Mistake Monday: Really Dumb Answers

Have you ever given horrible answers to a question?  I mean really dumb answers.  The kind you regret many years later.  I have.  Many, many horrible answers, though one in particular comes to mind.  Here is goes…

Once upon a time, I was in charge of buying Cabernet Sauvignon tons for a particular wine brand.  The instructions for my task were clear: MUST. FIND. CAB!  I was looking, hunting, digging, and searching.  My mission was to find 650 tons of Cabernet at a specific price point.  The price point I was given was below the market price at the time, but I figured I could track down what I needed or at least get pretty close.

But OH… BOY.  I couldn’t find ANY Cabernet.  At ANY price point.  Legit zeros.  Sure, I’d find 8 tons here or 18 tons there.  BUT those were just scraps of zeros!  I needed 650 tons!

During our bi-weekly meetings, I would give the status update on my Cabernet hunt.  At first, I just said I can’t find any Cabernet but I’m digging.  It was a good answer to start with.  But, after a few meetings, that answer wasn’t good enough and folks began asking harder questions.  So, I started saying, “Well, I found some Cab but it’s $1,000/ton more than I’m cleared to pay, so I’ll keep digging.” That also worked for a few meetings, but soon after, that answer was not enough either. 

The questions from my boss and my boss’ boss became really pointed and difficult to redirect.  It was not going well.  I started feeling horrible and began to second guess everything.  Maybe I wasn’t cut out for my role?  Clearly my boss gave me an assignment that I should be able to complete, but I was failing.  Clearly, I didn’t have what it takes.  I felt like a joke.  I was literally calling everyone possible, cold-calling vineyard owners, knocking on doors.   I was doing anything to find some Cabernet with no results to show for it.

As the pressure mounted, I did something I’m not proud of; nothing horrendous but something I wish I had done differently.  I mean, I kind of had to in some respect.  Or, maybe I didn’t.  I don’t know.  So… in my status reporting, I made up a few grower names and prices to make it look like I was making a little progress, to let off some of the pressure.  See, I knew we wouldn’t buy over a certain price, so I added some available, but *expensive* Cabernet on my report list.  I figured if couldn’t generate actual progress, I could at least “manufacture some progress” to relieve the pressure.  Yep, I took the easy way out to get a little relief.  I’m not proud of it, but I did it.  And actually… it did take things down from DEFCON 1 to DEFCON 3.

But inside, in my brain, I was not happy at all.  I had no answers.  I couldn’t find any answers, no matter what I tried.  I resorted to making up answers just to buy time and just hoped it would die down.

About a month later, I was having lunch with a grape broker friend.  She had a ton of experience and I thought she might be able to help.  I sheepishly told her I’d made up fake names and numbers to catch some relief.  Guess what she said to that?  She said, “Good for you!  You should have made up names from the start!  You were given a suicide mission.” 

Her response really blew my mind.  I thought she was going to agree that it was a horrible thing to do.  She went on to explain that many wineries had been out buying grapes several months sooner than normal, and that the market was just all contracted up.  She said she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen the cupboard so bare.

And that was when it hit me like a ton of bricks.  THAT was the answer.  I’d been doling out dumb answers for the last 5 months and given up.  She had THE answer.

You may be wondering, “how that’s an answer?  That means there’s still no grapes available, dude.”  And that is a good thing to wonder about, because THAT was the answer.  That’s why she said it was a “suicide mission”.  My academic training is Agricultural Economics.  How could I have not seen the forest through the trees?  It was a market feature, not a bug.

I came to learn that ever since the recession started to improve in the grape market, many, many wineries quickly went out and signed 2, 3, 4, 5-year contracts with growers.  Growers were happy to sign them so they could sell their grapes, and wineries were happy to offer them so they could lock in value/low prices. 

There were three things were at play here: 

1). there is a finite quantity of grapes in a given vintage.

2). nobody was planting acres during the recession.  Thus, no new tons were coming into the market.   

3). contract lengths were expanding so in a tightening market, anything that came on the market, was locked down for multiple years afterward AND many wineries who had existing contracts would just increase the price and re-lock in the contract with the grower. 

The market literally reached a point where no Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were available to purchase.  Available grapes didn’t exist in any substantial quantity.  So, what did I do?  Well, I went to my boss and told him, “You gave me an impossible mission.  Take this job and shove it.”

Just kidding, ha!  I did what I should have done from the start.  I quit licking my wounds, uncurled from the fetal position, and leveraged my strengths.

In the next meeting, when it was my turn for the status update I said, “I still have not found any Cabernet we can buy.  Sorry.”  I let that marinate for a few heartbeats and then I said, “I can’t find any, actually because they don’t exist.”  Now, everyone in the meeting had a lot of questions.  I explained to them the market features and how I could build a mathematical model to forecast availability for Cabernet in Sonoma County.

And guess what?!?  I was given a new task.  “Could you build a model for other varieties and other regions?”  Bingo.  I finally had a GOOD answer.

And that’s the story of how I thought I was going to die, had a lightbulb moment, and saved the company from financial ruin.  Well… not exactly.  But they did ask me to make several models and present those to the Big Wigs at a huge meeting, which was good enough for me.

AND you know what’s even better?!?  The following season, I was only tasked with finding grapes that existed!  Funny how that works…. all I had to do was quit feeling sorry for myself and lean into my advantages.  Too bad I didn’t see that in the first place.  I suppose sometimes it’s easier to curl up into a ball and deny reality.  But I always regret doing that, long after the fact.  I know I’ll never forget my Cab hunting days, for better or worse.