Winemaking and Talent Stewardship

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Image credit: Wine Folly

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately learning about wine. And by learning, yes — there’s been some drinking, too.

I recently shared, by way of kicking off our 5th Annual Design Week, how I’m starting to learn about the many things that go into the craft of wine making. After several tours, I realized that while the wine making process is consistent in its generalities (Growing grapes, picking grapes, crushing grapes, fermenting juice, aging fermented juice, bottling wine, storing wine), there are a myriad of decisions, opportunities and levers to tweak the character of wine at every stage in the wine making process.

I tied the notion of wine making back to talent stewardship. Beware — I’m into metaphors. I think this one works. Hopefully, you do too.

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Peter Michael, Chardonnay at 2000ft, Knights Valley, Calistoga, CA


Wine is, at its essence, agriculture. The grapes are the most important thing. And much of a grape’s character and quality can be traced to terroir — where and how they’re grown. There are different varietals. There are different “clones” of those varietals. And then there’s the experience that the vineyard provides: moisture, sun exposure, mineral content, drainage. Vines that struggle produce grapes with character: tannic structure, depth, sublime qualities that go beyond “grape-flavored.” Grapes that are perfectly irrigated in improved soil with a steady diet of pleasant sunshine develop a different character. Not bad — just maybe a little less remarkable.

So — how might we think about terroir as a concept applied to recruiting talent? Where were these candidates born, what did they experience as they grew up? How did their family, their education and their friendships inform their development as people? How did their activities, hobbies, interests, sports shape their character? Have they struggled? What did that teach them? How does it show up in their motivations, passions and aspirations — as people and as employees?

As a winemaker, once you know how terroir imparts character, you can use it proactively to shape your outcomes. As a talent steward, once the concept of terroir matters to you, you can recruit accordingly. Do you recruit from the well-watered, well-tended valley floor? Or do you recruit from the rocky cliffs where the vines struggle and the character that’s produced reflects that? The more varietals and terroir you identify and can source from, the wider the range your portfolio.

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Harvested grapes, Repris Winery, Sonoma, CA


Timing is a huge part of the winemaking process. Specifically knowing when it’s time to pick the grapes. The window between when it’s too soon and too late is pretty narrow. A winemaker’s job is to know what they’re looking for — brix specifically, which are a chemical measurement of sugar content/alcohol potential. A winemakers job is to inspect carefully, the decision to pick is a costly one to get wrong.

Assessing talent is similar. Being clear about what you need, what you’re trying to accomplish, how this talent will meld with the others you’ve already selected is a process that one can’t overestimate. Our talent is our most precious resource — and we have to be incredibly selective.

Extraction and fermentation

There are many ways to express a grape. Each of those ways is part of a very specific process. Pressing chardonnay and pressing cabernet sauvignon are distinct methods with distinct outcomes. Winemakers are particular about the pressing process because it’s nearly as weighty a decision as selecting and picking the grapes. It sets an expectation — the next 2 years will ultimately unfold from here.

Your “offer and onboarding” experience is much like the extraction and fermentation process. It’s a short, important window of time that sets the expectation for the next couple years. Do it right and you’ll have the opportunity to continue to delight in the development of your talent’s character over the next two to ten years. Do it wrong (or fail to do it at all) and you risk the whole yield.

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Barrel room, Gary Farrell, Healdsburg, CA

Barrel aging

Barrels are “experience” for wine. what kind of experience you expose fermented juice to will dramatically affect its character over time. How you choose to blend several wines and/or re-rack them in different barrels — also affects their ongoing development and character. Winemakers know that in order to track a wine’s progress and ensure its developing appropriately, they must be familiar with the nature of each barrel, the nature of each other wine-in-process. So they are able to make judgments about how and when to change those circumstances to add character, play down any off-notes and develop balance. Balance is a delightful set of attributes: texture, structure, flavor and aroma and development. These notes keep wine interesting. They make it likely to age appropriately. They delight the palette, and improve with time.

Managers must similarly pair talent with character-building experiences that leverage their strengths and address their opportunities. Pairing talent with other talent creates balance. Understanding the overall composition of the team — and where learning, stretching and coaching is appropriate is a huge piece of making sure you achieve delightful team balance. That balance shouldn’t be “smooth” — it should have structure and resilience. It should improve with age.

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Hamel Family Wines, Sonoma, CA

Bottling and presentation

Wine needs to look good, too. How wine appears on the shelf is a direct reflection of what you’d expect in the bottle. Those two things should sing. From the shape, color and weight of the glass, to the cork, to the label. All those elements give confidence and set an expectation for excellence.

Working with talent on their personal presentation and brand is as important as nurturing, coaching and evaluating what’s inside. Making sure they have weight, visibility, clarity, and are presented with intention and care is a huge part of their ability to live up to their potential.

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The Cave at Caldwell Vineyard, Coombsville, Napa, CA

A stress-free environment

Unlike terroir, where struggle creates character, once a wine is bottled the environment needs more stability. Stored properly, wine can age and improve for years as long as the conditions are consistent and the wines are shielded from the detrimental nature of extreme heat, light, and agitation.

Talent is no different. Talented people demand supportive conditions conducive to growth, productivity and development over time. And while that environment is not “left alone at 55 degrees” like it is in a wine cellar, permission to focus, to learn, to fail — all in an environment of safety — ensures talent continues to thrive for years.

As a leader, a major part of my role is the selection, blending and ongoing success of the team. Piecing together a team of talented people who add character, structure, resilience and delightfully balanced complexity. We do this by sourcing for diversity of experience, background and skill. We assess and select the team members with relentlessly high standards. We onboard and manage them with thoughtful, values-based feedback, and add character and depth by providing stretch assignments and growth opportunities. We focus on their skills of influence: clarity of presentation and communication. And we support them in a nurturing environment that tolerates risk, encourages learning and expects and promotes mobility.

Written by

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.

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