few that focus on Italian and Rhone varietals. Finding that rare combination of a market niche where they could be the best took a lot of experimentation and at least one gutsy pivot, but that’s what it takes to find that unique value proposition that sets successful businesses and companies apart.

Product and customer are two sides of the same coin. Some say the customer is king while others say your product is your brand, but few recognize they’re two sides of the same coin. A killer product that customers don’t want or need is worthless. Likewise, if customers want it but you can’t make it great, it’ll just diminish your brand.

Sometimes you only need a focus group of one ... or two. George and Mick are both voracious consumers of wine. They know which varietals and characteristics they like. And they trust their own little focus group to determine what to make and how to make it. Funny, Apple designs products the same way, by asking, “What product and features would we want to use?” No big focus groups in Cupertino … or Dry Creek.

A common vision is critical. I’ve seen companies big and small pulled apart by leaders and management teams that were divisive, indecisive or just couldn’t agree on where to take the company. Mick pointed out how rare it is for small business partners to share the same views on the product and the business, but big-company CEOs often underestimate the importance of a common vision, as well.

Passion isn’t just a word or a fad. Everyone talks about having passion for your work, these days. The word has become so overused it’s nearly worthless and that’s unfortunate. When immersing yourself in developing your product or growing your business 24x7 makes you happy, that’s passion. When you live, eat and breathe it, that’s passion.

Not everyone has to have that passion for what they do, but then, that’s exactly why not everyone should own a winery, start their own business or be a CEO.