Making Wine

Volume 5 Letter 12

It used to be said that only the French could make wine. Other countries tried to compete but all wines were largely compared to the gold standard French wines. Approximately 30 years ago in Paris the French myth was debunked. With French judges sipping the wine, the California wines won both in the white and red categories. The challenge held in 1976 raised only a few eyebrows in the wine world at the time but it was the beginning of what would be the demise of the French dominance of the wine industry.

Author George Taber1 writes about that day in 1976 as a real watershed event. The only reporter present at the wine tasting competition was the wine critic for Time magazine. Writing in a very influential magazine, the reporter disclosed the results and effectively started the destruction of “the myth of French supremacy in wine”. It was as if at that moment in time word got out that wines, other than those made in France, also deserved consideration.

Most interesting is the history events leading up to the award winning wine and the background of the winemakers themselves. The events leading up to the California wine making supremacy are strange at best. First the USA had gone through an era of prohibition which destroyed much of the wine making industry and the vines needed to grow the grapes. After prohibition came the great depression, stagnating any demand for wine other than as cheap alcohol. Then next came the Second World War. Put these three events together and much of the old traditional wine making skills in America were lost. In this environment three winemakers took on the French.

The winemakers themselves came from a long background of…well not winemakers. The original three winemakers were described by Taber as “a dropout college professor, a dropout lawyer from Los Angeles, and a Croatian immigrant”. Yet this unlikely group changed the wine world forever.

Beating the French in making the best wines in the world not only challenged wine aficionados to try California wines but to also to try wines from other regions of the world. Today, wines from Australia, Chile and South Africa compete admirably with the wines from California, Italy and France.

It is the classic evolution of business where the best are first copied and then because of their complacency, surpassed. (We’ll see the final chapter of a similar story happen in the auto industry this year as Toyota will pass General Motors as the largest maker of cars and trucks). In all industries there are roles that businesses fall into. Some accept their roles as market followers and some, like the three wine makers in California, work hard to break the mold and challenge the unchallengeable.

As we head into the New Year, what can you do to redefine the role of your company in the industry in which it competes? What can you do to better understand the needs of your customers and then develop products and programs that bring them closer to achieving their goals? This year break the mould, and drink from the cup of success – will that be a California red or white?

1. Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber

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