By Dennis Carroll, Head Hooligan
I always associated 20/20 vision with cool things; fighter pilots, great baseball players, people who saw situations clearly through the noise. Now when I hear 2020, I think of a year that seemed to never end, which brought more suffering, death, economic collapse, political unrest, climate change issues, racial awareness and societal change in 12 months than I have experienced in my 62 years. The effects of 2020 will, as they say in the insurance business, have a very long tail. We will most likely be living with 2020 for the rest of our lives.
I don’t think the generations alive today are unique in regard to an event putting a lifetime imprint on the people who lived through it. With 24/7 news and internet connectivity, we become caught up in the moment and lose perspective on what others have endured. However, just as my parents were forever changed by the Great Depression and WWII, all of us have been forever changed by 2020. I always felt a profound sense of pride whenever my father talked about being a dirt poor kid in Missouri during the Depression. He was one of thirteen siblings. His parents could not afford to feed all the children. My dad and one of his brothers were “given” to a farmer in an act of survival. I was proud he survived, fought in WWII, survived again, and moved to California when he came back from the war. Those events left an imprint on him and my mother for the rest of their lives.
One of my favorite quotes is, “money doesn’t change you, it reveals you.” Not sure who attribute it to, but I always thought it had great meaning beyond the context of money and wealth. Covid-19 has revealed many things about us as people and how we live our lives.
I am not qualified, or smart enough to comment on the impact the pandemic has, and will have on the world, but I thought I would give everyone a brief recap on how 2020 affected Wine Hooligans.
Beginning of a new decade! The company I founded in 2014 is finding its way. As all start-ups do, we faced our tough moments through the years and have survived. The organization has been fortified with better and better people, who will fuel the growth for the next decade.
A trip is made to Paso Robles by myself and members of our sales and marketing teams to decide on a venue to host a national restaurant chain managers event at the end of March. This is a major step for Wine Hooligans. A coming out party of sorts. We decide on the venue and toast the upcoming event on the rooftop of the venue. We leave Paso Robles with a sense that the 2020s are going to be a very good decade for the Hooligans.
On a personal note, I receive horrible news on January 13 that my brother-in-law, who has been in my life for over 40 years, has suffered a cycling accident in LA and is in a coma. After rushing to LA and seeing him in the ICU, I’m not sure he is going to live. He is one of the world’s greatest bass players, beloved across the world. In the blink of an eye, 2020 doesn’t seem so rosy.
Our team really starts to settle in. Business is clicking along on plan and we are having our National Sales Meeting in Santa Rosa with our new team on February 25-27. I am really excited about getting everyone together from across the country. It will be the first time I meet several of them in person. The meeting is a success, with old and new Hooligans meeting each other and meshing well together. I am excited and energized that this group will navigate the Hooligan ship to new levels. Little do I know that is the last travel that the sales team will do for the rest of the year.
There is one thing that begins to cast a black cloud on the horizon. This “new” virus is starting to get a lot of attention in the news. My wife starts telling me terrifying stories about the virus she is reading in the non-US press. I think about it, but there are lots of terrifying things in this world and the US has always been able to control the effect of viruses. Well, except for that long ago 1918 flu epidemic I read about somewhere. In any event, we have drugs for that now.
More and more bad news regarding the virus, but it’s mostly in Europe, not the US. There are only a handful of cases and virtually no deaths in the beginning of the month. We are beginning to hear about social distancing and washing your hands. Business continues to click along, and the government said everything was under control.
My wife and I drove down to LA to see my aforementioned brother-in-law on March 9. He had been moved from the ICU to a rehab facility in LA. Things were already changing fast. I was nervous about staying in a hotel. This is ironic, considering I have spent the vast majority of the last 20 years in hotel rooms on the road. Before leaving LA, we had dinner with my sister-in-law (a warrior who kept my brother-in-law alive) on March 11. During the dinner, I looked at my phone and saw that the NBA season had been put on hold. I knew at that moment the world had changed. Call me a simpleton, but I knew if the NBA was shutting down it was going to be bad.
The next week our Hooligan world changed forever. First San Francisco went on lock down and then the entire state. There were no clear cut guidelines on what could stay open and what had to shut down. I did not know if we could continue cellar and bottling operations at the winery or ship product from the warehouse. Most of all, I didn’t know what we should be doing to protect our employees. There is no amount of money that would make me put people’s lives at risk to stay in business.
Thankfully, the governor designated winemaking and shipping an “essential” business. We were grateful then, and we are grateful now that we are considered essential workers. We developed cleaning, social distancing and masking protocols for the production team.
However, that status did not extend to non-production employees, and our sales, marketing, accounting and HR teams had to work remotely. We had never run the business remotely. We immediately came up with a game plan on how we would manage the company through this “short term” period using Microsoft Teams. We had moved to this Microsoft platform at the beginning of the year. I used a few times at the winery as a lark, not a tool. Little did I know it would be the only way I would communicate with my team for the next year.
Business had not been significantly affected at this point. The worst was yet to come.
BOOM! Cases exploding in NYC, deaths exploding to over 2,000 a day. No Federal government leadership on anything. It appears to be the Hunger Games with governors from impacted states trying to do deals with anyone for PPE and respirators. Did anyone even know what PPE and respirators were before this? In California and across the country, panic sets in and the hoarding starts. Restaurants shut down. Cities are shut down.
On premise business of course disappears for our business. Off premise starts to boom, but because we are in the beginning brand building stage for most of the products we are heavily on premise, and the off premise gains don’t offset all of the loss.
The silver lining……we produce product for the direct marketing wine club channel, and that was on fire! People did not want to leave their homes, but they did want to drink wine!
We were also able to secure PPP funds from the federal government to insure that we could keep people employed. Again, I am thankful and grateful we qualified for the $. We have not had to reduce our staff during 2020 and PPP was a big part of that.
Weird fact – I didn’t put gas in my car for 6 weeks in March – April.
May – September 2020
The weather is improving across the country and maybe we have seen the worst of the virus. There are conflicting views regarding a surge in the fall, but frankly I’m just thankful we have not had an outbreak at the winery. Business continues, but it’s vastly different. Most distributors don’t want anyone coming to their offices, brand kickoffs are done via Zoom, trade accounts that will take meetings are few and far between and travel is virtually non-existent among the sales group.
It is clear to me during this period that the way business is going to be conducted in the wine world is most likely changed forever. As we all become more comfortable with video conferencing, we see the power of not traveling. Not only from an expense standpoint, but wear and tear on bodies and minds. I don’t know what the new normal will be, but we won’t go back to doing business the old way. Video and other virtual software will make the experience better and better. Offices will most likely shrink as people will work more and more from home. The office concept won’t go away, but physical meetings will need to become meaningful interactions, just as travel will need to be meaningful.
October was a nice break from thinking about the virus. Why, you ask? Well, almost the entire west coast was on FIRE! Yes, it wasn’t bad enough that we had to deal with a once in a lifetime pandemic, we got to deal with the worst forest fires in the history of California and Oregon. At least we have had lots of practice with forest fires, unlike pandemics. There were times in October that we were not quite sure if we would have much wine out of the 2020 harvest. This was especially true in Oregon where they don’t have our experience in California with wild fires (they must do a better job at sweeping the forest floors). Through a combination of providence and over-the-top commitment by our production team, we got every cluster of fruit and every drop of wine we were contracted for, without any degradation in quality. It was an effort that you never forget, and I thank them all.
As we ended October, virus cases started to surge again. It was clear looking at the data we were going to see death numbers rise in November, with Thanksgiving right around the corner.
We also were at the end of one of the most brutal and divisive presidential election cycles in the country’s history. No matter what side of the political fence you are on, this level of vitriol is not good for anyone’s business. I did not think it was going to be a great holiday period.
Depressing month. The fall surge is here. Virus out of control, cases and deaths rising. Election results contested in numerous lawsuits. The country seems to be coming apart at the seams. Public health officials plead for people to not gather for Thanksgiving. Many do, setting up another rise in cases and deaths in December.
We are fighting the good fight at the winery, but a few cases are detected in the cellar and we move to shut down the facility a few days early in the Thanksgiving week out of an abundance of caution. We institute a private testing group to come in each week as an additional precaution. No new cases are detected post-Thanksgiving. We are grateful.
Business continues to trend the same as the rest of the year, with off premise strong, on premise down and direct marketing raging.
All of us are sad we will have a very different Thanksgiving than ever before. No friends, little family, but much to be thankful for in this never ending year of problems.
Here come the deaths. In what seems to be an unending increase to 2,500 people a day dying from the virus, we are told not to get together with our families for Christmas. It’s hard. Most of us have been in some form of isolation for 9 months now. We want to see, feel, hear family and friends again. Some give into the temptation and get together, even though they know it’s not the right thing to do. The death toll will rise in January. It’s inevitable.
My brother-in-law is recovering at an incredible rate. He struggles with some speech and a damaged left side, but for a guy that I didn’t think was going to make it out of ICU, he is a miracle. Most of the family have been unable to visit him due to the virus since March. The only way we could interact on Christmas was via Zoom. He wept. He woke up in a world from that coma that had changed without him being aware. We wept for him. We had no right to feel sorry for ourselves.
HOPE!! Vaccines are here and approved! We have a path out of this dystopic hell we have been in for almost a year. It won’t be easy from a logistical standpoint, but the fact that we have hope is somehow liberating.
Our business finished strong and we also have hope at Hooligans for the future.
The year, the pandemic, the resulting economic impact, the social unrest, and the real life consequences of climate change all left an imprint on me, Wine Hooligans and I believe every tier of our wine industry. Through it all, I think we got smarter, more aware, more compassionate and very much humbled. Humbled that we cannot take our lives or our way of life for granted. We cannot be bystanders.
I hope I will be able to see my grandkids without a mask. I hope I can go to the grocery store and not freak out if someone bumps into me. I hope I can go to a restaurant and order a Wine Hooligan offering off the list. We all have a common imprint on our lives. It didn’t affect everyone equally, but it did affect everyone. Let’s build on that. I also hope that if I write one of these recaps for 2021 that January 6, 2021 will be the darkest day and it got lighter after that.