The Parallels of Great Wine and Great Leadership

I recently had the great fortune of spending a few days touring the Napa Valley, home to more than 400 wineries in northern California. The wine industry in Napa employs more than 50,000 people. It is an industry that takes care of its clientele, its employees and its communities.

I visited wineries that ranged from very small productions where the tasting room was simply the owner’s small dining room to large growers who hosted private tastings in grandiose, soaring ceilinged tasting centers attached to miles of underground storage caves. In every case, there could not have been more attention to hosting and serving their customers.

I learned a few things about the wine-making process, starting with the agriculture, and it struck me that there are a lot of similarities between wine making and developing leaders:

Have great soil. The soil is the foundation of wine making. Without understanding what kind of soil the wine makers are planting their vines in, there will be no predictability in what the wine will taste like after the fermentation process. In business, you need a great foundation of the right culture and expectations in which to grow and develop leadership. If you don’t create the foundation deliberately, you will not have influence over how leaders work together to solve problems, innovate and develop their own teams.

Leverage good weather.  In wine making, the amount of rain, sun and temperatures have a huge impact on the crop. Too much of any of these components can be devastating. The right amount of all can produce award-winning vintages. Wine makers can’t control the weather, but business leaders can control what kind of leadership they bring into the organization.  You need the right combination of expertise, trust, empowerment, competitiveness, collaboration and drive present in your leadership teams to get successful outcomes.

Take care of the environment.  The wine industry is extremely concerned with preserving the environment. Natural pest control, limited or no chemical use, water recycling, composting and controlled planting are all part of the routine regimented processes that wineries utilize to preserve their land. As leaders of businesses, we should all be taking great care of our companies and communities by implementing strategies to reduce power needs, reduce waste and protect the environment, which will save costs in the long run.

Every great leader needs a winemaker. Every successful winery owner has a winemaker. There is a big difference between the skill that is required to run a winery and the skill that is needed to actually make the wine. It’s part science and part art. Its years of experience and learning through trial and error and relentless record keeping. It’s a math equation that will never end. It is never perfect and it is never finished. There is relentless pursuit of quality and perfection. If you think about your own business that same way, you will understand that you need wine-makers; people who know their craft and are determined to get it right. You have to have talented people in your business and give them space to leverage their expertise. You need to test, learn and repeat.

Have a good Blend. There are many fantastic wines that are blends of grapes, such as Cabernet, Zinfandel and Merlot.  To have the best leadership team, you need the same diversity. You need a blend of people with different backgrounds and experiences to create the best products and solutions for your customers. This includes gender as well as ethnic diversity.

Don’t be a Chardonnay. Chardonnay grapes have thinner peels than Cabernet or other red grapes. That reminded me that it’s probably not good to be a Chardonnay in business. As a leader, being thin-skinned won’t get you far. 

Be sure to have Hawks and Owls. Vineyards have sitting posts and owl boxes perched up high to attract hawks and owls. The hawks and owls keep away the rodents that eat their vines at the roots. We all need hawks and owls in our businesses to spot the trouble that will undermine our success. Leaders who are care takers of end-to-end processes are our hawks and owls.

An exceptional customer experience will sell swill.  That bottle of wine I paid $150 for in the wine tasting room won’t taste near as good when I open it as it did when I tasted it there. That’s because I was being entertained with stories of history and romance about the making of the wine I was drinking and the aroma of the tasting room. In the moment, it tasted amazing. But now, at home, not so much. And I’d buy it again tomorrow if I was back in that tasting room, because of the exceptional customer experience.

It’s a game of Survival of The Fittest.  In the wine business, the best wines are made with the best grapes. The best grapes must survive their challenging environment in athlete shape to be chosen for the best wines. After surviving critical pruning and harvesting, many of the best wineries use state of the art equipment to sort grapes and choose only the very best ones for their premium vintages.  If the grape is too small, too big, or is split, it’s not going to make it. Even a blemish will send a grape down the reject shoot. As a leader, you must choose and build your teams in the same way. You must strive to get the best talent, develop them and keep them as your best leaders. It’s the only way you will produce a premium product.

You won’t learn anything more about wine from me, but if you would like to learn more about how to choose and develop great leaders, please see Chapter 5 in my new book, Money On The Table, How To Increase Profits Through Gender-Balanced Leadership, available here.