It was a beautiful summer day in Burlington, Vermont. My sister Merry and I were pouring wine for Belvedere Winery (which no longer exists). At the time, I was Belvedere’s director of communications and a district sales manager, representing about seven states.
My sales areas included Northern California, Minnesota, and Puerto Rico… just mentioning a few to demonstrate how I was all over the place… But my sales successes weren’t, they were solid. My marketing director/colleague/friend Corinne Reichel and I took the winery – which was seriously running in the red – into the black in three short years time.
Somewhere along the way at the wine and food festival, we met Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, the owners of Barefoot Cellars (at the time). I had seen the couple at many other events, but this time we finally connected. Merry and I invited them to have dinner with us, which was a blast. Then, they invited us to go with them to the movies … another great time. From that point forward, we all kept in touch. When my boss at Belvedere shifted gears to another staff, I got a call from Michael. He asked me if I’d like to do sales for Barefoot Cellars. This job would be for Northern California, only, which would mean that the travel would be very limited as compared to being used to 65,000+ miles a year around the US. Also, Michael and Bonnie were the ones to represent their winery at all the national wine festivals. I knew that this wasn’t going to happen any more… at least for the time being, so I had to mentally adjust to that, because I’ve always loved the long distance travel aspects of any job I’ve had. Also, I was really itching to follow my real passion – PR.
I took the job, regardless of my concerns. I didn’t take me long to know that I really needed to follow my PR heart, and local sales was just too limiting for someone who loves travel as much as I do.
However, in the short time I worked for Barefoot, I learned an inordinate amount of marketing concepts, because I was working for a master strategist. Michael Houlihan’s thinking far surpassed anyone else’s that I had worked for in the wine business up to that point in time. (And, I’ve only met a few more people with his business acumen, since those early years.)
Remember, the wine industry is born on the backs of farmers. Most farmers grow it, nurture it, harvest it, and sell it to a commodity buyer, many of whom are already in line to buy their crops. If they take courses to better their business, most of them are in the business of growing, missing the marketing classes. This is not a judgment call, it’s just an observation. As I took my sales and marketing classes, along with vit and enology, I never had a farmer/grower in any of those classes, along with 20 years of working with most small wine grape growers.
Their sales efforts are mostly geared toward connecting with the wine buyer at a winery, and building a personal relationship. It doesn’t involved slick advertising. It’s pretty straight forward. The farmer wants as much as possible for the price of his grapes, and the buyer wants to pay as little as possible. They work it out in that business-2-business world. The negotiating audience is small, as opposed to selling their products to consumers.
I do realize that selling grapes is very challenging; I’m not making light of what has to happen. I’ve watched the machinations that happen, while working with the Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association members.
The challenges of selling to consumers is many layers deeper, with a lot of research, development, and psychology thrown in for good measure, that selling grapes doesn’t have to involve.
My time at Barefoot had me working with masters in business-2-consumer development. Their philosophies, attitudes, and ideas that are necessary to pull off success are still with me. Michael and Bonnie spent the last three years co-authoring a book about the experiences of starting the largest brand in the country, entitled The Barefoot Spirit.
To their credit, Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey also put great people into place and treated them like family… So much so that when they sold Barefoot Cellars to Gallo, they rewarded those who had worked for them over the years, and those (really cool) employees traveled with the brand to this day:
- Winemaker Jennifer Wall, the heart of making good, affordable wines, still has her job
- National sales manager Randy Arnold, the soul of the brand within the business-2-business community, still has his job
So, what was it about their marketing strategies that made them so successful? They’ve spelled it out very succinctly in The Barefoot Spirit, and I’ll share this much with you… It’s everything the wine industry doesn’t do… It didn’t embrace pretentious ideologies or advertising, it was down home friendly. It was all about fun and wine being a part of an easy lifestyle… It spoke to the inner fun-loving person in all of us, making light of wine in its beachy, barefoot theme… and was way ahead of labels being cutesie, applying a non-vintage to the bottles, and appealing to a younger demographic.
Behind the scenes, the owners were barracudas, demanding sales reports from their wholesalers and wanting to know why the wholesalers weren’t living up to projections. Most producers feel that they’re held hostage to their wholesale partners… Not these guys. If you didn’t meet projections, Barefoot Cellars just moved on. I can’t blame them and applauded them, both then and now, having worked that side of the wine business. Promises are made to be kept, regardless of the business one’s in. Not meeting projections in distribution means that someone’s fallen down on the job, because whomever’s in charge really doesn’t care. So, moving on shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Explaining that Barefoot was all about…
All without advertising and almost no funding, this brand was an utter success in the personnel, cash flow, and distribution management business. They built a very successful wine brand, with only sales and sales support, along with a distribution network and managing that network well. As Michael say, “If it ain’t there, you can’t buy it.” They stumbled upon what they coined “worthy cause marketing.” Their interests outside of the wine business also play into their success with wine, by working with non-profits. As the saying goes, you’ve got to first give to get…. Give they did, and “the getting” made them very successful at the game of branding. It’s a great playbook worthy of your time, if a little guidance is needed for your future success…
Michael Houlihan at OSU Entrepreneurial MBA Program