True To Our Roots Fermenting A Business Revolution
By Paul Dolan
Bloomberg Press Copyright © 2003 Fetzer Vineyards/Brown-Forman Corporation
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-57660-150-1
SUSTAINABILITY: FETZER'S BUSINESS REVOLUTION
On a crisp September morning in 1987, I was walking through a block of Sauvignon Blanc vines at Fetzer Vineyards. I was the head winemaker, and this early stroll through the vineyards was one of my favorite rituals.
The grape harvest was just getting under way, and soon I would be inside the cellar, managing a big crew amidst the hustle and bustle of what California winemakers call "crush." That's the hectic period in early autumn when grapes are picked and pressed, and their juice flows into tanks to begin fermenting into wine. But for now I was where I loved to be, alone with nature in the still of the dawn, using all my senses to smell the soil, inspect the ripening bunches, and taste the grapes.
Sauvignon Blanc is a fruity white wine, crisp and refreshing. It delivers these qualities in abundance when it's grown in Mendocino County, where warm days are separated by cool nights. It was up to me to decide when these grapes would be picked-a real moment of truth in the wine business. Pick too early or too late, and you miss the time when the fruit is precisely ripe enough and full of flavor, perfectly ready to become the best wine youwill ever make.
I had been making wine professionally for ten years, so biting into a wine grape gave me a lot of information. I first tasted for the slightly bitter acids in the skin. These components would give the wine its crisp, mouthwatering quality. Then I tasted for the natural sugars in the juice, which would give the wine its flavors, aromas, and body. In the rows where I was tasting, the grapes were infused with lush, creamy flavors of ripe figs and melon, perfect for Sauvignon Blanc. The vines had produced a sweetness and balance, in harmony with the sun, soil, and clean air surrounding them.
These grapes were ready to pick, and my excitement started to build. I began thinking of how I would manage the grapes in the winery. I would not have to do too much, because nature had already done so well. My job would be largely to let the wine reveal itself.
When I moved to the next block, just fifteen short feet away, my excitement quickly subsided. These Sauvignon Blanc grapes tasted bland. Every grape seemed less flavorful, less expressive. My euphoria faded. Before I had time to figure out this mystery, the sun crested the eastern hills and fully loaded grape trucks started rumbling up the driveway. Crush was on.
I hustled back to the winery and forgot about my experience in the vineyard until hours later. At the end of that day, as I planned the next day's picking schedule, my mind wandered back to the two Sauvignon Blanc blocks that had tasted so different. They were grown in the same microclimate, irrigated the same way, and the vines were the same age. What explained the difference in taste?
Slowly it dawned on me. The first block of vines was part of an experiment we had begun the year before, farming some of our vineyards organically. The second block was still being farmed the conventional way. That meant we applied pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides throughout the growing season. Then we replenished what we'd stripped from the soil by adding back synthetic chemical fertilizers. This was the way everyone did it. It was the approach I learned when I studied enology, and it was the gospel our local agricultural extension experts preached. It was standard operating procedure.
I didn't know it then, but my entire way of thinking about grape growing was about to change, with huge ramifications for me personally and for Fetzer. Before that moment, I had only read about the impact of pesticides on the environment. I hadn't ever experienced the effect they could have on flavor. Now, I was tasting it firsthand. My mind raced as I realized that the synthetic chemicals had removed all the natural microbial richness from the vineyard earth-they had stripped the life from the soil. Just one year without chemicals had allowed the other block of vines to bounce back and produce fresher, brighter flavors.
The implications staggered me. I am a fourth-generation winemaker. My great-grandfather Pietro Carlo Rossi worked at Italian Swiss Colony in Asti, California, for most of his adult life. He lived and breathed winemaking, and in 1904 he built a large home near the winery. My grandfather Edmund grew up there and eventually became a winemaker for Italian Swiss Colony, too. When my siblings and I were born, we used to spend a month each summer at the house in Asti, having the run of the winery and eating cookies out of small wine barrels in the tasting room. A huge board there had medals pinned to it-awards for my great-grandfather's, grandfather's, and uncle's wines. I saw them as our family medals. We still have the family house and now it is my children and grandchildren who play there with their cousins all summer. So for over 100 years, my family has had roots up and down the Russian River, the long, vital watercourse that arises in Mendocino County and flows south through Sonoma County to the Pacific Ocean. The river that waters our gardens and fills our wells here literally flows through my veins, just as Mendocino's cool, crisp air filled my lungs that harvest morning. I knew I was part of the fabric of this place. It was my land, my heritage, the home of my children-and my winery was poisoning it.
If that wasn't bad enough, I could see that continued use of chemicals at nearly every step of the grape-growing process would diminish the quality of future vintages, most certainly affecting the long-term market position of the winery. If I could taste this drastic a difference in the grapes already, what would another few decades of this approach mean to the flavor of our wines? These were chilling realizations for a young, ambitious winemaker. It was very clear to me that Fetzer Vineyards and, for that matter, all other wineries were risking not only their own economic futures but the long-term viability of all farming. It was an inherently unsustainable position. The wine industry could not continue with standard operating procedure, and neither could I.
A NEW POSSIBILITY FOR BUSINESS
IF YOU HAVE HAD a life-changing experience like mine, you know how it feels. One moment your world looks a certain way, and the next, it looks different. Things that you could ignore, or set aside, or avoid, become a permanent part of your awareness. Issues in the world that used to be outside of your purview are now living inside of you. They become emotional and physical, not just intellectual. Similar awareness might have to do with corruption on Wall Street, or destruction of the environment, or a desperate need for human rights. It may have to do with the way your own company operates. Whatever it is, it changes you. Something that's not right with the world is now not right for you.
Suddenly, you're wondering what you can do about it. You realize you must act.
I believe we are all feeling this at some level. It doesn't matter what our political orientation is. It doesn't matter how much money we make. It doesn't matter where we live. Global warming affects us all, regardless of socioeconomic position. America's crash in investor confidence took its toll on everyone's finances. The Chernobyl disaster was dramatic proof that a few small slip-ups by inadequately trained workers could wipe out everything for miles around and send nuclear fallout drifting across a dozen countries. Scientists talk about climate change, droughts, and floods not as isolated events, but as evidence that Earth is one biosphere, without barriers. Whatever we do on this planet stays on this planet and affects all its inhabitants. Hunger and disease epidemics and massacres half a world away may not hurt anyone we know personally, but we know in our hearts that something should be done. We know the world needs to change, because the path we're on doesn't look good.
This book is about how I rediscovered my roots and decided to change paths. It is a book about a new possibility for business, one that will require nothing less than a revolution within organizations, and among managers and workers of all stripes. Fortunately, no one has to be overthrown in this revolution; we just need to replace standard operating procedure with something more sustainable. Everyone can participate in this process, and everyone can benefit. In fact, I believe many people already see this revolution coming, and are wondering how and where and when it will affect them.
The premise of this book is this: We can lead the revolution ourselves without waiting for it to hit. We can bring it on, and take it where we want to go. We simply have to reconnect with what's important and practice the principles of sustainable leadership that arise from that experience. I believe it's time for business, one of the most powerful forces on Earth, to become a positive force for change. We already know that we can create tremendous wealth and technological progress. The new possibility for those of us in business is to preserve that progress and wealth for the generations to come.
When I realized that my own company was not operating in a sustainable way, that an entire industry was doing things that were detrimental to its own economic and environmental health, I had to ask why. It appeared to stay this way because people simply didn't question it. Wine is full of wonder, but no one was taking the time to wonder about the business of wine. I started to read books about the environment and ecology. I visited with older farmers who had managed their vineyards and orchards without the kind of chemicals we have today. I challenged my former professors about what they had taught me. I questioned everything.
I also began to look more closely around me. I saw that the rugged, rural beauty of Mendocino didn't insulate us from troubling trends taking place around the world. Big global companies were using places such as Bangkok, Singapore, and Shanghai for cheap production locations, causing these cities to go through massive changes. Sweatshops and assembly facilities sprang up almost overnight. Living wages and working conditions diverged even further between the first world and the developing world. This same dramatic gap in income and economic participation swept through the wine industry, too. As the number of wineries and vineyard acres grew rapidly, so did the number of pickers and cellar workers. Yet many wineries paid them minimum wage for backbreaking work, while providing no health benefits, housing, or training support that might help them in a continuing way. The value of grapes soared even as the needs of the workers were ignored. Wealthy people from all walks of life were cruising into the wine country and building immense villas. They didn't think twice about ripping out trees, bulldozing hillsides for questionable vineyards, and hiring staffs of servants. All these actions emphasized further that the wine industry was becoming two worlds that existed side by side, but unequally.
The more aware I became, the more I realized I could not ignore it any longer. Living in ignorance was bad enough. Living in deliberate denial was unacceptable. I loved making wine, but I didn't see how I would make my mark on society by doing that. It seemed that I had to leave the business world to make a difference, for myself and for others. Many people do follow this route when they discover things they cannot ignore. They leave jobs to become teachers, or join groups such as Doctors Without Borders, or become social workers. Business is not the usual place for someone who wants to change the world.
I was not unaware that I was leading what many would consider a privileged life. I lived in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, surrounded by lush vineyards, orchards of fruit and nut trees, towering redwood trees and majestic oaks. I worked for a highly respected wine family, with deep roots in the community. My own family was blessed with three wonderful children and a wife I loved and admired. I was indeed fortunate, and I loved my life. But something was still missing. The question lodged in my mind and would not let me go: How could I make a bigger difference? Where could I find a new possibility for my life, for my future, for my world?
BECOMING AN EXAMPLE
I WAS FORTUNATE, because fate intervened and offered me a unique chance right inside my own business. Before I could leave Fetzer Vineyards and go make my mark in some other field, Brown-Forman Corporation bought the company and appointed me president of the winery in 1992. You might not immediately recognize the Brown-Forman name, but if you have ever used Hartmann luggage or Lenox china, or enjoyed a glass of Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey, Southern Comfort, Finlandia vodka, or wines from Bolla, Korbel, or Sonoma-Cutrer, then you have patronized one of Brown-Forman's many brands. Like Fetzer, Brown-Forman is a company with deep family roots.
When I was given the responsibility of running Fetzer, everything crystallized for me. Here was an opportunity to make a difference as a winemaker, and I was determined to take advantage of it. I didn't have a master plan or anything like it, just one heck of an opportunity. I stepped through the opening and never looked back. I moved immediately to steer the company into a new course, one that would be described today as "sustainable."
The employees of the company rallied to this new possibility with inspiring passion and creativity. Together we learned that our business is part of the larger world, just as all of us are part of it as individuals. If we personally desire to make a difference in the larger system, then our companies can, too.
That simple affirmation has changed the context for everything we do at Fetzer. The people of Fetzer have truly become the soul of the business-willing to put their hearts into it and live what they know. The more they achieve, the more they know, and that knowledge spurs them to achieve even more. Despite a mood of growing complexity and volatility, we are more confident than ever that we have the ability to create our own future.
As the leader of the company during the past ten years, I have learned as much as I have led. Watching the employees of Fetzer rise to this new possibility in their business, I have been acutely aware that everyone wants their lives to matter. We know there is only limited satisfaction in going through the motions of any given day. We know we want to enhance the quality of life for those around us. We want the world to have a future we can live in, and live with.
If you're not that familiar with Fetzer Vineyards, you might think that all this talk about changing the world is easy for the head of a little boutique winery in northern California.
Excerpted from True To Our Roots by Paul Dolan Copyright © 2003 by Fetzer Vineyards/Brown-Forman Corporation . Excerpted by permission.
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