Deborah Steinthal, Managing Director I Scion Advisors I McMinnville, Oregon


This is a follow up to my May 2020 article, ‘How COVID-19 is making ‘warriors’ out of wine entrepreneurs’. I wrote how the events of 2020 ‘would make warriors out of Northwest wine and spirits entrepreneurs: the strong would become stronger through building exceptional leadership muscle and by leveraging opportunity’.

A year later in 2021, it’s good to remind ourselves just how far we’ve come, how resilient we can be – and that no matter how difficult change may be, we can always take positives from what has happened. Indeed, no one could have predicted the profound impact on the U.S. wine and spirits industry – of the events of 2020[1]. While its toll on the wine industry is likely substantial for most, 2020 spelled opportunity for a subset of wine decision-makers who learned to make heroic shifts in their business models: a highly talented and nimble group of next gen leaders. Emerging as the backbone of the western United States industry, most demonstrated an amazingly capacity to drive material top and bottom-line growth over 2019. 

My purpose with this article is to share their lessons and sprinkle some of their magic, inspiring others to possibly follow in these leaders’ footsteps.

Throughout last year, I met up monthly with these young wine CEOs, harvesting learnings in order to shape more intentionally how to position their businesses to drive growth in 2021 and beyond. What strikes me about these leaders is the speed at which they reacted to change, their mindset, persistence, creativity and (pre-COVID) preparation. Something magical happened last February and March, when these leaders were forced to try new things that would enable them to survive and to possibly emerge stronger.

In their darkest moments, these young leaders learned how to nurture the very best elements of emotion, creativity, human connection, and empathy – inspiring change leadership at every level (work, community and personal families, alike). Since everyone was sharing the same experience openly and transparently, it is possible COVID became an aligning factor – accelerating their ability to change.

‘If resilience is knowing we can … overcome any challenge that is presented to us, then we have definitely earned that credential in 2020. Robert Moshier, CEO, Northwest Wine Company

These next gen CEOs learned how to build new ‘leadership muscle’. How to…:

ONE – Gain confidence in their abilities. Research indicates that when organizations invest in the well-being, energy and development of their people, they see four times higher profit, and more than twenty percent gain in productivity and innovation. These leaders introduced new, more human-centered principles truly putting talent and people at the heart of organizational success. They learned how to provide candid feedback on the fly – each step enabling team members to become more comfortable with new skills.

By giving people the ability to learn from successes and failures – they grew and developed their capacity to drive faster decisions amid uncertainty. These next gen leaders learned how to make change happen: to be nimble and fluid in resetting direction in response to opportunity and hurdles; how to revamp team execution practices on the fly. They painstakingly engaged team members in building new processes and trying out new ideas – which developed adaptability and resilience skills at scale.

  • ‘Keeping our team and guests safe was our number one priority; that is what I lost sleep over. The crisis became an opportunity organizationally: to accelerate our productivity through restructuring the organization, developing talent and building resilience.’ Jennifer Locke, CEO, Crimson Wine Group
  • ‘A year ago, who would have thought ‘the average American’ winemaker would become an overnight celebrity being Zoomed into dozens of wine lovers’ living rooms weekly?’ Ellen Brittan, proprietor, Brittan Vineyards.
  • ‘Each pivot – opening the tasting room; closing the tasting room, became easier and more automatic. As my team gained confidence and I was able to focus elsewhere.’ Janie Heuck Brooks, Managing Director, Brooks Winery
  • ‘We thought we could prevail and now KNOW we can … overcome any challenge that is presented to us.’ Robert Moshier, CEO, Northwest Wine Company

TWO – Build unbounded optimism. A critical part of succeeding through these times involved helping their teams to let go of the past and build forward momentum. By grounding their narrative in their organizations’ purpose or ‘reason for being’ – employees made sense out of their new reality; regained a sense of stability; and reignited individual motivation, well-being, and productivity. By reconnecting with a core purpose, their teams gained more confidence, efficacy, and endurance – especially important when the outcome took longer or was different from what was expected.

  • ‘We soon discovered, trying to sprint through what they thought was a marathon— was fast becoming a triathlon (a much longer, more challenging endeavor requiring more complex decision making and skills). The pace was unsustainable for a single leader. We needed to learn a new level of leadership – how to inspire others to act – to tag team them and augment momentum.’ Briana Seeley, Sales & Marketing Director, Argyle
  • During this last year in particular and in times of crisis, proactive employee communications and attentiveness to their emotional wellbeing are essential practices – instilling higher productivity through hope and optimism vis a vis the future.’ Christine Clair, Winery Director, Willamette Valley Vineyards
  • ‘We managed what we could control; this enabled our team to endure with some sense of hope.’ Gretchen Boock, CEO, Wine by Joe

THREE – Unleash energy by evolving business operating models. They spent more time on activities that directly delivered on their organizations’ purpose and strategic agendas (how companies create value), and less time on things that were peripheral to creating value and enabling that purpose. They helped employees connect to purpose – energizing in its own right. Operationalizing purpose makes it a core component to how companies work; enabling leaders and team members to focus on what really matters.

  • ‘When everyone became clear about WHAT we needed to be doing but also – WHY we were doing it, it became easier to prioritize, to identify which work could be delayed, which meetings could be skipped, and which decisions “were actually good enough”.’ Josh McDaniels, CEO, Bledsoe Family Estates
  • ‘… How to drive with purpose and transparency: everything shifted when we began tapping into the collective genius of our communities, the power of loyalty – wine club and followers – energizing through humanitarian as well as innovative and practical acts of leadership, with greater empathy and compassion to create a workplace that can unleash the full potential of their people even beyond the crisis.’ Janie Heuck Brooks, Managing Director, Brooks Winery
  • ‘COVID exposed the strengths and weaknesses of our various sales channels, and by empowering our team to act quickly, we were able to leverage our digital competence to accelerate our ecommerce business further and implement innovative working models overnight, including interactive tasting videos, virtual corporate tastings/team building events,  and a takeout food and wine pairing meal service – in weeks rather than months or years.’ Tom Dugan, CEO, DeLille Cellars
  • ‘We finally discovered how to grow bottom line – not just top line. This changed everything and made our work even more meaningful.’ Paul Durant, Owner/CEO, Durant Family Vineyards

In closure. 

For many in 2020, the recently-suffered losses have been excruciating. And yet, here we still are.  Aldous Huxley, the philosopher and author, observed: ‘Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.’ Change continually confronts us. There’s no escaping it. That’s not to say change isn’t hard at times.

Agile organizations are roughly twice as fast as peers to react to crisis and opportunity. What I am hearing from our group of Northwest wine and spirits leaders is 2020 made them more agile and better prepared to handle shocks, such as COVID-19 or other disruptions – with greater speed and resilience.

These decision-makers, their business and family teams have built ‘survivor muscles’ that enable them to prevail during the worst of times and not only survive—but thrive. They have in fact accelerated development of new skills and competencies; mastering in 12 months what would have taken ten years to learn and practice.

2021 will be a year when these ‘wine warriors’ leapfrog industry status quo: build on recent successes, harness creativity and take their businesses to even new levels, beyond comprehension. But make no mistake—while the seeds of seismic change have been planted, over the next two years we will see even more change than we have in the past ten. What this will entail exactly is not quite clear as of yet. As Charles Darwin observed: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, it is the one that is most adaptable to change’.

[1] Rob McMillan, Executive Vice President, Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division – in his recently published ‘2021 Annual State of the US Wine Industry Report’, notes: ‘… adjustments allowed only about a third of wineries to have better sales than their prior year. Lessons learned will shape strategy for the next decade.’


ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Deborah Steinthal is Founder and Managing Director of Scion Advisors, a leading boutique, strategy consulting firm serving the U.S. wine industry. With a proven approach enabling business owners to position for profitable growth or for exit, she has worked alongside over 150 winery owners and CEOs; and has moderated over 80 Winery CEO Roundtables involving more than 50 top wine industry CEOs for over a decade. Deborah’s expertise is in the area of business growth strategy, family business transformation, and board and leadership development.

Based out of McMinnville, Oregon; born in Lima, Peru; raised in Belgium and Germany; Deborah has lived, worked and travelled globally. She is broadly published in the national business press, an invited speaker, panelist and widely quoted for research on key practices, such as such as How to Build a Pull Brand, Digital Commerce and Family Business Transition.

For more information call Deborah Steinthal at 707.246.6830.

Among her clients: Bledsoe Family Estates (Doubleback, Bledsoe family Wines, Bledsoe-McDaniels), Cristom Vineyards, Adelsheim Vineyard, Wine by Joe, DeLille Cellars, Woodward Canyon Winery, OVS, Willakenzie, Elizabeth Chambers Cellar, Patz & Hall Winery, Benziger Family Vineyards, Calera Wine Company, Delicato Family VIneyards, Cakebread, Spottswoode, Gundlach Bundschu, Luna Vineyards, Clos Du Val, Quail’s Gate Winery, Wente, J. Lohr, Choice Lunch,
 Cowgirl Creamery, 
Easton Malloy 
(producers of Peppermint Bark for Williams-Sonoma)
, and McEvoy Ranch.

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