The Barefoot Spirit

How to Succeed in the Wine Business Without Really Knowing a Damn Thing About It 

Written by Jordan Wright of Whisk and Quill 

Last month I spoke with Barefoot Wines founder Michael Houlihan about his upcoming book The Barefoot Spirit (Evolve Publishing – May 2013).  Michael, who has been in the wine industry for nearly 30 years along with his life and business partner Bonnie Harvey, created the affordable and ubiquitous wines we know from the cute footprint icon.  As soon as I spoke with him, I knew I liked him.  He’s engaging, modest, enthusiastic and plain speaking, and considered a wine industry visionary.   Though there are better known trailblazers throughout the history of California wines – perhaps none have started out more hapless, or dare I say clueless.  He’d be the first to admit it.

When Michael and Bonnie hatched their idea to produce wine out of their farmhouse laundry room in 1985, they were so unaware of the vagaries and complexities of the business that they didn’t even know that wine came in different sized bottles.  And though Bonnie had a nose for business and Michael had a knack for sales, they couldn’t possibly foresee what it took to make and sell wine on a grand scale.  But both kept an open mind and both were quick studies.

Bonnie Harvey and Michael Houlihan Co-Founders of Barefoot Spirit

Bonnie Harvey and Michael Houlihan Co-Founders of Barefoot Spirit

As he describes it in his light-hearted and informative book, Michael started his sales adventures by lugging samples of Barefoot wines through a blinding thunder storm to the Piggly Wiggly in South Carolina – hardly an auspicious beginning. Neither one of them was knowledgeable about such crucial details as marketing, distribution and shelf placement, and they were sticker-shocked when they discovered the high cost of glass to bottle their wines.  The term ‘spiffs’, which are legal bonuses given to distributor reps to push a wine, was not in their vocabulary yet.   They just had a product they believed in and a commitment to see it through.  Michael remembered what one wine purveyor told him, “You’ve got to be better and cheaper than Bob.”  Mondavi, that is.  So they put their heart and soul into the venture and learned along the way.  Turns out they learned a lot.

A cornerstone of their success in marketing their brand is something all winemakers use today in one way or another – getting their wines to the public through tasting events in order to establish solid relationships and engender goodwill along the way.  To that end Michael and Bonnie created Barefoot’s “Worthy Cause Marketing”, donating their wine to charitable events and following up with their new friends.  It proved to be an ideal model, both personally and professionally.  Many budding entrepreneurs now turn for advice to the pair who in 2005 sold Barefoot Wines to the family-owned E. J. Gallo, which according to Wine Folly is“the largest wine brand on the face of the earth.”

“The Barefoot Spirit” is the polar opposite of a dry business-oriented tale of success.  It’s about a pair of entrepreneurs who dropped everything, except their commitment to fun, to make and sell an affordable wine.  I mean who wouldn’t love a pair of nature-loving, beach-combing winemakers who think there’s nothing better in life than hiking the Sierras with their cats and treating their business like an adventure.  Now that’s a tale you wouldn’t want to miss.