Fine Wine, And Leadership.

By: Christopher Little

Patience is bitter. But its fruit is sweet.

--Aristotle

I recently took a trip with my wife to Napa for wine tastings. On the drive home, after an incredible weekend, I ruminated on the parallels of leadership and the characteristics of what makes a bottle of fine wine, excellent. Aside from God, family, friends, and the military, leadership, and learning about wine are my two passions in recent years. It is humorous how one’s hobbies and passions change as one gets older and arguably wiser. A fine wine, like leadership, gets better and more refined with age. This is, in theory, at least. Like leadership, wine grape varieties come in many different assortments and places, each with their own characteristics and penchant. This article will explore the correlations of attributes between fine wine and leadership. Developing an effective leader is a lot like making and choosing a great wine.


I’ll be candid, I am a red wine drinker, and the article will focus on reds attributes, as opposed to whites. Of note, there is Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah/Shiraz, and Zinfandel, to name a few grape varietals. Additionally, there are red-blends, which is how many people initially get into wine. Red blends are often referred to as the “gateway drug” of the wine world by many wine drinkers. Furthermore, like wine, leadership has its own varietal blends. Like wine types, there are common leadership types to include (but not limited to) servant, authoritarian, affirmative, charismatic, transformational, Laissez-Faire, and delegative leadership. Leaders lead with variety with different styles, at other times, dependent upon the situation. One could also use many types simultaneously. This is because certain circumstances warrant different styles. Interacting with different people, whether at work or at home, causes provocation of varying leadership styles. For instance, I lead and mentor my children differently than a co-worker or someone seeking advice. Finding the right medium of styles, the crescendo, is the goal of both aspiring leaders and a wine vintner who tries to make the perfect wine. Below are some critical components of being a great leader and, metaphorically, a good winemaker.


Finding the Right Balance. Leadership styles and theories are never a “catch-all.” They’re used, instead, for different “jobs.” Certain red wines pair better with certain foods or cheeses; likewise, certain leadership styles are best paired for specific individuals. Every now and then, what you thought wouldn’t pair well together, actually did. There isn’t a singular leadership style that fits the need for every situation or individual in life. As one ages, in theory, one’s taste buds change-making one like different flavors they didn’t like as a child. This happens roughly every seven years. Often, people pick the wine up at a later stage in life, as opposed right when they turn twenty-one and are legal to drink.


Usually, younger folks start out with the cheaper things and work to the more nuanced stuff as they get older. Cabernet is typically very bold, heavy, and comes with lots of tannins. On the other hand, Pinot Noir is softer and lighter in color, with fewer tannins making it incredibly easy to drink. Leadership is the same way. A leader may start out bold and slightly harsh like a cheap bottle of Cabernet, yet mellow out as they age, like particular vintages, into a refined, peaked at the right year, Cabernet Sauvignon. There is no one type of leadership style for every situation or pallet. As a leader, you will have to adapt and learn to know what the notes and flavors of the day are and apply the correct style of leadership. Thinking outside the box is sometimes critical to effectively achieving the mission with the resources you have available for execution.

“A challenge only becomes an obstacle when you bow to it.”

--Ray Davis

Don’t Be Afraid Of Change. In 1976, the Judgement of Paris shocked the way the world viewed wine, dismantling overnight the cultural wave that wine had ridden for decades past. It was a battle between the established Old World wines of France, Germany, and Italy up against the Americas' new world wines, predominantly California’s Napa region. This is important because Napa challenged the day's status quo with its introduction of New World wines. This was met with indignation. However, ultimately, through a blind tasting, the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay bottle won the competition. Changing the way people view and think about wine henceforth. Leadership has also seen its share of calamitous changes. The seventies were also a good year for leadership culture revolutions. Revisions from the old archaic models of managerial factory workers who acted upon strict top-down hierarchical authoritarianism gave way to the more modern, inclusive models. Globalization, perhaps, helped break these leadership boundaries through the diversity of thought. Change is needed to propel and change theories, minds, and hearts. Leadership enhancement won't happen overnight like the Paris blind taste testing and its paradigm-shattering pretenses. Instead, it will be done over time. The more it is refined and implemented with precision, much like making a bottle of fine wine.


Diversify Your Team. A strategic goal of the Air Force (and DoD as a whole) is to become more diverse in thought, people, and ideas. Simply put, to quote a senior officer, “The lack of diversity in the Air Force is a strategic vulnerability.” Diversity of backgrounds inherently brings a diversity of thought. The Judgement of Paris helped diversify the wine industry by bringing in new ideas and different growing wine methods. Go into any store that sells wine. It is hard to find wine not from the West Coast these days. This wasn’t the case some forty years ago. Likewise, our military adversaries are working at ever-increasing strides with ever deceiving tactics to obtain specific domain dominances. The U.S. has enjoyed a world-leader status in the past, post-WWII. However, China and Russia seek to deride us from our world peacekeeping designation in more modern times. For the U.S. to keep up, there needs to be “New World” ideas coming forth to counter such adversarial aggressions and strategies. To achieve that, the Air Force has, in its toolbag, a diverse population to choose. They have those willing to serve and those currently serving. Similarly, where a wine comes from, its upbringing and history make its roots just as crucial as any other wine. But with a different contribution to the table or glass. The same goes for diversity within the Air Force. It doesn’t matter who the vintner is that makes the wine, what race or gender they are; if the final product is excellent, leaders will be interested in the work. The diversity of our forces contributes to winning and excelling tomorrow’s conflicts.


Build Your Brand & Adapt. The label of wine is like a person's reputation. People frequently do judge a book by its cover and associate different brands or appearances with different connotations. Put this concept into perspective. The U.S. wine market is worth more than 70 billion dollars. Winemakers have to continually adjust their approach to promote their product to the most people. The “State of the U.S. Wine Industry Study” in 2020 mentions the wine industry's past patron's wine consumption habits. Baby boomers are becoming fewer and fewer, with millennials are not yet embracing wine consumption, as predicted. Because the wine industry knows this, they can now adapt their branding and marketing to the younger millennial crowds.


McDonald's has done the same thing. Remember, long ago in the 1990s, their building was radical yellow and red to attract kids and their parents. Now, several decades later, look at the same store façades in 2020. There is a drab difference in façade tones. The store adapted its branding to meet its forecasted client's tastes. You can't have the same brand for 20 years straight throughout every phase of your career. You have to adapt with the times. Know your team and adjust your leadership style. If you cannot, then your reputation for past performance will all be for not. An excellent book for referencing this topic is author Marshall Goldsmith, entitled What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful. What led one person to excellence, through leadership, more than likely won’t work on the next.


I am no expert in leadership, but I know what has worked for me. There is no magic holy grail book nor a bottle of wine that will make one a more effective leader. Theories from this article, the many other articles published, and those yet to come are what have worked for me. In the end, be genuine, be yourself, care about others, create a vision, create a culture that people want to be in. If you do these simple things, people will, most likely, want you to lead them. All it takes is time, patience, and understanding, much like the processes that go into making fine wine.