As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Brewer, Founder & Winemaker, Brewer-Clifton.
Greg Brewer’s primary focus in the winery is the pursuit of refinement. He is engaged in every aspect of his work from vineyards to market, and every level of the process is given equal attention. To him, a mindful approach where strategic and efficient actions are taken to incorporate the needs of the entire ecosystem is essential. This pursuit creates a confident and calming environment, yielding a space where everyone and everything is appreciated. The goal is the synchronicity of the system. The result is wine that is honest and driven, expressive of the place and the team who collectively stewards them.
Greg has always followed a distinct and deliberate arc in his work, where the priority is service, subtracting extraneous elements and minimizing the insertion of self. He reveres the repetitive and monastic nature of the winemaking craft, and after twenty-eight years in the business is firmly committed to the immediate task at hand. This focus shifts the motivation behind the wine from ego towards humility. For Greg, it is only along this path that the resultant product conveys the sincerity and vulnerability that are his goals, both professionally and personally.
Greg started his career as a French instructor at UC Santa Barbara before being trained in wine production at Santa Barbara Winery starting in 1991. He created his eponymous label, Brewer-Clifton with original partner Steve Clifton in 1996 and later designed Melville where he worked as winemaker from inception in 1997 through the end of 2015. Greg created diatom in 2005 focusing on starkly raised Chardonnay and additionally Ex Post Facto in 2016 dedicated to cold climate Syrah. The entirety of his career has been rooted in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation which he helped to map, define and establish in 1997.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up as a latch key kid in the ’70s in L.A. I always felt loved and supported yet was raised with a level of independence and self-reliance that seems increasingly foreign these days. My Mom lived for her work which was ultimately nourishing and defined her in many ways. I have ultimately followed along that course in my own life. Sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I have always been inspired by design, efficiencies, minimalism, and transparency. I also love repetition and deliberate simplicity. All of those elements have fueled and continue to propel this journey.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early in my career I was once forklifting a pallet of red wine stacked high in a warehouse that hadn’t been properly secured (not by me!). Overly confident I trusted myself to be extra cautious yet…big surprise: a handful of cases came crashing down on the top cage of the forklift showering me with Merlot. I have certainly wrapped everything super tight ever since!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Countless individuals have steered and shaped my upbringing from family to teachers through to current colleagues and mentors. Mom was of course one of the most formative who always encouraged me that I never needed to be the smartest but that I always needed to love the work and work the hardest to succeed and with that drive — anything was always possible in life.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
From the beginning through the first ten+ years, while there were some ups and downs, things were pretty great. Real hard times occurred later when I first realized that some those epic periods do not last forever no matter how hard one tries. While I honestly share that I did not take it for granted, I really had no reason to believe it would ever end. The economic downturn of 2008-, matched with some personal challenges ushered me into a darker period that I had previously not known.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
To my core I approached each day as if there were no “plan B”. As there really wasn’t one, it didn’t require much personal convincing! I reminded myself that there had to be a way through it and that I would emerge stronger and more resilient as a result. I have a large octopus tattoo on my arm which reminds me of that adaptability for survival. While still remaining true to your body and character, there are times when you need to alter yourself or surroundings in order to make it to the other side.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things have never been better than they are today. I love the totality of this industry even more now that when I first fell and love and committed to it thirty years ago. The duality of grit and resilience emboldens confidence and self-assurance that one can prevail through any challenge. That level of self-assuredness is key to subsequently lead and more importantly inspire others who have the example of one who has weathered the storms of any journey that is of importance.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We have always been comfortable not trying to please everyone. We are very true to our brand and have sought to carry out our work in the most singular, vulnerable, and relevant manner we know. We are true to it. We are not chasing trends or apologizing if our aesthetic does not ultimately resonate with every single person who experiences it. Evolution not Revolution. Always seeking refinement while remaining loyal.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The key is to follow passion and to carry out the work with a pure and focused intent. Always remain inclusive of other people and alternative ideas as they are not only educational but additionally help to reinforce our own respective paths. Additionally, it is critical to remain very aware of one’s surrounding and audience. Lastly, careful use of language to never alienate and to convey information in a manner which everyone can readily understand and digest.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope that my story in and of itself inspires people that anything is possible. We started with $12,000 of starting “capital” in a relatively unknown area within an industry commonly steered by those with great fortunes. With creativity, drive and stamina within a relatively short period we created a thriving multi-million-dollar business against many odds and throughout periods of legitimate diversity.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Always be true to your brand. That is all that you have. Diane von Furstenberg taught me that at a lunch we shared when I asked her how she maintained the stamina that she has demonstrated. Her style and that wrap dress have endured…
- Be relevant. Don’t simply chase where you will only find yourself as a cover band. Nothing wrong with that of course, but not enough if you wish to set yourself apart.
- Find inspiration from other fields and industries. Most elements of life converge on one level or another. In lieu of solely investigating within one’s own habitat, tremendous growth and success can occur when essentially “translating” successful and inspiring approaches in other industries.
- Be confident and inclusive. While it is critical to be confident, prideful, and enthusiastic about one’s direction, it is never necessary to vocalize/promote that spirit at the expense of others. Simple, deliberate pronoun use as well as the employment of the word, “and” instead of “but” can go miles through not only communication but also of mindset and perspective.
- Be aware and appreciative. Nothing lasts forever and we are here for a relatively short time. Always do the best you can. Focus on the task at hand with a sincere effort to avoid distraction. Be grateful of the time, attention and support others offer to you in any capacity. Be kind.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
I have always led by example which isn’t necessarily the best approach. As outlined, I have always strived to be the first to work and the last to leave and everything that such practice ultimately represents. While an admittedly massive shortcoming is my ability to delegate, my hope is that the steadfast dedication of that work ethic and dedication also inspires colleagues to protect and nurture the brand as I do.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I completely agree that experience consistently and constantly informs our choices and actions. Much like an enormous, scarred whale or a tree with a zillion rings, there is composure, understanding and ultimately wisdom that accompanies survival over a long span of time. Very little in the world is “new” although in one’s youth there is frequently a sentiment of discovery of something novel. Pendulums always swing. The more you watch the clock the more that equilibrium becomes lucid, rhythmic, and repetitive.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am not alone in this movement but am ravenous to remind others of the importance of focus. Regularity smart phones and social media erode not only attention span but how others are made to feel in the surrounding environment. Even when not carried out with malicious intent, the results can have deleterious effects both professionally as well as personally. They are vital tools and should be utilized to their maximum potential — just with the constant awareness of their potentially hurtful power towards others.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
by Greg Brewer, Brewer-Clifton, diatom, Ex Post Facto, gregbrewerwines