By Dennis Carroll, Head Hooligan
Whatever business I have been involved with, and God (and my long suffering wife) knows there have been many…CPA, woman’s apparel, consumer electronics, haircuts, candles, wine….all the successful ones had one thing in common. Each had a unique business proposition and a strategy. They offered something new or a new entree to the marketplace.
This is a daunting task in the wine industry. Last time I checked, it’s hard to invent anything like an iPhone for a product that has been around about 8,000 years. At its core the wine industry consists of growing grapes, picking grapes, fermenting juice, making wine, bottling wine, selling wine. Sounds easy. Believe me, it’s NOT!
There are hundreds of variations on how to achieve those basic steps, get wine in the bottle and sell it in the United States (a future Rant regarding our arcane regulatory system is coming).
As complex as making wine can be, it is all within one’s control. The toughest part of the cycle is the last part….selling the wine. The largest wine companies in the world, with all the financial and marketing resources one could ever hope for, have developed and launched brands that have fallen flat on their faces, ultimately ending up in the dreaded “discount shopping cart” at some grocery store by the checkout stand in a remote part of the country. Nothing will kill your soul faster than seeing your brand in that “shopping cart”. I know. I have had a few in that shopping cart at prior companies. It’s like seeing one of your children being thrown on the scrap heap of life.
I have found it almost impossible to find “the” reason why some brands find success and others end up in the “shopping cart”. I “think” it’s a combination of wine quality/price, label, distribution channel management, varietal/category growth, ability to develop a reliable supply chain, etc.
But, before you can even get out of the starting gate, your wine and company has to have a unique sales proposition that resonates with the great triad of distributors, trade and consumers. It can be a compelling narrative, a unique vineyard, top quality, etc.
No matter what it is, it has to be authentic, and you have to be 100% committed to your sales proposition. Just being committed does not mean it will work. You could just be an idiot and have a bad idea. Yes Virginia, there are bad ideas. Not everyone gets a medal. However, without 100% commitment, you are DOA with distributors. Just like bloodhounds, they can smell anything less than a full and total commitment. Your brands will never get attention from the sales reps and “the shopping cart” will haunt you. I have nightmares about being buried in a wire shopping cart with a hand written sign attached that reads, “$1.99 a bottle, take your pick”.
My first soul searching moment in starting Wine Hooligans came when I asked myself, “could I bring together a group of brands that provided an interesting sales proposition”. The real question was, “is there a reason for Hooligans to exist?”. Walk the aisles of a wine shop, grocery store or specialty beverage store and you will quickly see how scary it is to answer that question honestly. If you have ever started, or want to start a company, you quickly learn that you can simultaneously convince yourself of anything and doubt every decision you make. The bottom line is once you decide on the strategy, you have to be able to convince others it will work without much data to prove it will work. I call this the “believe me” period of starting any company. Believe me the strategy is solid, believe me the economics work, believe me I can pull together a team to manage this concept.
Through soul searching, research, observation and consultation with people I respect in and out of the industry, I was able to vet my basic premise for all brands….”Winemakers Matter”. Most people would agree that winemakers matter. Most wine companies like to keep them anonymous. It became clear to me in my “soul searching” phase that wines below $20, were essentially made by someone who had no real attachment to the brand. That raised a simple question….how can you have Artisan Brands without Artists? How can you have authenticity, if you don’t know who makes the wine?
“Winemakers Matter” has driven every decision I have made in building Wine Hooligans. Every brand we have acquired has retained the original winemakers, with their names on the label. Far more than having their names on a label, they are responsible for the quality we put in the bottle and the art associated with creating the products. Our winemakers are part of the regions where the wines come from and part of the wine community in those regions.
Here is a little secret about most wine companies that are not owned by winemakers...they really don’t like winemakers. When I got into the business, I had no sense about where winemakers sat in the pecking order of a wine company. It seemed odd to me that they weren’t treated like artists who had special skills that most people don’t possess. But, what did I know? I was just a finance guy with no industry background. I fell into the same trap that most wine companies do…I looked at winemakers like assembly line workers. Talented yes, but assembly line workers nonetheless.
Proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks, I now understand winemakers are at their core artists. Artists can truly be a pain in the ass for any business guy to deal with. I accept the reality of working with artists and making them a cornerstone of the company. When Wine Hooligans brings Artisan Wine Brands to the market through Creation and Reinvention those are not just tag lines without substance. They are the reason “we believe” our brands will stand out in quality, taste profile for the region and value to the consumer.
Winemakers come in many different varieties. Our Hooligan winemakers cover most of the spectrum of the California wine making world:
- Bob Goyette has been making wine in California since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Just kidding. Bob has only been at it in Sonoma County for 50 years! He was making wine in California before people knew there were varietals. He is responsible for the Stephen Vincent brand which he started with his partner, Stephen Vincent Situm. Together, they bring our average age of the company to about 85 years old. The epitome of old hands in the business. Also, I needed someone to make me feel young in the company.
- Adam LaZarre is the consummate winemaker utility player. Adam was the Director of Winemaking for Hahn Family Wines and the original father of the Cycles Gladiator wines ten years ago. He makes his own high end LaZarre Wines with his wife Angie in the beautiful Paso Robles area. Adam knows the wine making “game” better than anyone I have ever met. It would not have been feasible to acquire Cycles Gladiator without him.
- Brian and Stephy Terrizzi are the founders and winemaking/viticulturist husband and wife team behind Broadside, a Paso Robles based brand they created ten years ago. When you think of salt of the earth people that is Brian and Stephy. They have joined Hooligans in hopes that we can collectively bring this very unique brand to national prominence. We are going to do that…or die trying!
- Christian Tietje is my hipster winemaker and creator of our 3 Ball Zinfandel and Sea Monster labels. Christian has been a pioneer in the Zin, Unoaked Chardonnay and Rhone blend world with his former Four Vines Brand and his current Cypher items. He surfs, does yoga and shaves his head…basically he is the polar opposite of me.
Successful companies need tension. They need creative people who are consumed with their art. Companies also need business balance and dare I say it………profitability. My job is to keep the show rolling down the road and get to the promised land of successful brands and financial success without everyone going insane or killing each other. I will tackle the Middle East issues after Hooligans is on its way. Hell, what did you expect when I put “Passionate Disruption” on the business cards?
A year ago when we started shipping products with our full complement of winemakers, I could not have told you my strategic vision was going to work. I was 100% committed and 100% unsure if I was right. One year later, I know I was right. All of the brands have received major publication scores, competition results and press coverage that confirm my strategic vision….”Winemakers Matter”. Hopefully one day we will go the “Winemakers Matter” tour around the country and I can become an invisible business guy again. Or, if we don’t make it, I will know I was an idiot who was 100% committed no matter what.... Somehow, I think we will make it.
ike Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going…”. Not sure I have a choice.