From the Vine to the Wine: Growth Tips from Sonoma CA

I wrote the blog below after returning from a lovely vacation this time last year. I found myself thinking about both the vacation and the concept of “intentional stress” over this Memorial Day weekend, so am re-posting. Cheers!

I recently spent a few days in Sonoma, CA, which included some phenomenal wine tastings. On one particular vineyard tour, our guide spoke of certain techniques they use to help them “stress the grape.” I had never heard this phrase before! (Darn tourist.) His patient, brief explanation: stressed grapes produce better wines. The concept immediately grabbed me.

The Art of Stressing Grapes

I’m no viticulturist (or viniculturist, as they are called when growing grapes for winemaking) but here’s my general understanding:

  • The smaller the grape, the better the wine. Large grapes are too juicy and their skin is too thin for wine-making.
  • Producing wine-ready grapes requires “intentional stress.” This means wine grapes grow best in soil that is relatively poor in nutrients and in full sun. Slopes are ideal; they get the strongest sunrays, and water runs off so the vine doesn’t sit in moist soil.
  • Wine-ready grapes need a Goldilocks “just right” philosophy about water. Not enough water means the grapes won’t ripen properly. Too much water allows the vine basically to get lazy. This results in vines that either produce too many grapes or grapes that are too large. Neither makes for good wine.

In sum, if you want to make good wine, you can’t make it too easy for the vines. Vines that have to struggle for their existence produce wines with more depth and character than their counterparts.

You know where I’m going with this.

Creating Intentional Stress

What I love about the “stress the grape” concept is how intentional it is. There’s an intentional goal and an intentional method to get there, even though parts of that method may strike us as counterintuitive or unpleasant. Struggle for water? Poor nutrients in the soil? By all means!

I know the notion of creating stress on purpose sounds a little crazy; daily life can be stressful enough. Yet we all know that is the hard times and challenges we have faced in life that help us form our own depth and character.

From the vantage point of choice, here are the things I think we can learn from the idea of creating intentional stress:

  • “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”  The grape growers start with the end in mind. What’s something you want to work toward – a new skill, a reframed attitude, an expanded perception? You don’t have to boil the ocean here. Pick 1 or 2 things. (If you can’t think of anything, ask the people you live or work with every day.)
  • What conditions bring out the best in you? Conduct a little self-audit here. What do you avoid? What do you gravitate towards? What motivates you?  Proverbially, put yourself on a sunny slope in Sonoma with just the right amount of water to meet your intended goal.
  • Life begins outside your comfort zone. You know the feeling you get when you hit a goal you didn’t think you could? Running a marathon. Having that difficult conversation.  Saying no even if it means disappointing someone. Learning cannot happen from a place of comfort, so get comfortable being uncomfortable! (My personal best? Flying trapeze lessons, including a catch. Ask me for the video.)

My final two points are for leaders:

  • “It is not fair to ask of others what you are unwilling to do yourself.” That’s one of my favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quotes. I do believe that every individual has a responsibility to manage their own development, yet, part of the job in leading is to help shape that process. Before asking staff to take on more responsibility or to try new things, do a quick gut check. When was the last time they saw you try something new? Actions speak louder than words.
  • “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” – It’s usually quicker to simply tell an employee what to do or how to handle something than it is to help them figure it out on their own.  And yet we’ve all experienced how shortcuts up front come back and take even more time later. Think about this relative to your staff. How can you incorporate “intentional stress” for the sake of your employees’ development? In what areas do you want them to stretch, to reach the nutrients and water they need to become a team you’d proudly submit for a Wine Spectator review?  


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