WHOSE BREW IS THIS, ANYWAY?
As the Fabulous Honey Parker and I continued our trip through the Napa Valley and up into St. Helena, we continued making grand discoveries.
One of these discoveries involved a Michelin-star restaurant, a lovely and generous wine-making couple, and a brand of beer you will probably never know unless you are extraordinarily lucky.
This all happened as part of the CoupleCo tour, in which Honey and I are interviewing couple entrepreneurs of Napa for the CoupleCo podcast (launching in January). In this case, we sat down with a dynamic duo who have deep roots in California winemaking. She was even born into a winery. It's in her blood.
WE MET THE TWO OF THEM IN A ST. HELENA RESTAURANT THAT WAS A REVELATION
It's called The Charter Oak.
They bill themselves as "a celebratory, family-style dining experience, with simple, approachable, and seasonal food," including produce from their own farm.
Talk about simple and approachable. We had a Michelin-star cheeseburger there. It was good.
We talked to this couple, Nile and Whitney, about life, the universe and everything as it pertains to being a couple who've branched off from winemaking to open a nano-brewery.
YES, THEY OWN A NANO BREWERY
What is a nano brewery?
It is a commercial brewery that is so small, it can barely be seen with the naked eye.
It's a commercial brewery that is so small, it can reasonably be run by one guy.
In this case, the brewery is run by Nile and Whitney, and an assortment of guys who seem to pop in as they can.
But being a nano brewery isn't all Nile and Whitney are doing. They have gone further down the rabbit hole of craft brewing.
They are treating brewing as one would treat small-batch winemaking, and are even producing single-origin beer.
And if you're a devotee of the buy-local movement?
THIS MIGHT INTRIGUE YOU
Nile, who is obviously a beer geek's beer geek, is the brewmaster (among other things). And he makes a really good point about so-called "local beer."
Most of it is not at all local.
Yes, it might be made locally.
But most of the ingredients came from someplace far away.
The grains, the hops, any of the ingredients that go into that brew, probably came from someplace else. Someplace not local.
So, typically, "local" refers only to the act of actually brewing and fermenting the beer.
SINGLE-ORIGIN BEER IS SOMETHING ELSE
Nile has not been merely brewing locally, but sourcing all of his ingredients locally.
And sometimes, if not necessarily locally, all from the same, single locale.
This is all part of what Mad Fritz calls their Terroir Series.
If you're a wine fancier, you know about terroir. It's all of the environmental factors that contribute to the character of a grape crop, and by extension, to the character of the wine. In wine, terroir is everything. In beer, Mad Fritz is doing the same thing.
For instance, Mad Fritz is in Napa. But for the Terroir Series, they've made a single-origin Sonoma Ale. It took three years of growing, sourcing, malting and brewing--but at the end of those three years came an ale 100% "of" Sonoma County. The hops, the barley, even the water, they all came from there. It's even aged in wine barrels instead of tanks.
And the result?
A "pale ale of sorts," it's a stunning beverage that has balance, veracity and complexity and (dare I say it?) joy.
"EEGAD, MAN! HOW ON EARTH DOES ONE TASTE JOY?"
I can understand how you might ask that.
And here's the thing: this is an artisanal product.
It's not a commodity that gets sold by the case in supermarkets across the country.
It has been crafted as a labor of love.
And it is sensational--IF you are open to new experiences and ideas that transcend mere commodity thinking.
THIS BEER MAY NOT BE FOR YOU
We have a friend who is adamantly and firmly committed to Budweiser In Cans only. No bottles! No other beer!
He will drink nothing else.
This beer would be an insult to his palate.
None of it is fizzy and yellow and made with rice.
If you are a voracious hop head, you might be confused by these brews. None of them are savaged with hops in the way that makes you wince.
In fact, here's how non-aggressive Mad Fritz brews are.
Honey is not a fan of overtly hopped brews. Double IPAs, which are typically muscular and bitter in their hopped-up flavor, do nothing for her palate.
We drank a Mad Fritz double IPA, and Honey found it a joyful experience.
THESE BREWS ARE ON SOME OF THE MOST EXPENSIVE MENUS IN THE NATION
We already talked about having lunch with Nile and Whitney at Michelin-starred Charter Oak.
You know simply by the Michelin star that the place is not cheap.
Mad Fritz is on the beer list at Charter Oak. They even have a custom brew, available on draft only for them, that is made with acorns.
It is delightful.
Mad Fritz is also on the beer list at the world-famous French Laundry. Thomas Keller's fabled Yountville eatery has three Michelin stars. No less an iconoclast than Anthony Bourdain (whose personal brand has been discussed here in the screed) has called the place, "The best restaurant in the world, period."
French Laundry came to Mad Fritz and asked to have a brew produced exclusively for them.
You can't buy this brew unless you're already buying dinner at over $300 a head. How's that for rare and hard-to-get?
MAD FRITZ IS NOTHING IF NOT A LABOR OF LOVE
It's an effort by two people who clearly love each other, and who produce a product born of a love for the land, the soil, the earth and the air, a love for balance, brewing, farming, sourcing, a love of finding and then finessing what nature provides into a finely crafted product that delights and inspires.
As the CoupleCo tagline says, "It's business...and it's personal."
And Mad Fritz may be the most intensely personal coupleco we've ever seen.
The business is even named for their children, Madeline and Fritz.
(Apparently Fritz, who is in elementary school, thinks having a brewery named for himself is really cool. That might sound like a recipe for having family services knocking at the door. But you also have to realize that in Napa Valley, people eat, breathe and sleep fruit and fermentation. It's all part of a life in harmony you will experience no place else. I've been to several other wine producing regions around the world. Napa is uniquely glorious.)
IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS, THE BALANCE HERE IS ALSO ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE
It's about having a vision and remaining faithful without compromise.
Mad Fritz has a dynamite name and an excellent product.
It's a killer brand.
They could compromise on their mission, produce more beer, become more widely available, and make more money.
And they would end up on the slippery slope towards a commoditized product.
One of the fathers of craft brewing in the United States is Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company, whose Samuel Adams Boston Lager changed the face of US brewing.
But they've become so big that the beer hounds regard them as a commodity product--despite the fact that, in many ways, they remain faithful to their craft roots.
BUT SAM ADAMS BEER IS NO LONGER PERCEIVED AS SPECIAL
Which is unfortunate.
Because it is a brand with integrity and legacy and heritage and commitment.
Samuel Adams is presently spending a whole bunch of money trying to make themselves desirable to the craft-beer devotee.
Their TV commercials showing hopster hipsters blind-tasting their beer and remarking how good it is are almost sad.
Social proof, yes.
But one can infer a hint of desperation.
MAD FRITZ REMAINS SPECIAL
It is scarce, and rare, and unusual, and it has caché.
Those are the kinds of things that get your brand on the list at a foodie Mecca like French Laundry.
And I have a sneaking suspicion that Mad Fritz, while they may get bigger than their current nano size, will never get so big that the specialness evaporates.
Being special and being scarce have their place.
So does forging ahead without compromise.
And, especially in light of those things, you're going to require something else that keeps the fire going, and that's a relationship with the most important person in your equation: your core customer.
Maintain that relationship of specialness, and you can become legendary.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
SO, HOW MUCH WINE CAN YOU SELL OUT OF A GARAGE?
Answer: Not a lot.
But that's what Ryan was doing.
He was making wine in his garage. He was selling a few hundred cases a year. Legally. His landlord let him have the garage bonded as a winery by the Feds so it was all above board and he was paying his excise tax.
And understand, this is the Napa Valley.
Stories like this one are not that unusual.
Here's the problem: even if it's really good wine, nobody gets rich on a few hundred cases of wine a year.
IN A WAY, RYAN WAS THAT FABLED GUY WHO WOULD PERFORM BRAIN SURGERY ON HIMSELF
He just had to figure out how to stay awake during the operation.
That is one of the classic definitions of an entrepreneur.
The driven guy with the hyphenated job title who does it all himself.
Winemaker, Chief Bottle Washer & Brain Surgeon.
However, it seems that Ryan was not the egomaniac who insists on staying the brain surgeon.
One day, at a wine event he was running, Ryan met Crystal.
Crystal is a dynamo.
When she met Ryan, her career was vibrant and vigorous. She was getting on jets and going places. She was moving and shaking and making stuff happen for big companies.
CRYSTAL AND RYAN ALSO KNEW THEY HAD A CONNECTION
But they didn't hook up right away.
After the event, the Napa winemaker and the corporate shaker went their separate ways.
But that didn't last long.
Geography couldn't keep them apart, and good wine brought them together.
Crystal became the yin to Ryan's yang.
They married, and she joined the winery in the garage.
Fast forward to today. It's no longer in a garage. It's in a huge cave.
With Crystal's help, Ryan gets to focus on the winemaking instead of the brain surgery, so to speak. He focuses on the science and the art of turning grapes into liquid poetry.
Meanwhile, Crystal works a different kind of science and art: that of winning friends and influencing people. She handles the sales and marketing.
AND IN THE PROCESS, SHE DEVELOPED ANOTHER KIND OF POETRY
She has created the entrepreneurial poetry of building a desirable cult brand.
Through a combination of evocative personal touch and scarcity, she has helped attract legions of dedicated followers.
She also made it happen by doing something that would scare the pants off of a lot of business owners.
While Ryan began making more wine, and the hundreds of cases turned into thousands, Crystal made that wine harder to get.
No more retail.
No more restaurants.
Sales direct to the customer only.
And preferably, through a club-membership model.
YES, MEMBERSHIP DOES HAVE ITS PRIVILEGES
Make a better product.
Make it harder to get.
Make it available on a monthly subscription.
And you know what happens?
By cutting out the middleman and selling the product for what it's worth at retail, you double your margin. And boy are these wines worth far more than the retail price. Phenomenal.
By making it rare, it's made more desirable. They don't even sell it on their own website for the most part. As Crystal likes to say, "It feels like you need to know somebody to get it."
By making it available on a club basis, the worth of each sale is far more than just a single accidental retail purchase.
And by winning friends and influencing people, you create a steadfast and enthusiastic group of supporters who are there for you. Your die-hard fans help keep you in business and love your product.
THIS IS A FAMILY BUSINESS WHERE THE CUSTOMERS ARE LIKE FAMILY
Yes, it sounds like a cliché.
A cliché that yours truly has railed against.
Fortunately, in this case, it's true in the best way possible.
This was very much in evidence in the wake of the Napa fires.
Crystal says that she handles all the customer service, which means she handles a whole lot of email.
With the fires, the amount of email was overwhelming, all of it inquiring about the health and welfare of the family.
Crystal, who typically expedites such things, said that it was taking her weeks to catch up and let everyone know they were OK.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED HERE IS A LOVE FOR THE BUSINESS MADE INDEED MADE MANFIEST IN THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE
Talk to Ryan, and it's clear that he has a love for people, and for the science and the art of making wine.
He also has a word for the kinds of wines he likes to make: "Balanced."
In an age when it seems like vintners are trying desperately to show the world they can make wines that punch you in the face with a particular quality, he's making wines that invite you in and seduce you.
Talk to Crystal, and it's clear that she has a love for people and for sharing her husband's craft with them.
Talk to Crystal and Ryan together, and it's clear they have a love for each other. It's also clear that the business is a labor of that love. And it has balance.
Ryan has another word, this one for the reason why the business and the brand work.
THAT WORD IS: "RESPECT"
The Fabulous Honey Parker and I interviewed the two of them for the CoupleCo podcast.
And more than once in previous CoupleCo interviews, the husband has said, unsolicited and in no uncertain terms, the reason why the relationship and the business work is because of respect.
Ryan was just the most recent.
Also, something else happens when we're recording these podcasts: Honey and I get the best seats in the house.
We get to watch two people who never expected to be hearing the things they're hearing, about their business and their marriage, from each other.
It has been revealing.
It's also humbling. As Honey repeatedly says, "It makes me want to be a better couple."
And the thing about being a better couple in business together is it makes for a better business.
WHY IS A COUPLE LIKE CRYSTAL AND RYAN SO FASCINATING?
We've been pondering this.
And we think the answer is in something another one of the CoupleCo couples said in their interview: "It's not just your business. It's your whole life."
And the woman who said that is dead on.
It's one of the reasons we've found couplepreneurs so interesting to interview, and why so many people who aren't in business with a spouse are enjoying the test podcasts we've given them.
It's not just about being in business together. It's about risking everything.
In a culture where the marriage ideal is to live happily ever after? Running a business together throws all of that into question.
Because it IS your whole life.
IT'S ABOUT TWO PEOPLE WANTING TO MAKE THEIR LIFE EXACTLY THE WAY THEY WANT IT
And the odds seem enormous.
The deck is stacked in the other guy's favor.
And if a husband and wife business goes down in flames (or up in flames, as has been happening in Napa), what does that mean for life, the universe and everything?
Looking at Crystal and Ryan, and the fabulous business that has grown from a rental garage a decade ago, there's fortunately no need to answer that question.
They've survived the fires, this epic challenge, and their business is as strong as ever.
It's pretty cool.
If you want to know more about Crystal and Ryan's winery, visit www.waughfamilywines.com.
And if you want to visit Napa right now, the place is open for business. Honey and I spent an astonishing week there.
While you can see what the fires have done, you can also see the majority of the place, which is untouched and glorious, a joyful and thriving place full of entrepreneurs like Ryan and Crystal who are happy to welcome you.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
A CAUTIONARY TALE OF TWO BRANDS
This week's visit to fire-ravaged Napa is an anti-climax. That is, if you're looking for evidence of what the fire has ravaged.
We've been here for just about 24 hours. The place does not stink of smoke. What little we've seen is very much a normal, everyday, business-as-usual rural town.
However, we did have a poignant experience last night that serves to remind one what a brand really is all about.
We've long banged the drum for the fact that a brand as not a logo, a color, a font, a tagline, a website, or any other manifestation that one usually associates with a brand.
Nope. A brand is Thing One: Your brand is the one way your core customer should feel about your business.
GET THAT PART RIGHT, AND THE REST WILL FOLLOW
Conversely, you can get the other stuff right--the logo, the color, the font, the tagline, the website--and if you haven't figured out Thing One, it's all for naught.
A great example is last night's foray into town.
We'd asked someone for a recommendation for a good, local's kind of joint. The kind of place where you meet the real people who make the community happen.
We took the recommendation, and followed it up--encouraged by the establishment's website. It delivered all kinds of glowing, simple language about how they're steeped in history, how they do so much so well, and how they're fun, friendly and down-to-earth.
The rightness of Thing One seemed to be in evidence.
MARKETING, MEET REALITY
The place had all the right accoutrements.
It was an old building with an old bar, lots of natural wood and plenty of historical funk.
That's where the authenticity ends.
Off the bartender's New York Giants jersey, The Fabulous Honey Parker says, "Wow, Giants? You a Giants fan?"
"What? Oh. No. We were told we had to wear football jerseys. Someone gave this to me."
As a Philly native and an Eagles fan, Honey faces a lifetime of disappointment. Being able to commiserate with a Giants fan over the latter's tragic record this season would have been a natural opening to conversation, rapport, service and eventually, a tips
It didn't work out.
We tried to have some conversation with the woman. She was borderline helpful and disinterested.
IN FACT, EVERYONE WORKING THERE SEEMED BORDERLINE HELPFUL AND DISINTERESTED
Everyone working there seemed to have other things on their mind.
There was someplace else they'd all rather be.
The house-brewed beer was mediocre. The menu was uninspiring.
This was not the local's joint that we had hoped for.
Nor was it the fun, friendly place the branding elements had promised.
They got the down-to-earth part right, if you take that to mean "ordinary."
But they had ultimately failed at Thing One.
NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELTY DIFFERENT
Understand, this is Sunday night in Napa. Things are not exactly jumping.
We left exited the hall of disappointment and turned left.
Across the street was a block of restaurants.
We stumbled across one that looked different and better than the others. A tapas joint.
It was appointed in dark hardwoods with soft, amber lighting. It looked and felt comfortable. A few people were dining.
We stepped inside, ambled back to the bar and took a seat.
Our bartender was welcoming and gregarious.
He was ready and willing to make conversation--despite being the busiest guy in the place. He had other customers at the bar and was also the service bar for the wait staff.
IN THE KITCHEN, A CREW OF FOUR WAS SHUFFLING AND CLANGING AND MAKING STUFF HAPPEN
It was a well-practiced improvisational ballet of small-portion cuisinieres.
We knew we had found our place.
We asked questions. He made recommendations.
We asked about his story. We got details.
A fifth-generation Napa-ite, he is a career food service guy.
When he started quoting Bukowski, it was evident the party had started.
By the end of the evening, we had moved to the end of the bar. A couple from Chicago had sat down next to us.
THE BARTENDER HAD BECOME OUR MASTER OF CEREMONIES
He was making smart recommendations.
He was letting us taste unusual wines.
He was involved in the conversation just enough.
He was the Thing One incarnate.
And he was a raging profit center for that tapas restaurant.
He knows how to make his customer feel welcome, knows how to engage and entertain, and knows how to figure out what next.
He was tipped well.
SOMETHING ELSE HAPPENED WHILE WE WERE THERE
The place became packed.
It was alive and jumping.
The waiters were always moving through the room.
The kitchen was in constant motion.
People were waiting for tables.
All this on the slow night in Napa.
And you know what this restaurant's website promises?
None of this.
THE WEBSITE MIGHT AS WELL BE A BUSINESS CARD THAT SAYS, "FOOD"
It makes very little in the way of promises.
It says very little about what they serve.
It says nothing about who started it and why.
It doesn't say, "We're a fun, friendly, down-to-earth place where you're going to have a great time with our bartender who's been in the business for 35 years."
The website is just not good. It is in no way a reflection of the Thing One that's going on in there.
But without the branding accoutrements that help make for a solid manifestation of the brand's message to the world, it still has a better and more competent brand than the place that has a good website and makes all kinds of promises that it can't live up to.
A BRAND BENEFITS FROM BETTER MARKETING
A good logo and an engaging website and marketing that gets attention and drives response--all of these things are good for business.
But without Thing One, without the foundation of a good, honest and authentic brand behind it all, those other things are for naught.
As David Ogilvy famously said, nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.
We left a place whose advertising was loaded with brand promise that it failed to live up to.
Going online and reading the reviews for that place, it's clear that our experience is not unusual.
WE THEN WENT TO A PLACE WITH NO BRAND PROMISE
It delivered beyond any reasonable expectation.
Going online and reading the reviews for that second place, it's also clear that our experience at that restaurant is not unusual.
The difference is that the general manager isn't having to routinely apologize to customers who've left lousy reviews--as happens at the first place.
It's possible that the first joint will never be ruined by the lack of brand integrity. This is a bar and restaurant in a tourist town in a location with a lot of foot traffic.
It may well survive.
But it will never be great.
It simply isn't all that interested in how the customer feels about the place.
Be Thing One. Everything else is just stuff.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
DOES THE NEWS MEDIA REALLY MEAN TO UNDERMINE A BRAND?
Yes, you heard the news.
The biggest brands in U.S. wine country, Napa and Sonoma, have been destroyed by wildfires.
Wineries, gone! Hotels, gone! Vineyards, gone! All gone, gone, gone!
Up there in California, it's like the dark side of the moon.
Maybe you've seen the news photo of the Malaysian gentleman who'd been visiting Santa Rosa.
He was staying at the Hilton Sonoma. In the photo, he's walking past a pile of charred rubble that used to be his hotel.
Gone! The Hilton is gone!
Who ever heard of losing a Hilton?
DEVASTATION, MAYHEM AND DEATH!
Yes, there are problems in Napa and Sonoma. Businesses have been destroyed. People have died. It has indeed been tragic.
And that's exactly why the Fabulous Honey Parker and I were planning on staying away.
We had business up there. We were planning on driving the CoupleCoach to Napa to interview couple entrepreneurs. We were gonna go all Charles Kerault on 'em.
We had delayed our plans in order to avoid hitting everyone during the harvest.
Then the fires hit. We saw the news. Oh, boy. We thought, Wow, let's just leave everybody alone. We'll go next year after they've cleaned up.
THEN, WE RECEIVED WORD THROUGH FRIENDS WHO ARE DEEPLY CONNECTED IN WINE COUNTRY
We were told in no uncertain terms, "Get up here!"
The person saying this has a business that supports tourists visiting wine country.
This person has lost all of her business. Visitors have cancelled their plans from now through February.
Because the news media in this country is vast and busy and immersive.
The 24-hour news cycle saturates the populous with ongoing stories and endless images of unimaginable devastation.
So what do you do?
You cancel your vacation to Devastation Land!
EXCEPT THAT, LIKE SANTA CLAUS, DEVASTATION LAND DOESN'T EXIST
"Despite the fires, the majority of businesses in both Napa and Sonoma remain open."
That quote is courtesy of the award-winning experiential travel magazine, AFAR.
It comes from an article they published online about two weeks ago. It's called, "What You Can Do to Help Wine Country Now--and Later."
Among their six tips, "Plan a visit."
And it made Honey and I say, "Of course. What were we thinking?"
It reminded us of the year that we changed our spring travel plans.
We are regular visitors to Jazz Fest, that immense and sonorous party on the New Orleans fairgrounds during the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May.
IN 2005, WE HAD DECIDED TO TAKE A HIATUS
We had an immediate about-face.
What better way to support a town we love, whose major industry is tourism, than to come back as a tourist and bring tourist dollars?
The welcome we received was extraordinary.
Never have we been any place where people were so happy to see us.
We were even exhorted to take a Devastation Tour in order to understand intimately what had happened there.
SO, WHAT IS THE NEWS MEDIA BRAND IN THE INFO-SATURATION AGE?
It seems that the one way we're supposed to feel about it is we're getting the absolute horrifying truth at any minute of any day.
Here's the problem: it's like a microscope.
The news focuses narrowly on minute details without the context of the larger picture.
Hilton Sonoma destroyed!
Man visiting from Malaysia loses everything!
You know what else?
Seven wineries in Sonoma destroyed!
You know that that means?
Approximately 418 more wineries in Sonoma are still standing.
THINK THERE'S STILL A PLACE TO TASTE WINE?
Two hotels in Santa Rosa were destroyed, one of them the Hilton.
Cursory research shows at least three more in the area are closed.
Trip Advisor lists 75 more hotel options in Sonoma.
Think maybe there are a few other places to sleep off a day's wine tasting?
The 24-hour news cycle is largely about spectacle.
The spectacle of flames, destruction and death play to the old journalism adage, "If it bleeds, it leads."
Ironically, there are plenty of stories about how California wine country needs to lure tourists back to Napa and Sonoma.
WOULD THESE SUBSEQUENT STORIES BE NECESSARY IF NOT FOR THE FIRST ONES?
And those stories don't bleed.
They certainly aren't going to lead.
There just isn't much news value in, "Most everything's OK! Whoo!"
It seems that one of the best things we can do for our sanity is to avoid 99% of the news.
It just isn't worthy.
I have preferred news sources, they are time-honored and reliable. They go in-depth and tell you all of the what, where, when, how and why.
There are details and context.
When the superficial news media are reporting things that leave me scratching my head, my preferred news sources fill in the blanks so the stories make sense.
IN THE MEANTIME, WE'RE GOING TO WINE COUNTRY
Honey and I will be on location for Hot Shots and for CoupleCo, and we will return with stories.
With any luck, you'll enjoy them.
They will be about the brands and the people behind them.
There will be no devastation, mayhem and death unless it's relevant.
In the meantime, I'll leave you with a teaser for CoupleCo.
It's fun, and the risky subtext of mayhem and devastation is certainly part of the allure. The stories these people tell are about how a business and a brand can survive--along with the marriage that launched it.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker helps people sell their stuff. An advertising Creative Director and Copywriter at Slow Burn Marketing, he specializes in big-brand thinking for small-business marketing. He has the voice of a much taller man.