Andy Beckstoffer sells wine grapes at prices above $10,000 per ton, in an industry where $2,000 is more common. He grows thousands of acres, and has spent 40 years turning Beckstoffer Vineyards into a luxury brand in an industry dominated by nameless commodities.
“Uhh, how?” asked a fellow grape grower at a meeting I attended a few years ago.
The question was a good one. If the man who dominates your industry shows up at a meeting, it’s time to table the agenda and start asking him questions.
And Andy was happy to share, in his charming Virginia accent. “Well, Bill, if you grow wine grapes, you better grow the best damn wine grapes in the world. And you better put all your energy into that, and you better ask people to put your name on the bottle so people know where the grapes came from. And when your winemaker customers get a higher price for their wine because your grapes are better than everyone else’s, you better ask to get a proper share of that price.”
I knew all that from reading about Beckstoffer in history books, but it was still fun to hear it from the man himself.
And then came the nugget that I hadn’t read anywhere.
“But even if you grow the best damn grapes, you need people to notice. So if you’re a grape grower, you’re not going to be spending time with other grape growers. Grape growers don’t buy grapes. You better be spending time with winemakers. Winemakers buy grapes. And the best winemakers in America were in Napa Valley when we started, so that’s where I set up office. If you’re a grape grower, you’re selling grapes to winemakers, so you better walk where they walk, eat where they eat, and pee where they pee. And then when they come up short on a wine blend, and you’re standing right there at the urinal next to them, you bet they’re gonna ask you about the finest grapes in the world.”
They didn’t mention urinals when I took my MBA, and I’m not sure if they came up at Dartmouth in 1966 when Andy finished his. But Andy’s comments have done more for my understanding of business than most of the things that did come up in school.
ps. If Andy reads this post, I hope he will excuse my paraphrase. I couldn’t take notes fast enough to get it verbatim. I hope to have captured the essence.