The powerful play goes on, and these first-generation winemakers are contributing their verses

"The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."

I’ve loved this quote from Walt Whitman since I first encountered it in the movie Dead Poets Society. If you haven’t seen it, please go watch it. Be prepared: it’s poignant, at times very painful, but also very real and important. Robin Williams is sheer brilliance, and the message of the film is essential and beautiful. Without giving anything away, it is simply this: Carpe diem. Fight against the ordinary. Pursue your dreams.

To be clear, this message isn’t delivered as all sunshine and rainbows. Rather, there is a stark recognition that pursuing your dreams can be risky and require sacrifice, with a strong correlation between the level of risk and the importance of the dream. But it’s worth it.

Why did this line of poetry come to mind when I sat down to write this blog about first-generation winemakers, many of whom are Sip Wines partners? Let’s start with some learning and go from there.

What does “first-generation” mean?

You’re probably familiar with the term “first-generation” from other contexts. It’s a very literal term, meaning exactly what it describes: someone who is first-generation anything means that person represents the first-generation of their family to be or do that anything. Probably the most common use arises in the context of someone’s ethnicity or country/culture of origin, describing someone who is a first-generation American or US resident. It’s also used in the educational context, describing someone who is the first in their family to achieve a particular level of education (college, graduate school, etc.).

Describing a winery (which sometimes also includes a vineyard) as “first-generation” means something slightly different. It’s less focused on the background of a particular person and more so on the winery itself, indicating that the current owners and/or operators of that winery are also the founders. In other words, it means that a person or persons brought a winery into existence, as opposed to taking over or inheriting an existing winery.

two people sitting in front of wine barrels
Brian Mast and Jennifer Waits of Waits-Mast Family Cellars

Why is it significant to be first-generation?

Across the board, first-generation is a term that represents challenge. A person who is first-generation is someone who enters a situation—be it a country, culture, school, industry—without any familial or historical context to guide them.  It’s incredibly important to recognize this distinction, because it can permeate almost all aspects of that person’s experience and render it very different from others. If you’re not first-generation, you may not even realize what a significant difference it truly is until you examine it.

Take college, for example. I grew up in a very academic family and had two parents who were extremely familiar with higher education. They could advise me on the pros and cons of various schools and assess the schools I should target. They were able to set up visits and counsel my application process, and they told me what to expect when I arrived on campus. And once I was there, they were available any time I had questions about how to deal with a faculty member or administrator. A first-generation college student had none of that. Even with the most supportive and well-intentioned parents, that student likely had to navigate the entire college experience far more independently and alone than I did--and that lack of support can have a HUGE impact on that student’s future success.

Essentially, being first-generation means that you’re starting from scratch. And that’s almost always hard.

Ok, back to wine

Lady in white shirt standing in field
Alice Warnecke-Sutro of SUTRO Wine Co.

What does it mean to be first-generation in the wine industry?

Breaking into the wine business as a first-generation winery founder is challenging in a number of ways, and success is incredibly hard to come by—and yet, if you’re not familiar with the wine industry, it’s really hard to appreciate that. That’s why Sip Wines wants to elevate and feature our first-generation winery partners, so that when you try their wines (and you really should, they’re amazing) you know that you’re drinking something that is a labor of love, a product of determination, and a symbol of true entrepreneurship.

Challenge 1: Entrepreneurship is always risky.

I’m admittedly quite risk averse, which is how I ended up as a lawyer. Bummer. It’s true though, I was so scared to step off the moving career path walkway and try something new that I rode it all the way through college, through law school, and to the big law firm, where I was miserable for way too many years. I have SO MUCH RESPECT for anyone who has a vision of what they want and is willing to risk a lot, or everything, to try to achieve it. Because the risk of failure is REAL. Almost all of the entrepreneurs I know have at least one story of painful defeat, and most often that defeat is entirely out of their control: one friend opened a restaurant in 2008 right before the financial crisis and of course it went under; another friend started a legal software business that collapsed after her business partner embezzled everything; yet another friend opened a gym a month before the current pandemic hit the US, and while he’s still in business, I’m worried about him.

In fact, being an entrepreneur ALWAYS means being first-generation in a way, because it means that you’re building something from scratch that has never existed before. You don’t have a foundation on which to build, or a framework already constructed for you. You’re basically picking up a deck of cards and trying to place each card exactly right so that the whole house doesn’t collapse, except you’re outdoors and really hoping the wind doesn’t blow or pollen doesn’t make you sneeze, thwarting even your most perfectly precise construction.

Challenge 2: The wine industry is complicated like whoa.

Starting any kind of business poses challenges, but some businesses are WAY more complicated than others. I know this firsthand because I am a woman of many hobbies; I like to dabble in lots of crafts and creations, and I’ve sold various things. Two particular things I enjoy are designing Christmas ornaments, and making quick pickles. Ornaments are a pretty easy side hustle: buy the materials, make the ornaments, register with the state to pay sales taxes, set up some kind of online payment system, calculate taxes, and deal with shipping and/or registering at local markets. Pickles, on the other hand… forget about it. There are all kinds of regulations around food safety even for at-home hobbyists, which is of course a good thing, but makes it a way harder side hustle.

But if you think selling food is complicated… try alcohol. Of course, because it’s a consumable product, there are going to be laws around safe production and storage so that you don’t, you know, poison people. Then there’s the fact that, well, it’s alcohol, which means laws about purchase and consumption age, ID requirements, probably more I’m not thinking of. That’s a lot of different laws to navigate.

Then, there’s the fact that you want your new wine business to be profitable. Wine definitely has high entry costs: purchasing land, facilities, equipment, that kind of thing. For a small operation, it’s going to be hard to make money just selling locally, so you want to look at shipping. Guess what: Every state has its own laws about shipping and selling wine! All 50 of them! Yay! At the law firm one of the worst things you could be tasked with as a junior associate was doing what was called a 50-state survey, basically a chart of laws on a particular subject in every single state.

See what I mean about complexity?

Challenge 3: Wine is a finicky and two-faced mistress.

A bit dramatic perhaps, but true nonetheless. Here’s why.

When I say wine is two-faced, it’s because it’s both agricultural and artisanal (I use these terms a bit loosely). There’s the grape-growing side, and wine grapes are finicky—even small changes in temperature, rainfall, whatever can affect how well they grow and how good they ultimately taste. When you’re dealing with nature, all bets are off. No matter how hard you work and how correctly you do everything, nature can send murder hornets or Saharan dust or whatever and F up all your plans. Even if you’re not growing your own grapes but rather buying them from a vineyard, the risk is still there because if the vineyard you contracted with has no good grapes, you have no wine.

Then there’s the artisanal side, the actual creation and crafting of the wine.  And there’s all kinds of variables here as well that I won’t get into, but they can also determine whether a wine will taste good.

I’m tired just thinking about it.

Well geezy peezy Julia, if it’s so darn hard, why would anyone do it?

Good question, dear reader, and it’s one with a pretty awesome answer that I’ve gathered from many conversations with Sip Wines winery partners who are first-generation in the business. They do it because they love it. As Walt Whitman said, wine is the verse they want to contribute, no matter how difficult it might be.

Passion is a pretty powerful force, and it’s something that I’ve observed in every Sip Wines winery partner (first-generation or not) that I’ve had the privilege of speaking with. These are people who truly have a passion for wine, and I don’t mean they love wine the way that I love wine. For these folks, wine represents more than a drink. Wine is an embodiment of so many things: the identities and values of all the people who contribute to making it, the land where it’s grown and made, the history of the processes used to make it, the elements of the earth that go into it, and the moments in time that wine can capture. For the first-generation winemakers and winery owners out there, it’s a love that most of them experience and cultivate even before entering into it themselves, it’s what drives them to pursue a dream even though achieving it will most likely be incredibly difficult, and it’s what makes them persevere so forcefully that they leave no room for failure. And I’ll say this: having tried a lot of these wines myself, you can taste the love that goes into them. They’re truly something special, and I feel very confident in saying that because, well, I drink a lot of wine.

If you couldn’t tell, I’ve been truly inspired and humbled by the people I’ve spoken with through Sip Wines. The sad truth is that more people than not in the world will never be able to articulate a dream, much less take the risk and face the fear of pursuing it. I’ll be honest, I haven’t quite gotten there myself. But after speaking with some of our Sip Wines partners, I’d like to think I’m a little closer to finding my own verse to contribute--their happiness is contagious.

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