Kukkula Wines

Wednesday April 1, 2020

appreciating curve balls

Just when you think you’re on to some­thing you get hit by a curve ball! The curve ball in this case, of course, is COVID-19.

I spend a lot of time at the end of every year digest­ing how we did as a busi­ness to help me nav­i­gate the com­ing year, and to hope­ful­ly make tweaks that will con­tin­ue the growth. Last year was a tough year. There wasn’t much growth, and I was try­ing to dis­cern what was caus­ing that. Although I knew that tast­ing room traf­fic was slow­ing down, and has been for a cou­ple of years, I want­ed to get into the weeds to real­ly assess.

Most of you know we not only grow grapes and make wine (our core busi­ness), but we also grow olives and wal­nuts. Olives we make into oil and sell most­ly through the tast­ing room, and wal­nuts we whole­sale to a proces­sor. Grow­ing wal­nuts in the Cen­tral Coast is a dying busi­ness, but we main­tain the remain­ing 22 acres of trees because we think they’re beau­ti­ful, and every once in a while, we make a few bucks. I bring this up, because a big com­po­nent of the flat rev­enue last year was due to less pro­duc­tion (and there­fore less rev­enue), from these crops, in addi­tion to the slow­ing tast­ing room traf­fic. When I just looked at the wine busi­ness it became obvi­ous that, although traf­fic was slow­ing, our club mem­ber­ship grew by about 30% last year. Now that made me feel good! We are dri­ven to make arti­sanal wines and get them into the hands of con­sumers who love and appre­ci­ate the hard work that goes into mak­ing them. Mem­ber­ship is the core of our busi­ness.

So, I was feel­ing pret­ty con­fi­dent with how kukku­la was doing ear­ly in the year and feel­ing opti­mistic that club mem­ber­ship will con­tin­ue to grow as it has for the last sev­er­al years. Like most of you, around the first of Feb­ru­ary, I became some­what con­cerned about this grow­ing virus con­ver­sa­tion and soon start­ed notic­ing dwin­dling traf­fic in the neigh­bor­hood. When the doors closed on 15th of March, there may have been a few exple­tives uttered!

Two months into this, I have to say that the sky hasn’t fall­en. There’s noth­ing like a cri­sis to make one think out of the box.

We imme­di­ate­ly announced that until our tast­ing room re-opens, we will offer a 15% dis­count for all six-bot­tle pur­chas­es from our web­site. Club mem­bers receive their respec­tive mem­ber­ship dis­counts on top of this. That has worked out won­der­ful­ly well. We are beyond appre­cia­tive of the sup­port many of you have giv­en us, and we’ve real­ized that being trapped in our homes inevitably trans­lates to high­er wine con­sump­tion. Maybe we’re on to some­thing!

Beyond that, Paula and I have had great fun doing the dinner@kukkula series. Many of you fol­lowed us on these, pre­pared Paula’s recipes, and enjoyed my wine pair­ings. That was fol­lowed by a brunch@kukkula for Mother’s Day.

Hope­ful­ly we’re back to some sort of new nor­mal soon, and we can see you all in per­son again. But we’ve cer­tain­ly real­ized that adapt­ing to this curve ball hasn’t been too dif­fi­cult.

Paula and I are spend­ing more time togeth­er. We’re work­ing as hard as ever, but we watch more movies. We con­nect with the kids more often, with friends more often. We’ve learned how cool Zoom is (I’ll bet Zoom is appre­ci­at­ing how cool we think Zoom is!) and use it reg­u­lar­ly. We wear clothes a lit­tle longer; I shave quite a bit less often; the air is clean­er; traf­fic is almost for­got­ten; peo­ple are nicer, more patient, more appre­cia­tive. I’m writ­ing this newslet­ter in my home office enjoy­ing the views of a post-rain part­ly cloudy sky with lay­ers of green hills as far as my eyes can see. Far from pur­ga­to­ry!

While we’re on the sub­ject of curve-balls, we are deal­ing with anoth­er curve ball, a Finnish curve ball.

A cou­ple of months ago, Paula and I were about to embark on a trip to Fin­land to attend sev­er­al kukku­la exclu­sive wine events that we were real­ly excit­ed about. Of course, that got can­celled, but just before it did, I had a call from my dis­trib­u­tor there who want­ed to share with me that they had sub­mit­ted my 17 vaalea, 14 Aat­to, and 14 sisu to a nation­al wine com­pe­ti­tion, the biggest annu­al wine event in Fin­land. It’s called Vuo­den Vii­ni (Wine of the Year). I learned that Aat­to and sisu had placed 1st and 2nd in the New World red wine over 18 Euros cat­e­go­ry, and although I was pleased to hear this, I didn’t feel it would real­ly move the nee­dle much.

Well, to my sur­prise, a few weeks lat­er I received anoth­er call from my dis­trib­u­tor and now Vii­ni Vuo­den was about to announce that Aat­to won 1st place for all red wines world­wide, and two weeks lat­er Aat­to was going to be named the 2020 Wine of the Year in Fin­land. Pret­ty sweet!
As you can imag­ine, they ordered a lot of wine. Aat­to is sold out.

I am real­ly proud of my Finnish genes. I have always felt a strong pull to be con­nect­ed with the peo­ple, the cul­ture, the coun­try. Since start­ing kukku­la, I’ve dreamed about get­ting a strong fol­low­ing there, and for many years I’ve tried a bunch of angles with lit­tle suc­cess. Although I nev­er entire­ly gave up, I’ve been real­ly focused on build­ing a direct to con­sumer busi­ness, which meant US sales. But it was always lurk­ing in my thought process.

I believe hard work dri­ves suc­cess, and the doors open­ing up in Fin­land in the last year is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of that hard work, strate­gi­cal­ly drip­ping on peo­ple over time till you hit the right com­bi­na­tion. That said, I’ve been feel­ing this sense of divine inter­ven­tion at work behind the scene.

In the last cou­ple of years I’ve been for­tu­nate to meet some pret­ty con­nect­ed peo­ple from Fin­land. It start­ed with hav­ing San Francisco’s then hon­orary Finnish Con­sul Gen­er­al, Michel Wen­dell, vis­it kukku­la, fol­lowed short­ly by a for­mer Prime Min­is­ter, Esko Aho, whom Michel intro­duced to me, fol­lowed by a friend of Esko’s, Lau­ri Kivi­nen, which led to an intro­duc­tion to a dis­trib­u­tor in Fin­land, and coin­ci­den­tal­ly anoth­er dis­trib­u­tor who had arranged a one-time pal­let sale to Fin­land a few years ear­li­er recon­nect­ing with me the very day I was intro­duced to the first dis­trib­u­tor. That all cul­mi­nat­ed in a dis­tri­b­u­tion agree­ment with the lat­ter dis­trib­u­tor in Decem­ber of 2018. I remem­ber pon­der­ing this notion of divine inter­ven­tion, that after all of these years of get­ting nowhere, sud­den­ly I have two dis­trib­u­tors inde­pen­dent­ly talk­ing to me on the same day.

I now have an excuse to make at least annu­al trips to Fin­land, and last June when we rolled out the wines there it seemed like there was a real­ly pal­pa­ble excite­ment about kukku­la in Fin­land. It became pret­ty appar­ent, though, after the first sev­er­al months that it would not be easy. Not because of lack of inter­est, but main­ly because fin­ished prices for our wines are quite expen­sive after all the math is done.

The coro­na virus has put some real wor­ry into all of us. I was not think­ing there would be a lot of expen­sive kukku­la being con­sumed in Fin­land, at least until this cri­sis passed. The announce­ment of this great hon­or, to this Cana­di­an born son of Finnish immi­grants, at this pre­cise peri­od of time, seems sus­pi­cious­ly like a strong argu­ment for divine inter­ven­tion!

And it real­ly makes me appre­ci­ate my fam­i­ly, my friends, our loy­al fans, hard work, the beau­ti­ful views from our part of the world, and (of course) real­ly good wine. I’m going to try to keep this all in per­spec­tive when the rat race begins again. Let’s all reflect on what’s good in this strange new world we’re expe­ri­enc­ing and try to appre­ci­ate those curve balls.


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