Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Corton Charlemagne For Everyone

On November 16th, 2009 I pulled into the parking lot of my family's wine store filled with anticipation of what was supposed to be an epic week.  My staff (to which I affectionately refer to as "the kids") and I had worked painstaking hours in preparation of the holiday season.  We were intoxicated with success.  Our carefully laid plans were running flawlessly and we were looking forward to reaching new heights.  Instead, I opened the door and fell to a new low.  Greeted by a blast of heat so intense, I searched for my cell phone to dial 911 figuring the building was on fire.  There was no fire. Turns out, someone monkeyed with the thermostat in the offices above us on Saturday evening.  The thermostat short circuited and set the furnace to heat our building to 117 degrees.  The building had been at that temperature for at least 30 hours.  I immediately opened all our doors, windows and turned on the A/C's. Touring our floor it was obvious I was too late.  Our entire wine collection was ruined.  I counted 36 wines from various areas of the store that had corks pushing out 1/4 of an inch.  Fresh wine stains dotted the shelves.  I called in the kids for an emergency meeting.   Systematically, we pulled one bottle of wine from each section of the store,  44 wines in all.  The test confirmed my initial fear, each wine showed signs of excessive heat exposure.  I picked up the phone, dialed and said, "Dad, I don't know how to tell you this.  But we just lost our entire inventory."  All told, the loss was valued at $120K.  It was really much greater.
My family purchased our wine store in 1990.  I found my love for the business while working my way through Colorado State University and finishing my degree at Fairfield University.  I had been working on and off at the store since our opening but it wasn't until 1999 that I began working there full time.  After graduating from Fairfield University in 2002, I found myself making more and more of the important business decisions for the store.  It was clear that dad was grooming me and letting me have more control over the business.  I guess it was 2005 when I noticed I was making all the decisions and dad was hanging around merely as a consult and guide.  He "retired" in 2007 officially giving me full management of the business,  right at the onset of one of our country's worst recessions.  Thanks dad!  Certainly my family's business has had its fair share of hard knocks in our near 20 year history. But I can clearly state that November 16th, 2009 was the hardest day I have ever experienced.  The kids and I sat down toward the latter part of the day to discuss our options.  After 20 months of recessionary cutbacks and survival prior to this heat event, we realized we only had two:  call it quits or roll up our sleeves.  It didn't take long for the kids to answer.  "No way man!  We can do this!  Roll'em up and let's get moving."  I often liken our wine shop and its atmosphere to the hip record store Championship Vinyl owned by Rob Gordon (John Cusack) in the movie "High Fidelity".  I struggle with the kids here from time to time but most of them have been friends of mine since my college days. So when I do struggle with the kids I always remember Rob Gordon's line,
"I can't fire them. I hired these guys for three days a week and they just started showing up every day. That was four years ago."
I digress.  Turns out one of the darkest times I've experienced was becoming one of my proudest.  I realized I wasn't managing a team, a staff or employees.  I was working with a family dedicated to serving our clients and finding the best damn wines we can.  These guys love to be here.  I love these guys!
So, we rolled up our sleeves and started packing.  525 cases of baked wine was packed into boxes and delivered to the basement of my insurance agent's office.  His family had graciously allowed us to store the ruined wine until the State of CT decided what to do with it.  It took a day and a half to pack all that up.  It took another day to clean and make purchase decisions.  By that Friday, with the help of my suppliers, the fire departments of Darien, CT and a few really good friends, we had my family's store 80% operational for one of the biggest wine purchasing weekends of the year.  We threw a party on Friday night in the store.  Sales were through the roof.  We might have just saved the store.  Epic.
I am often asked if we have fully recovered from the event.  Honestly, I'm not sure we will ever fully recover.  My best forecast: it will take another 24 months before our inventory levels are back to normal and we are operating "business as usual".  But there is much to celebrate this year.  We are now one year removed for an event that threatened to close my family's business just 13 months shy of its 20th Anniversary.  While reflecting on today's one year mark, I weighed the significance of a lyric from one of my favorite songs and a monologue delivered by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburrne) in the "The Matrix: Reloaded".  Given the events we have planned in the store this afternoon and evening, Morpheus' monologue seemed more apropos.
"I remember that for 100 years they have sent their armies to destroy us, and after a century of war I remember that which matters most... We are still here! Today, let us send a message to that army. Tonight, let us shake this cave. Tonight, let us tremble these halls of earth, steel, and stone, let us be heard from red core to black sky. Tonight, let us make them remember, THIS IS ZION AND WE ARE NOT AFRAID!"  
After enduring the effects of a recession and then dealing with a major disaster at the worst time of year, the kids and I are not afraid.  We're not afraid because we all believe in the dream and vision. We don't know how to say "die".  We don't know how to give in.  Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon once wrote,
"And when your deepest thoughts are broken, keep on dreamin boy 'cause when you stop dreamin' it's time to die."  
The kids and I  continue to chase a dream and a vision.  But because the kids continue to chase it, it allows me to chase it as well.  I could not be more proud of them for enduring.  So fellas, from me to you, thank you.  It's time to shake this cave.  Corton Charlemagne for everyone!

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