Mistake Monday: Life As A Hater

There are two ways to have the tallest building in town. You can either tear down the tallest building or build the tallest building. Guess which one is harder? Guess which one most people do? Yep. They take the “hater” approach.

When I first got into this business, I took the “hater” approach. While I’m not proud of it, it taught me why I want to do things differently. It taught me that if we all take that route then we have a bunch of torn down buildings and our tallest simply becomes anything left standing. It is a scorched earth approach.

When I first started working in California, I only had a theoretical knowledge of what was going on in the vineyard; that lower yields equal better quality or that there are just magical places where grapes grow best or that having a trellis system like VSP provides superior quality over a split canopy system. But that’s all theory, just Vit 101. And while some of it applies, it loosely applies, at best.

The reality is there are 1,000 factors that go into a vineyard: row direction may be dictated by parcel layout; trellis system may be dictated by water holding capacity. At best, we are making decisions with slightly imperfect information. At worst, we’re throwing spaghetti on the wall and then saying look at this beautiful marinara painting I made!

While working in California, I was searching for Cabernet Sauvignon at a pretty tight price point. I would check on vineyards that had Cab for sale and then recommend which ones of those we should buy and why. Once a month, we had meeting where I would make the case for all my recommendations in person. In one of these meetings, I let my bad theory slip into my reasoning. And my boss let me have it. See, we were looking at two specific vineyards. One was VSP and one was split canopy. I said we should go after the VSP vineyard because I just didn’t see how we would ever get the quality metrics needed off the split canopy. I could draw you a picture of that room and that moment today.

I said, “The split canopy fruit is just not worth what they’re asking.” My boss asked, “Why is that?”.

On a related note, if you are an employee at any company and anybody above you asks, “Why’s that?”, just know, you’ve made an error somewhere.

Naturally, me being full of fire and vinegar like I usually am, I doubled down and gave a longer explanation of my argument. “Not enough sunlight or ripening, spray penetration will be low, too much yield per acre, blah, blah, blah…”

He said, “So you think all those things mean poor quality?” I shook my head yes.

He replied, “Well they don’t. And if you learned all that in school then I need you to do two things. First, assume 20% of what you learned is actually going to be helpful to you in your job. Second, I want you to go spend one week with our head viticulturist and one week with this vineyard manager. We need to turn your theoretical knowledge into practical knowledge.”


The meeting wrapped, and I spent that evening crying into my beer as I licked my wounds from the day. Nah… the meeting wrapped, and I realized I needed to shut up and spend more time in reality. I could talk all I wanted, and I could say all the things that sounded good to say but none of that meant they
were actually correct.

In fact, a lot of what I thought I knew wasn’t true. I’ve seen vineyards with 9 tons/ac in Lodi deliver better quality than vineyards with 3 tons/ac in Sonoma. I’ve seen X and Y. I’ve seen A & B. In the wine industry, it is SUPER easy to hold poor beliefs because some of what we do is marketing and hype. The beauty of the industry is that time will reveal if you’re right or wrong.

Think about it:

there are 100-something commercial grape varieties

over 20 rootstocks

over a dozen trellis types

a zillion farming styles

Just look at that complexity.  For every “rule of thumb” there are probably 10 instances where that rule doesn’t apply.

Point is, I let my ego get the better of me when I started out. I took the stance of a “hater”.  I could tell you everything that was wrong, but I couldn’t tell you what or why something was good. It’s easier to be a hater, to tear down the building.  The harder thing is to put in the work to build a taller building.

Fortunately, I had a job where they corrected my ignorance very early on and I was able to adjust my perspective. Make no mistake, I’ll still stand up and call something out as being wrong, but I also give 10 reasons why it is wrong.  I will also continue to be explain what is going well and why it is working for that particular vineyard.

 “If you’re going to speak truth to power, make sure it’s the truth.” – Margaret Atwood.

This saying helps me ensure I’m a builder that’s focused on true improvements. It allows space for complexity and nuance and adaptation of my understandings. That’s why I’m big on showing my work and having others show me their work, too. Otherwise, I’m just a hater like everyone else.