So I finished reading my advance copy of The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart built America’s #1 Wine Brand (written with Rick Kushman). It was officially released last week.
These days, Barefoot is owned by E&J Gallo and is a six-million case brand. It wasn’t always that way.
Most people aren’t familiar with the improbable story of how Barefoot started. Back in 1985, when Chateau Souverain was taken over by creditors, it owed grower Mark Lyons (now Sebastiani’s winemaker) for 300 tons of grapes. Mark’s friend Michael Houlihan tried to help. Houlihan, who knew absolutely nothing about the wine industry, paid Souverain a visit hoping to help Lyons recover something - anything. Houlihan naively figured he could help Lyons bottle and sell wine to earn the lost money back. He made a deal for 18,000 cases of wine. In those days, the bulk market for wine wasn’t what it is today. Souverain’s people had no guarantee the wine in their tanks would ever get sold and were happy to have the debt off the books. Next thing you know, Houlihan is in the wine business.
Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey’s lack of familiarity with the wine business was an asset. Because they didn’t have preconceived notions about the business – and because they were creative and resourceful, they were ultimately successful. People in the wine business will be amused with some of the little anecdotes. Barefoot didn’t rely on advertising but embraced worthy cause marketing. And it didn’t hurt when Barefoot received a threatening letter from an attorney representing Baron Eric de Rothschild (Lafite) because Barefoot had called itself “Chateau La Feet” – it was a PR bonanza.
I asked Houlihan about the book. “There have been books written about wine and what it tastes like and where it’s grown and about great winemakers,” he said. “There’s never been a book written about how wine gets through the distribution system. In other words how wine gets to you – that’s what’s really interesting about this book – it’s the first time the average person will get a peak at the various different laws in each state, at overcrowded distributors, at overcrowded sales people and limited shelf space. All the things that can go wrong that have nothing to do with how good the wine is or its price - all these things result in successful wine businesses having to have reps in every major market to protect their placement.”
I asked Houlihan if he had any advice for people trying to get into the wine business today. “My advice is: make friends in low places and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way,” he said. “Wine clerks, wine buyers, people who are in the distribution industry, whether in the warehouse or sales people – ask them what works and what doesn’t work. Get some respect for what’s really required of you as a producer to get your product to market and to keep it there. Most people fall in love with their wine, with their label, or their awards. They get a high rating and they think the world is going to beat a path to their door to buy it. That might be true but if you’re making wines at the $12 price-point, you should become an expert on distribution.”