The New Way To Invest In Wine: Pay Farmers First, And Prioritize Inclusion


Yes, it’s a disruptive business model. But, knowing Molly Madden even a little, you also get the sense that what she’s building today is a perfectly organic, natural evolution of what’s come before.

Just like one plus one equals two.

Here’s one:

Madden’s professional history as a social justice organizer involved, in her words, “a ton of work around gender and race privilege.” That work will be painful, she said, because it’s quite disruptive.

Here’s another one:

Madden also worked for ten years, in New York and abroad, in wine importing and distribution. More recently she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work with a team of cooperative business advisors and wine industry specialists.

And that equals two:

Madden is currently the founder and CEO of RedHen Collective, a wine importer and wholesaler that is dedicated to a “new wine economy,” one that pays farmers first, shares equity with employees, and is propelled by regenerative impact investments of every size.

That’s a lot to unpack in itself. But what’s striking to me about each of those three pillars of the RedHen Collective business is the common denominator of, “that isn’t usually how things are done in the wine world,” much less as a combination of all three.

I wanted to know more, and I wanted to know examples of how these ideas were being actualized in the wine industry. As my conversation with Madden evolved, we found that using the independent wine retail space was useful as a lens to better understand how this “new wine economy” looks. Here are a few takeaways from that conversation.
Writing inclusion into the handbook.

“Inclusion” is a word-of-the-moment and a buzzword for trying to ensure that every person, of any orientation or ethnicity, is welcome. I say “trying” because, as I wrote in a previous article about African American wine consumers, the intention of inclusion often misses the mark when it comes to implementation, even in wine retail environments.

So how to do it differently?

Madden references Minimo wine shop in Jack London Square in Oakland, California. The owners (Erin Coburn and Sarah Miller) are white while the neighborhood population is composed largely of people of color. Coburn and Miller want to create a small business that is deeply inclusive yet they’re aware of the complex situation they’re in, which includes the realities of displacement and gentrification in urban environments.

At Minimo, new employees receive a handbook that explicitly instructs how to engage every single person who walks through the door, without assuming what they like or don’t like. A core practice involves three steps: greet every customer and ask if this is their first visit; if it is, share the mission of the store; then ask them what they like to drink.

That’s it. There’s no script, Madden said, but the staff does have to hit each of the three steps.

The result?

The greeting is a way to address a lot of problems right from the beginning, Madden said, by creating a space of a little more welcome-ness. Imagine if there was one person of color and four other white people in the store, and the white people got greeted and you didn’t. That doesn’t happen at Minimo.

“You don’t have to convert anyone’s philosophy or untangle their deepest prejudices,” Madden said. “It’s just the policy, and these little practices reinforce for us that our stereotypes are not true.”

Same practice, different “bend” of execution, fresh result.

Madden takes a similar approach to RedHen Collective: accomplishing familiar practices, but bending the execution to create a fresh final product. For example, a familiar practice is that wine growers need financial credit to run their businesses. The “bend” of execution is to build a regenerative pool of credit that’s backed by RedHen investors, so that farmers can be paid up front. When the wine is sold, a percentage of profits go to the investors and back into the credit pool, which creates dynamic renewal.

That’s one illustration, but Madden sees opportunities for fresh results at every stage of the wine industry cycle. She asserts, for example, that women and people of color are the backbone of the wine industry, and RedHen is committed to repositioning them from the margins to the center.

“It’s about recognizing that we’re all on this train, and engaging it differently,” she said. “Let’s decide to be in the driver’s seat about it.”

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