Entrepreneurs

Building A Loyal Following Through Accessibility: What Marketers Can Learn From The 2020 Winemaker Of The Year

As those of you that follow my writing will know by now, I love to help CMOs learn from others – whether they’re founders of start-ups or the CEO of the most innovative companies in the world.  I get particularly excited when these individuals work in one of my own personal passion areas – so, when I was offered the chance to meet Greg Brewer, who was recently honored with the Winemaker of the Year Award by Wine Enthusiast, I could not say ‘yes’ fast enough – he had me at ‘wine’, honestly! 

Starting the now award-winning Brewer-Clifton label with a scrappy $12,000 fund in 1997, the label joined the esteemed Jackson Family Wines portfolio in 2017. As Greg live-streamed from his winery (about as cool a Zoom backdrop as it is possible to have), I was rapt as he shared his insights and explained how he has spent the past 28 years building a highly successful wine label and what he had learned along his entrepreneurial journey.

Greg’s entry into the wine business was relatively humble, as he got a job as an attendant at the Santa Barbara Winery while he was studying at UC Santa Barbara. As he poured – and discussed – wine with his guests, he discovered what would be his lifelong passion, and he embarked on the long road of hard work and years of dedication – with no shortcuts.

“I found my way to wine through a job in college when I was 21. At the time, I was teaching French to undergrads, and was enjoying being in my fraternity at UC Santa Barbara. I took the job at the winery and thought – wow, I can meet people and enjoy free wine! It quickly became so much more than that. The sharing, the glamour, developing new knowledge and skills was not so bad either – so I just dove in.” My mom instilled in me to always work as hard as I can. It’s a blessing and a curse, but for me it also helps to have a very singular focus, which became winemaking.

In the ‘90s Greg recognized the opportunity to grow the Santa Barbara wine industry. Focusing his entire career on earning global recognition for the region’s wine, in 2001 he was one of the winemakers who secured the landmark AVA (American Viticultural Area) certification for the Sta. Rita Hills appellation in Santa Barbara. Since then, Brewer-Clifton’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay bottlings have consistently been among the most highly acclaimed wines from California. 

“Predominately our growth has been organic. I’ve spent 30 years developing my wine business in Santa Barbara. I really feel like this is an award for the area itself – I’m a product of it as well. I’ve been nurtured, raised, and beaten up by this area.”

However, this type of growth hasn’t happened by accident. While Greg is clearly a highly driven individual, he consistently credits his team with his success. 

“My success, our wines and the region’s growth is all about my team. All I’m trying to do is transmit the place. Early on I fell in love with the monastic nature of production. The humility that comes with never being able to do anything twice, that every year is a new year.  I’ve been reflecting a lot devoting oneself to a vocation. You have to have confidence in that entity, you have to make yourself vulnerable, and when you commit to it, the value and reward will follow. You surrender to that vocation – wine and Santa Barbara in my case.”

Prioritizing swift and mindful responses to others without excuse or compromise

It is fascinating to learn how much emphasis he puts on his personal availability to his customers as well as the incredible team he has assembled. 

“For me, creating a loyal following is about being authentic to yourself and your story.  People always ask me ‘what is the secret sauce? How have you done this?’ In the wine business, there are a couple of different routes. The one I’ve taken is making myself very accessible. I’ve always been available to my customers. My cell phone was on our back label forever. I respond to emails personally. When COVID-19 started, I told our D2C sales team to give me the spreadsheet of everyone that bought something. I sat and wrote emails to every single one. People respond to check if it’s me – and I reply again! Honestly, I was doing it for myself as much as for my customers. Many of my contemporaries went down the ‘limited edition’, no-access route. I get it, it is a marketing strategy, but it is not for me.”

Being up front and center as the face of the brand has always been part of how Greg has grown his company. Previously clocking up the air miles attending events and tastings all over the world, the pressures of the pandemic meant he too had to move to a different approach – but again, with a unique take that sets him apart as an entrepreneur. 

“I’ve had to truly embrace Zoom during this time as I can’t meet people and approach tables as I normally would. Retaining the connection to my customers is so important for me, and I like to do it in unexpected ways. People love it when they can have a nexus with someone. I ask people to send me links to events where they are consuming my wine, and I’ll pop in for five minutes – I guess I sort of invite myself, but why not! Anytime I can give a little of my passion and hopefully inspire others, that’s so important to me. I love de-mystifying wine.”

Building a loyal following through accessibility

In discussing what else sets Greg apart, it is clear his fans have bought into his authenticity – and his understanding of the market and consumer tastes is in all parts of his storytelling. 

“I think it is really important. Our goal is to be lucid, relevant and transparent. That is what makes us unique. But I’m not chasing anyone. They have to want to engage with us. The wine market is very different. There is a far greater diversity of consumer now. How we access and discover wines is so different. The intent behind one’s work is so important. Many wines taste good, so how do you differentiate, but not in a forced, contrived way?  It’s all storytelling; it’s time on the road (or Zoom!); it’s building things little by little and overcoming some people’s predispositions. Much like sparkling wine in the UK, ours is a cool underdog story, which gives the motivation and spirit to try to win. It is critical to have the drive and have the reasoning behind the product, but in a real, connectable way. We’re committed to being steadfast in our approach. And then, when our wine hopefully takes people somewhere, we’ve done our job.”

Bridging the front and back of house to adeptly straddle production and promotion

A team culture that is prepared to take risks is imperative to Greg. In his role as Co-Founder of Brewer-Clifton, he focuses on how to create a ‘test and learn’ orientated team culture aligned to the same process and goals. 

“I’ve always tried to lead by example. I recognized early on that my personal shortcoming is that I am not strong with delegating. It is something I am working on. I’m the first one here and the last to go. I do everything. My team sees that obviously, but what I try to do is create an environment where everyone feels trusted and supported. They have my full confidence, and they have the benefit of the doubt. If something doesn’t work out as intended, that’s fine. Avoiding adversity does not work.”

In running an appellation of 4,000 acres, planning is key, as is a collective team focus and working hard together. In this, Greg sees himself as a servant leader who helps his team be the best they can be every day. It is no wonder this has created such an incredible loyalty to him. 

“Our schedule is done well ahead of time, meaning we are well planned, but it is also about muscle memory. To create a nurturing environment, I need to balance high expectations. Everyone on my team wants to excel and to meet and exceed our targets. I like to lead by example, but they want to do it as much – or more – than me.  In my company there is no role division, no job titles. We play to the team’s strengths, and I look to serve my team. Many have worked with me for 10-20 years. Even if they’ve left, we still regularly talk about the experiences we shared together. It’s the greatest gift ever.” 

Staying steadfast in the method – don’t get distracted by short-term trends 

In discussing his team’s performance with Greg, it is consistently impressive to hear how he has achieved his success against the grain.

“I am just a steward. Humility is key as is a subtractive way of doing things. So frequently there is bravado and a lot of ego from the winemaker: ‘I am making the wine’, ‘I am the blend’. For me, it’s all about removing the pronoun ‘I’. The team is key to our success here, and I am just a part of it. From there, nature can always insert itself. We are not photoshopping or autotuning. We have the confidence to be vulnerable in our culture here – we don’t denigrate others, and we are always building towards something.” 

Despite accolades pouring in (sorry, have to get at least on British pun in every article), Greg is only just getting started. 

“More of the same! More than ever, I love what I do. I love it even more than I did when I first started. What is most important is to remain mindful and inclusive of others. I see this as a relay race. I’m the next leg. I’m looking to see who I am going to pass it to next. I love wine production, and I will always do it. I want to do so much more though. I am so inspired by other fields. Alexander McQueen, Bjork – anyone who takes risks. They are not for everyone, but everyone knows what they do – and knows their art. I love sharing our wines, our ethos, our process. I love to use the word ‘and’ not ‘but’, ‘we’ not ‘I’. It is my duty, honor, obligation and privilege to keep building from here. The Winemaker of the Year award gives me a valuable platform now. I don’t take it lightly at all. It is my time to get people excited about what we do on behalf of all of my team and grow our region and industry.”

After such a long – and ultimately successful – journey, leaving a sustainable legacy as a leader is clearly now key.  Growing the company from 400 acres to 4,000 and seeing the awareness of the region explode, clearly takes drive, confidence, stubbornness – and, as with any field where people are successful, the ability to take a risk. 

I hope that any CMO or leader reading this also notes to remain aware of the big picture and ensure your team is clear on the goal, once they are embedded in it.

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