Lunch with Allen Shoup

One of the delights of the ZINO Society is brightening up a dreary, rainy January day with a great speaker, great food, and networking at an intimate KEYNotable luncheon.  Twelve of us gathered at the John Howie Steak restaurant in Bellevue to listen and engage with Allen Shoup, formerly CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and currently founding CEO of Long Shadows in Walla Walla, WA.

For too many years I’ve wanted to meet Allen to understand his life’s journey with fine wine and to thank him for all that he has done to promote Washington State wines.  Through his work and instilled ethos at Ste. Michelle, Allen shared sponsored research and technology with Washington wineries as he noted “anybody making good wine in the state helps our brand and anybody making poor wine in the state hurts our brand.”

Allen immediately made everyone feel welcome and like an old friend.  As he grasped my hand and looked me in the eye, he observed “You look a lot like Joe Gallo.  Are you related to the family?”  I laughed and replied “I can only wish.”  I watched him so graciously greet each of us around the table as if we were doing him a favor by coming by to share a meal.

During the next two hours, Allen cut a wide swath over forty years of his professional life with stories about his career in marketing at Amway personal care products, Gallo Wine, Max Factor cosmetics, Boise Cascade, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Long Shadows.   He shared “One of my greatest memories is being selected to give a eulogy at Bob Mondavi’s  funeral.  I consider him to be a very important mentor of mine.  Bob was the one that realized that to gain instant credibility for US wines he should partner with the famous European houses.  He partnered with the Rothschild’s to do Opus One.  It is one of the big reasons that we partnered with the Antinoris and the Loosens at Ste Michelle.  I wanted to name my new winery venture after Bob Mondavi, but we couldn’t get through the legalities.  So I named it Long Shadows as Bob cast such a “Long Shadow” on the wine industry.”

There was a lively interaction between Allen and our group.  One attendee asked “Why don’t you have the Long Shadows name on your facility near Walla Walla, WA?”  Allen gently replied “I’m trying to brand the individual wines, not the facility.  For those of you who have been to Bordeaux you’ll note that Chateau Lafite  does not have a name on its property as well.  It’s a quiet marketing thing.  I want to put all my time and effort into the packaging and promotion of each individual wine.  At heart I’m a packaging guy.”

Allen continued “I try to edit out all the superlatives in our own literature.  I think that it is wrong for you to talk about your own wines and use superlatives.  The superlatives are for the critics and the wine experts and the customers. “

After the session I went online to search for additional biographical information on Allen and came across a wonderful lesson on his approach to quiet marketing and letting others speak to his wines.  In episode 407  of Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, Gary gave a very negative review of Long Shadows Pedestal 2004.  A week later, Gary generously acknowledged Allen’s response on the show by reading Allen’s letter to him on the air about 18 minutes in.   Instead of arguing about the negativity of the review, Allen expressed strong support for what Gary does to promote wine and how his show is “changing the wine world”.  Allen went on to acknowledge how Gary is constantly urging his viewers to develop their own palate and his review of the Pedestal wine was a good example of Gary’s palate.  Gary was blown away.  This lesson in encouragement and extraordinary respect in the face of very direct negativity will stay with me in my future business interactions.

During the lunch, Cathi Hatch complimented Allen on his direct contribution to the ZINO Society.  “I’ve always appreciated Allen’s ability to market and brand products.  So when we were coming up with the idea for this group, we selected the name ZINO.  As Allen listened to our aspirations, he suggested adding ‘Society’ to the name to clearly indicate that we were a group that likes working and socializing together.”

One of the attendees asked Allen about starting or investing in a winery.  Before he answered he looked over at Shannon Jones from Hestia Cellars, shook his head, and got very direct:  “Whenever somebody comes up and asks me ‘should I start a winery?’  I just want to grab them by the collar and shake them.  The wine business is the world’s most competitive.  There are 500,000 labels from tens of thousands of wineries.  Externally the wine business is seen as a romantic life.  The analogy I use is people wanting to start out as a hobby and then the hobby overwhelms and consumes them.  I have a good friend who got into orchids.  He quickly built a green house.  But then it got to the point where he couldn’t travel.  He was a captive of his orchids, his hobby.  Hundreds of things can go wrong and you have to be ever vigilant.  The wine business is a lot like that.  You start to fear leaving.  You have to always be there.  I thought I could delegate lots of the work.  But people always want to meet the winemaker and the owner.”

Allen then turned to Shannon and asked for his thoughts.  Shannon confirmed that starting a winery was the hardest work he has ever done.

John Howie walked in to thank us for coming to his restaurant and Allen immediately went into market research mode asking John to share with us how John was seeing wine ordering trends in his Seattle restaurants.  A lively discussion ensued about the relationships between John’s different restaurants and the types of wines he selects for each restaurant and how consumers purchasing habits vary.

John observed:  “There are a lot more educated wine palates in our consumers than we’ve ever seen before.  The sommeliers are a lot more respected and I have more and more of my wait staff getting certified as a sommelier.  The comfort level with wine of the wait person has a lot to do with how much wine is sold.”

As John left to attend to his other guests in the restaurant, Allen took another question from the group:  “What do you think of Charles Smith’s wines and his branding and packaging?”

Allen looked wistful for a minute and then answered:  “I saw my parents grow old and inflexible in their ways when I was growing up and I vowed never to let that happen to me.  I’ve always tried to stay abreast of the latest trends.  But when I was with Charles on a recent marketing jaunt, I realized I was getting old.  I know that what he is doing is right, but I could never do the same thing.”

“I am more interested in creating the classic wine.  But that is very difficult.  Think about the things we think of as classics – fragrances and novels.  With wine you are always hoping for a classic.  Wineries can transcend from a business to something sacred.  Think about Chateau Latour – the French government would never let them be sold.  It’s a classic.  I’m still hoping I can build a classic.  Charles is not trying to do that.  He’s also a lot more successful than I am.”

All too quickly our two hours were over – great company, great food, great lessons.

Thanks Allen Shoup for all you are doing to promote fine Washington wines.  Thank you ZINO Society for creating intimate KEYNotable events for learning, working and socializing.

[NOTE:  This post was originally published on the ZINO Society blog in February, 2010]

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