Secret Sauce

Apple co-founder and product visionary Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

What Jobs famously showed us was that providing solutions to problems that many didn’t even know they had, with products that both delighted and inspired could result in unimaginable levels of success.

The wine business is no different from any other in many ways: A product is made and sold. Customers buy what they like until they find something that they like more. Consumers are often creatures of habit and comfort; we do what we do—and then do it again—until something comes up and inspires us to change. By their very nature, delighted and inspiration can only last so long.

An example for the past

When I was growing up, my mother’s go-to wine was Gallo Chablis—from a gallon bottle with a screw cap. She and her girlfriends would sit in the backyard on warm summer evenings and sip their wine, often with an ice cube or two and a splash of 7-Up. I remember hearing their voices rise and fall, punctuated with bursts of laughter while I watched television inside. 

“How can you even drink this stuff,” my dad often asked as he and my mother put away dishes later in the evening. “There’s much better wine out there, much of it from just down the street—some of it from our friends,” he’d say with a hint of pleading. 

“This is what I like. This is what I’ve always liked,” my mother would say curtly, indicating that the discussion was over. 

Years later, I was surprised to learn my mother had become a bit of a connoisseur of Napa Valley Chardonnay. Apparently one of her friends had gradually brought better and better wine to the group until they’d all fallen in love with the rich flavors and finesse of finely made wine. And they no longer drank wine with ice cubes or mixed it with soft drinks.

What doesn’t work

Within the wine business, creating products and services that delight and inspire seems relatively straightforward (i.e., we make an alcoholic beverage that’s steeped in romantic images), but because of the intense competition within the world of wine and limited ability to differentiate the product, the challenges can be significant. 

Business experts often tell wine-business leaders to do what’s worked in the past. For example, we’re told by “experts” that every owner must “brand” their vineyard to differentiate it from competitors and ultimately receive a higher price for their grapes. To do this, the vineyard (and even individual vineyard blocks) must be named, and the wines made from them must be labeled as such. Look to the wildly successful vineyards of Beckstoffer, such as ToKalon and Dr. Crane Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, each of which now brings in upward of $20,000 per ton for their grapes. Vineyard-designated wines are nothing new. Sonoma vintner Robert Young and Napa’s Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet are often touted as the first vineyard-designated Cabernets in the area. 

The problem is, most consumers don’t seem to notice a branded vineyard. Years ago, the Sonoma County Vintners and Grape Growers conducted a study to help support their efforts to pass a conjunctive labeling measure that would require vintners who bottled wines with Sonoma County grapes to add this fact to the front of the label. Data from the study suggested consumers responded to “Sonoma County,” indicating that such information provided them more confidence in the quality of the wine. However, including the area the grapes came from (the AVA, such as Knights Valley or Sonoma Valley) added little to most customers’ experience. Including yet another piece of information (such as the vineyard) seemed to become lost in the haze of what are often already overly complicated labels. 

Experts will say that this lack of noticing is because the wine hasn’t gotten high enough scores or the right kind of press. I know from experience that neither one of those things has the type of impact the experts might imagine. I remember getting high scores and a feature story on my wine in Wine Spectator. I was thrilled and waited for the phone to ring off the hook. 

I waited…and waited. When the phone finally rang, it was the guy who sold me bottles saying he’d read the article and was wondering if I needed to increase my order. “No,” I said. “I think we’re all set.” 

What’s worked in the past is irrelevant. The question is, what will work in the future? Will more information become valuable? If so, how should it best be presented? In short, what would Steve Jobs have done in the wine business? 


Originally published in the Northbay Biz Magazine, October 2016