From the advantages to staying small to the nuances of scaling the intimacy factor.
By Cathy Huyghe
Not every entrepreneur can afford to wait over 40 years to launch a brand extension. But for Neal Rosenthal, one of the most respected and established wine merchants in the world, his new venture into wine tourism epitomizes the logic, rationale and motivation that drives entrepreneurs of any age.
In a rare interview, particularly given his reputation to intentionally avoid media attention rather than chase it, Rosenthal offered surprising, pithy and characteristically bulls-eye insights for new initiatives and starting a business with a fresh perspective. From the advantages of going against the grain, to not compromising your vision, to the benefits of staying small, here are five inspirational takeaways.
1. There’s an advantage of going against the grain.
“Carving out your own path has much more long-term viability,” Rosenthal said. For a wine industry veteran in his eighth decade of life, he’s earned the right to his opinion on the matter. If you simply move with the flow of the market and respond to market pressure and demand, he said, you’ll never be ahead of the curve. It will constantly be a game of catch-up.
2. Position vision and integrity against market swings.
Rosenthal’s portfolio of wines is considered to be a “true north” for limited-production brands, particularly from family-owned vineyards in France and Italy. There are at least three red flags in that sentence for anyone who is both market-aware and looking to turn a quick profit:
- Limited production, which means limited and potentially inconsistent supply,
- Family-owned vineyards, whose succession plans are increasingly perilous,
- France and Italy, whose domestic consumption of wine has been dropping precariously for years.
Nonetheless, Rosenthal believes (and has demonstrated) that you can maintain your integrity and have a vision that is unique, without compromising based on a perception of where the market is going to be.
3. You can have financial sustainability at the small scale.
Financial sustainability in the wine business often means building volume, accessing larger-volume producers, and/or operating a large production facility. Instead, as the import company grew, Rosenthal kept adding more small growers to the company’s portfolio. “It makes much more work,” he said, “but ultimately we stay with what we’re good at.”
The reality of that approach is that day-to-day efforts, especially early on, probably won’t show up in the bottom line. “For the first 15 years, we never took a dime out of the business,” he said, noting that for most great entrepreneurs, making money is never the singular objective. “It’s more about the joy of seeing an idea that is unique and worthwhile, like a grower coming in with a great harvest, seeing all the work they’ve done for the 12 months before that.”
The reality of “staying small” has also meant trading financial reward for the lifestyle of wine, with its focus on the pleasures of the table and the vineyard. At those times, Rosenthal said, “my ego was being fed more than my bank accounts, but sometimes that’s enough to keep you going.”
4. Hire the right people.
Rosenthal knew his business was a success when he saw the need to expand his staff and hire new people. But the tipping point, it seems, is steeped in his answer to my question of how he knew they were the “right” people to hire.
“They came to me,” he said. “They understood what we were doing, and we had a meeting of the minds. Nothing is a better investment than the people you work with.”
5. Scale the intimacy factor.
It takes time, Rosenthal said, to build the relationships that make once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences possible, and to find the clients who enroll in such an exclusive experience.
But offering those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, as Rosenthal and his partners, Zest of Italy, now aim to do with their tourism business, is an extension of the core of what’s made the original wine import business so successful: intimacy, both with wineries and producers as well as with the culture in which they’re embedded. This could mean releasing honeybees in a national park, or it could mean sharing old vintages of wines that are literally the last remaining bottles on earth. Either way, it’s about the unique, expressive and memorable experience.