I like barbecue season, and I am pretty good at the grill. I also worked for a leading company in the wine business for 10 years, and it's always barbecue season there. I don't mean this as a criticism -- it's a great company. But if you are going to rise in those ranks, you had better be able to give quick, intelligent and insightful answers to a battery of questions on a moment's notice.
Having been trained at a big company and enjoying another 11 years of experience at Turrentine Brokerage dealing with all kinds of clients in all kinds of markets, I kind of like to be grilled.
That's exactly what one new client did recently. He is a heavy-hitter in the financial markets and he has purchased a beautiful vineyard site and has hired a top-notch vineyard management team. He is interested in having Turrentine Brokerage advise him on what to plant based on projected demand and to help market his grapes.
Over an excellent lunch at Mayo Family Winery in Kenwood, I outlined the cycles and complexities of the grape market and told him, of course, what a good job we could do finding the best homes for his grapes over the long-term. I warned him that the romance of the wine business leads many people to make bad economic decisions. When he has friends over for Sunday dinner, he can survey his vineyard and take pride in their beauty. But on Monday morning, he had better put away the rose-colored glasses or those pretty vines will eat him alive. He was quiet for a minute, then he looked at me and said, "Brian, tell me about the last time you failed."
What? Me, fail? Are you kidding? There was one time I thought I was wrong back in high school, but it turned out I was right after all. He smiled faintly and kept waiting for his answer. The server refilled my wine glass and I took a big gulp. And here is what I told him.
Several years ago, when the economy was strong and the grape market was hot, I was invited to lunch with a gentleman who had just purchased some ground to plant. Also at the lunch was an ultra high-end vineyard consultant. The consultant thought this site could grow grapes in 99th percentile.
Of course, development costs for such a vineyard are high -- and yields are low. But he was confident that, over the long run, the grapes would command a price high enough to justify the investment. This consultant really is a viticultural wizard. He was so convinced and so persuasive that I almost drank the Kool-Aid -- and I was uncharacteristically quiet.
Finally, the owner asked me what I thought. What I really thought was:
At the height of the wine business cycle, it was a good time to seek a long-term contract.
No winery would commit to the kinds of the prices needed to justify the investment they were contemplating until the fruit had proven over a number of years to be irreplaceable for a growing luxury brand.
The chances of hitting a grand slam -- developing a perfect vineyard and matching it with a perfect brand -- is not high.