A Sip Wines Winelight
Monte Pitt, Sherie Pitt, and Dave Chen
It all started with two grad students and a dream… and the rest is history.
I kid, I kid. That would be the shortest Winelight ever. It’s just that after speaking with Mike Willison, the Patton Valley Vineyard Director of National Sales, I was reminded of how powerful the art of storytelling can be. Mike knows how to tell a story, in the way that you don’t even notice time passing or remember why you started talking in the first place, it’s just that captivating. As I sat down to write this Winelight and looked back over my notes from my call with Mike, I realized that he told the story of Patton Valley so well that my raw notes read like a finished piece. It’s kind of a lot of pressure, trying to retell a story that I don’t know as well as the original narrator, who told it so beautifully. On the plus side, none of you were on that call, so at least you can’t compare. My job is safe for now.
So, yeah. Patton Valley Vineyard did start with two grad students, Monte Pitt and Dave Chen, business school friends who fantasized about opening a winery if they ever had the money someday. Over a decade later, they actually did it. So here my mind is already blown before I even get into all the ridiculously impressive stuff they’re doing with the vineyard and winery they now own: they kept in touch that whole time, kept the dream alive, made enough money to make it happen, and liked each other enough to still want to go into business together. (Whereas, I’m pretty sure the only person I’ve kept in touch with from college is my husband, and right now our dreams consist of sleep and paying off our student loans, neither of which we have achieved.). Not only that, but some might have considered them to be an unlikely pair from the beginning. Monte is from a small town in Wisconsin, and Dave is a Taiwanese expat who came to the US for school and stayed--pretty different backgrounds for sure. And yet they were able to share a dream and align their experiences, strengths, and goals to make it happen. I mean, what are the odds of all those stars aligning? But they did, and Dave and Monte moved to Oregon and bought some land and learned how to make wine…
Well, the rest WAS history, but I’m going to tell it to you because it’s just so incredibly cool. See, it wasn’t enough for these guys to keep in touch, achieve professional and financial success, remember their dream of starting a winery, move out to Oregon with their families, and learn literally the entire winemaking business from scratch. No no, leave it to Dave to just keep asking the right questions. Mike told me this part of the history like it was an old legend--and maybe it is! As the legend goes, Dave was in Winemaking 101, learning the absolute basics of the process from grape growing to harvest to production, when a question occurred to him at a crucial moment. As his instructor explained how the grapes were brought in from harvest, Dave asked: When do you wash the grapes?
Sounds like such a simple question, right? After all, in any aspect of agriculture, protecting the crop is top priority, and various treatments (such as pesticides) are common practice to ensure that birds and insects don’t wreak havoc--even a total amateur like Dave knew that. So, naturally, he wanted to find out what happened between harvesting the grapes and, you know, turning them into wine. At what point in the process do you get all that stuff off the grapes? Ah, the beauty of tradition: I like to think that his instructor literally scratched his/her head before saying, um, well, you don’t.
Was that the lightbulb moment? Could be, given Dave’s (actually entirely reasonable) response, along the lines of: ooooooooh-kay, then, I guess we only want to put stuff on the grapes that’s not harmful for people who ultimately consume the wine. In reality, it’s a pretty natural line of thinking that probably has occurred to others before Dave; rather, the difference is that for Dave, this was an absolute sticking point. No, they weren’t going to use potentially harmful pesticides to maximize crop production and profits. They would just make wine without them--and they began farming organically.
Sadly, I think I’ll have to omit some of the details that Mike shared from the timeline, only because this is a blog post rather than a magazine article. Suffice it to say, they trucked along making wine for a few years, always keeping an eye on how they could be doing things better, until they reached a point of relative business security and had the opportunity for some serious self-reflection. Resurrecting Dave’s pivotal question about washing grapes, the Patton Valley team decided to ask themselves: When do we wash the business? And how?
I love framing the question in such simple terms, because the reality is complex--and yet not. In essence, what the Patton Valley team was referring to was the multitude of business practices ranging from vaguely shady to downright dark that businesses implement to maximize profits, and then spend time and money “spinning” so as not to damage their reputations. What if (they asked themselves) we just didn’t act shady to begin with? What if we just do business as nice people, do the right thing, strive for kindness, pay our employees, and basically not be jerks? (Mike’s words, actually.)
It sounded like a good game plan, so that’s what they did. And for a long time, they did it very quietly and under the radar, mainly because there didn’t seem to be a feasible way for a very small business to broadcast their “non-jerk” practices in a much larger industry.
I’m going to break with the narrative here for just a moment to call out what may be the most amazing part of the whole Patton Valley story, and it’s this: when they knew what the “right” thing to do was and realized there was no way to tell the world they were doing it… they just did it anyway. No attention, no fuss. They did it solely because it was right. Now THAT is character.
A few years in, sustainability certifications started to arrive on the scene, and Patton Valley jumped at the chance to gain recognition for practices they’d been implementing for years, quickly obtaining LIVE and Salmon Safe certifications. (And no, wanting recognition for their good behavior doesn’t even remotely change how amazing that behavior was, it’s not like they knew they would get the recognition going in). But they didn’t stop there. In addition to all this wine action, Dave was also the CEO of the asset management firm Equilibrium (in, I don’t know, all that free time he had?), which obtained B Corp certification. (If you don’t know what B Corp certification is, check out the recent Sip Wines blog post on B Corporation basics.) Dave and Monte started wondering if a winery could also realistically obtain B Corp status, understanding that the process would look very different for a wine company like Patton Valley. Why, you ask?
The answer can be found in a simple breakdown of the business. Patton Valley is a vineyard and a winery, meaning the business consists of the following elements: farming, manufacturing, bottling/processing, delivering, and marketing/selling. To obtain B Corp certification, each one of these business arms must be sustainable, not just growing grapes in an environmentally sustainable way or using solar power for their irrigation system. Actually, the most striking example Mike gave was the bottles. I had no idea that many wineries import their bottles from overseas (China is the example Mike gave); before the bottles even arrive at a winery, they already have thousands of “food miles” on them--meaning the distance something is transported before consumption and the carbon footprint it leaves. Worse, the glass bottles make up half the weight of their total product in final shipping (more carbon footprint), and are destined for the garbage. What’s a winery to do?
Well, Patton Valley IS B Corp certified, so clearly they’ve figured a lot of this out. In fact, Patton Valley is one of only 25 wineries in the world (as of 2019) to have obtained that status, which means I feel like the Rocky theme song should play whenever one of the PV crew enters a room. Lest you think otherwise, they had to work HARD for it, just like any other B Corp, and in some ways it was actually harder because of their small size. For example, one B Corp metric is diversity in management; well, when there are only four people running the whole business, that can be tricky. I didn’t have time to ask Mike how they figured all that out, but obviously they did. Oh, but I did learn that their wine bottles are made from domestically produced glass. Cool.
As I am wont to do at the end of these conversations, I asked Mike if he had any advice for the wine industry, here in the context of B Corp certification and what it stands for. Given the complexity and challenge of it all, I was surprised at how readily Mike gave me an answer, and how straightforward it was. To paraphrase: Let go of tradition. Wine doesn’t have to come in bottles, which not only use a huge amount of glass, but also require tons of extra packing materials and incur huge carbon costs for transport. Get creative. Free your mind… and the rest will follow. (If you don’t know that song lyric, do ten pushups as a youth tax to En Vogue.)
I’ll leave you with this: Patton Valley’s wine is so good, they could sell it to me in an oversized toothpaste tube and that would be just fine. Try it for yourself and see what I mean.