If you travel around the U.S. enough, everything starts to look the same: same stores, restaurants and hotels. Same everything. You could call it the McDonalds/Starbucks effect. Sure, it can be comforting to have a familiar store to shop at while traveling, but my travels afford me a bit of a different perspective.
When I visit cities and markets around the country selling wine and telling people about our brands, I tend to spend more time talking to people in the city than most would on a “normal” business trip. I typically hang out at stores and restaurants, meeting with distributors and other local folks in the market.
If you are lucky enough to travel in this manner, you begin to realize that as much as it appears on the surface that we are one big homogenous strip mall of a country, the U.S. is still a vast melting pot of people, culture, geography, religion, politics, sports and so much more. To put it bluntly: not everyone cares about college football. Nor does everyone care about how “buttery” a chardonnay is. I am always struck by the intensity of some of these differences from one region to another. **Cue example music*
1. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I never developed much of a passion for college football. Excluding the occasional diehard Cal Berkeley or Stanford alum, it’s not that big a deal in this part of the country. Pro sports have always been our choice. Given that background, it’s always a shock to my system when I go to other parts of the country and experience the intensity of the area’s relationship to their college football team… especially in the South! I could give you hundreds of examples I have seen over the last 15 years, but one of the most recent was last year on a drive from Atlanta, GA to Birmingham, AL where I listened to a sports talk radio program for a couple of hours. People were calling in, complaining about how the Alabama 4’th string defensive back looked bad in spring practice! Wow, that is intensity! I barely knew the name of the kid at Stanford who was second in the Heisman voting this year, Christian McCaffrey. Weird thing is I remember when his dad, NFL player Ed McCaffrey broke his leg on Monday Night Football on Sept 10, 2001, the night before the 9/11 attack. I am usually an attentive sports fan, but college sports just never held my interest.
2. No matter how many times I go back East, I am always struck by how much “older” the region is compared to the West. When looking at their older buildings, older family trees, older colleges, the West seems to be “novel”. I guess that makes sense given the fact most of the states have only been around a little more than 150 years and didn’t become highly populated until after World War II. It’s the land of possibility. Silicon Valley didn’t happen by accident! You have to be somewhat detached from reality to birth an industry that changes the way people actually interact with each other. Since the West is basically a newly invented place, the people seem a little more superficial compared to the East coast. You always know where you stand with East coasters. They will let you know… they will demand to tell you. People in the West are less direct. Both have their pluses and minuses as you deal with people from all across the country.
3. Inquiring wines want to know: Why do people in the Midwest call soft drinks, “pop”? Why is tea sweet in the South?
4. California has earthquakes and Missouri has tornadoes. People from both states don’t know why the other would live with that risk.
There are countless other examples of the differences in the country, but I think you get my drift. More than anything, economic efficiency makes the country look the same. Size and consistency make for bigger profits. Without both those elements, the ability to build in efficiencies to deliver goods and services at the lowest prices possible is severely limited. Do you think it’s an accident that you can stand on a corner in Manhattan and see Starbucks from every vantage point?
We may long for the individual-owned single coffee shop, but it can’t deliver a product with the level of consistency and price point that Starbucks can. Starbucks essentially created the espresso/coffee retail category in the United States. People had tried before them, but nobody got it right like Starbucks (sorry Peet’s). You can now order and pay for your Starbucks drink from your iPhone app, drive five minutes and pick it up without speaking to a human. On one level, that’s cool. On another level, Starbucks just made buying coffee across the country even more homogenous. I didn’t think that was possible.
As much as we love the price and consistency, we yearn for the unique and the cool. The cool coffee shop, the unique wine, and the offbeat clothing store - they’re still out there. I love the differences in every part of the country. How boring would it be if everything was the same?
However, I have to be honest. In the wine business you have to grow in order to have a successful company. I can’t afford to make wines that are specific to certain markets. I will never be Starbucks, but I try to develop different taste profiles in our brands with our talented winemakers and production people that are affordable, scalable and deliver great value to as many people as possible. I hope we can remain as cool and around as long as we can, all while being profitable. I don’t want to be a strip mall, but I don’t want to be homeless either… what a great country!