The Barefoot Spirit: How Two People Who Knew Nothing Built America’s No. 1 Wine Brand

The problem with most business books is that they are unrealistic. If the authors are management consultants, they slap a catchy label on some simple concept and promote it as an astounding breakthrough though; think Tom Peters’ In Pursuit of Excellence, which breathlessly proclaimed the concept of “Management By Walking Around.”

The problem was successful business leaders had used it as a part of their leadership style for years, a point which was made especially clear to me in a biography of Bernard Kilgore, who took The Wall Street Journal from a 33,000-circulation trade paper when he was appointed managing editor, at the age of 32 in 1941 to the nation’s largest — and only truly national — daily with a circulation exceeding 1.1 million subscribers by the time he died from stomach cancer at the age of 59 in 1965.

In many articles after his death, his associates and others noted how instead of summoning people to his office, Kilgore would visit them at their desk. It wasn’t accidental, Richard Tofel said in his biography of Kilgore. It was part of Kilgore’s daily routine:

After arriving at the office, Kilgore reviewed and dictated answers to correspondence until 10:15, when he had a “coffee klatch” of his top executives and reviewed the day’s paper.

After that he took a stroll through the entire operation, leaving his eighth floor office and visiting every department on his way to the press room in the basement of the Journal’s offices at 44 Broad Street, a few doors away from the New York Stock Exchange.

It not only gave him a good sense of how things were going, and alerted him to problems, Tofel noted, but it also gave Kilgore the ability to leave a department head when he was ready, rather that having to engage in small talk or bluntly telling someone to leave.

The other problem with most business books, especially those on entrepreneurship, is that they tend to reduce business to a simple matter of formulas, or action steps. Do this, the authors seem to promise, and you’ll be an instant success.

Alas, business — especially startup business — is seldom that simple. Which is why The Barefoot Spirit by Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey is such a breath of fresh air.

It’s an account of how two people who knew nothing about the wine business created America’s No. 1 wine brand.

Along the way the detail what they didn’t know when they jumped into the wine business, not knowing what a bottling line or clean room is. . . . how they talked to everybody, including a retail buye who told them what their label should contain. You learn how they designed the label (the barefoot on the Barefoot label is an imprint on Bonnie’s right foot) . . .how they came up with “Worthy Cause Marketing” because that was all they could afford . . . how they landed retail placements . . . how they hired people . . . how they paid them.

And how they were in a perpetual race to grow, because they were in a perpetual race to avoid failing. And you’ll learn how the sale of Barefoot to E&J Gallo came to be.

This is a must-read book for anyone who thinks they want to get into the wine business, or for anyone who wants to understand the challenges that come with entrepreneurship. The good news is — contrary to what all the books tell you — you can succeed, even if you know nothing when you start.

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One Response to The Barefoot Spirit: How Two People Who Knew Nothing Built America’s No. 1 Wine Brand

  1. Thanks for the great review of our book, Joel! We really appreciate it! For the last 2 years, Michael and I have been speaking to students at universities that teach entrepreneurship throughout the country and throughout the world. We talk to them about what it was like to start a business without money or knowledge of the particular business they are going into. We also speak at conventions, seminars, and corporate meetings.
    We were delighted to read your review, Joel! -Bonnie

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