Follow your dream: Four entrepreneurial lessons from a radio engineer turned winemaker

Back in August, my husband and I stumbled upon a small microwinery and tasting room in downtown Healdsburg, Calfornia, Garagiste, which is a joint venture for two wineries, Cartograph and Stark. Thinking we’d just grab a quick taste and leave, we ended up enchanted by Alan Baker, Cartograph’s wine maker and owner.

Alan’s entrepreneurial story is fabulous: He’s a public radio engineer, turned blogger/podcaster, turned winemaker. With Cartograph, he produces ultra-premium Pinot Noir sourced from grapes from the best Northern California coastal vineyards. (PS, great holiday gift idea!)  His mission is to produce wines that are true to the vineyard and vintage from which they come.

As we sat and sipped, we loved the gothic, high-end feel of the stone gray tasting room and the interaction we had with the man who’d lovingly made the wines we were enjoying. We got to talking about how he loved that wine is such an experiential brand, and for that reason, so much care was taken in architecting and decorating the tasting room. Most wine lovers know that the joy is found in the experience of wine – and that can manifest whether you are spending $20 or $200 a bottle. It’s not about price: it’s about taste and experience.

But Alan is not just savvy about branding, he has a powerful entrepreneurial story, ripe with juicy lessons about planning, moxie, and following your dream – no matter how far down the bottom of the ladder you may need to start.

THIS IS A TWO PART INTERVIEW. In Part One, Alan shares how he got started in an industry he knew little about and parlayed a loyal audience into backers for his dream. In Part Two, Alan shares important lessons on crafting an experiential brand.

Here is Part One of Alan’s story with four lessons you can take to heart in your own ventures:


1. Opportunity will knock – if you build your house in the right place (Tweet!)

My passion for great wine started with a simple $13 bottle of Riesling from Alsace. I was fascinated that such a simple thing as a pale colored glass of wine could be so incredibly complex and engaging. My obsession with learning everything I could about the wines of the world eventually led me to decide I needed to at least try to find a way to make wine the focus of my day rather than an off-hours pursuit. After years of interviewing maverick American composers like Meredith Monk and Philip Glass for my radio work, I knew that finding the right path is often a process that brings a lot of uncertainty and risk into life. They instilled in me the belief that if you focus on what you love and do best while putting yourself into a position where opportunities may present themselves, you’re sure to find creative energy and success.

2. Work with what you’ve got (Tweet!)

Once I’d decided to strike out for California from my Minnesota home, I needed a scheme to get experience. I knew I loved wine, but I wasn’t confident I would love the wine “business.” I feared that I’d end up like the cake lover who opens a bakery only to realize they hate getting up at 2 a.m. every day. So rather than spend my life savings on a degree at UC Davis, I decided to do what I already knew how to do: produce radio. I’d use my production skills to investigate where I might fit in the wine business. The plan was simple and, necessarily, vague. I would write a blog and produce an audio podcast to document my adventures as I explored the wine industry – a well-developed industry I knew very little about.

I told all my friends and family about the idea repeatedly to force myself out of my safe public radio job and into the unknown. My pitch to wineries was that if they gave me part-time work, they’d get publicity from the podcast. There was really no other reason for them to pay me to do work they could get done faster with experienced help, so the podcast was my foot in the door.

In the fall of 2005, National Public Radio picked up the podcast for their alt.npr series. This affiliation grew the audience for my content quickly and enabled me to pretty much call anybody up and schedule an interview. I used the podcast as a way to investigate all aspects of the industry from grape growers to marketing pros and wine makers I respected to see where I might fit in the wine business. I turns out that I write way too slowly to ever make a buck off the writing, so that was out. Growing grapes is a very labor-intensive activity and unless you own that chunk of dirt, it’s not a thing a 40-year-old dude is going to get by on when he has a wine budget to think about. It had also become clear that while NPR did like the content, there wasn’t a market for wine-focused media that was going to start paying the bills. So I was burning through my savings and starting to feel the pressure that comes with not knowing what’s next. However, once I got into the winery working as a cellar rat with Unti and Peterson wineries in Dry Creek Valley, I found what I’d been looking for. The winemaking process is fascinating and I fell in love with every backbreaking chore and nerdy technical detail.

3. Get creative: Leverage your community (Tweet!)

With the bank account shrinking I focused on how I might stick around to work another vintage. Plan B: move to San Francisco to do tech consulting to stash some money for the 2006 harvest. Grapes are not cheap, nor is paying for winery space to make wine. I scored some nice consulting contracts but quickly realized that I was only treading water. SF is a very expensive town and I would never save enough money to make wine. Also, I was just doing the same work as before, albeit in a very pretty city. I had a few months of living expenses left and figured I had one shot at leveraging all the work I had been doing writing the blog and producing the podcast. So after finding a very innovative winery in San Francisco called Crushpad where I could make wine, I sent out a pitch to my blog readers and podcast listeners; If they would pay in advance for a case of wine they could come help me make my first commercial wine and we’d document the whole process with a video podcast. To my great relief I sold 65 of 100 cases of wine as futures, giving me the cash to buy grapes and pay Crushpad. The archive of this project is still online.

My brand was named after the blog. Cellar Rat Cellars. Throughout this project, I was using Crushpad’s virtual winemaking website called Crushnet to manage my group of people helping with the wine. People as far away as Puerto Rico were participating, so having a tool to manage this virtual group was a necessity. After the winemaking was concluded, I was hired by Crushpad to develop Crushnet and grow the virtual community of winemakers. It was at Crushpad working on hundreds of fermentations a year where I got most of my hands-on winemaking experience and set me up to strike out on my own to launch Cartograph with my partner Serena Lourie in 2009.

4. Get friendly with uncertainty while keeping you eye on your vision (Tweet!)

I think it’s essential in any entrepreneurial operation to use the tools at hand to continually move towards a goal, even when the route is completely unknown at the start of the journey. There is always a way to use your existing skills to open new doors but you have to be willing to live with a lot of uncertainty and always be looking at alternate ways to solve a problem. Had you asked me 12 months into the events above if it was worth it, I might have said no but another six months, and a couple more forced left turns, and I was being paid well as a technologist in a ground-breaking winery. From where I sat in Minnesota I honestly couldn’t have dreamt up a better outcome.

The “persistence of vision” mantra I’d been hearing from those composers I so admired really does work.

Join us for Part Two of this interview, when Alan talks about his brand vision for Cartograph and how he brought it to life.

Connect with Cartograph Wines: ~ Twitter ~ Facebook

What A Ha! insight did you get from Alan’s story? How does it apply to your own entrepreneurial or project journey? Please share in the Comments below and get some link love back to you site!

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