In 2005, Michael Papay and his wife moved from Wilmington, Delaware, to the Bay Area to open up a sales office for the HR tech company Papay worked for. Soon, Papay and his wife fell for the country just north of San Francisco, buying a duplex in Sausalito. On the weekends, Papay and his wife made excursions into wine country: first Napa, where they toured well-known vineyards, then Sonoma, where they visited mom-and-pop winemakers and began asking questions about how the wine was made.
In the fall of 2006, Papay got to talking about these visits with his barber. “I actually make wine,” his barber told him. “It’s a pretty forgiving process. I make a barrel every year.”
After his haircut (a good one, he says), Papay went straight home and consulted Craigslist. Someone had posted a set of winemaking equipment–a basket press, a corker, various large glass jugs called carboys–asking if someone might store it all on his behalf while he moved. The deal was that whoever housed the equipment could use it in the interim. Papay called the Craiglist poster, who said, “Wow, I just posted that 20 minutes ago.” Within a day or two, Papay was surveying his spoils: a full wine-making set, splayed across his garage.
Papay had confessed to the Craigslist poster that he didn’t know the first thing about winemaking. The Craiglister thought for a moment, then said, “You know who you need to talk to is Homer, in Berkeley.”
“Homer” was Homer Smith, a beloved connoisseur of wines who works at a store called Oak Barrel Winecraft, and imparts his knowledge to would-be winemakers in the Bay Area. Smith hooked Papay up with about 100 pounds of Sangiovese grapes, and taught Papay the basic steps of winemaking: how to add yeast, regulate the ambient air temperature, and so on. “He described the start of the process,” says Papay, and he was off.
Soon, Papay realized why wine-making was the ideal entrepreneur’s hobby. Like a lot of entrepreneurs with families, Papay acknowledges that time is at a premium, the most limited and precious resource. Wine-making, it turns out, only has a few time-intensive periods. Certain phases demand concerted effort, but for the most part, it’s a waiting-and-checking-in game. To make wine requires semi-frequent, but ultimately brief, trips–to check temperatures, to top off wine that may have evaporated from a barrel. It’s demanding enough to make you feel like you have a genuine hobby–you’re always doing something, and you produce a fun product–but forgiving enough that it doesn’t take up too much of your time.
Papay’s first batch produced some 75 bottles. It was a scrappy operation, using oak chips instead of barrels, so much so that Papay’s wife called that first vintage “scrapiovese.” After a few months of work, aging, and allowing the wine to recover from so-called “bottle shock,” Papay served it to his in-laws. “There was that moment of holding your breath–are they gonna spit it out and say, ‘What is this swill?’” But they didn’t complain; indeed, they sucked it down. Papay was encouraged. He gifted bottles around to friends, and archived a few for posterity.
As Papay’s entrepreneurialism has deepened–he recently cofounded Waggl, an employee feedback tool–so did his commitment to wine. He learned the ins and outs of fermentation. He learned all about “Brix,” the measurement of sugar in grapes. He learned about the importance of aging in barrels, and even bought a few large oaken ones off a premier local winery (he got a deal on them, lightly used–they’d normally retail for $2,000 a barrel). His entire garage in his new home has been transformed into “the perfect cellar, a man-cave-ish type of experience,” he says. Neighbors wander over, smelling the wine, and ask if they can buy a bottle. (Not yet, is the coy answer–though he does now ferment a half-ton of fruit, which become a barrelful of 300 bottles’ worth of wine each year.)
And Papay has brought lessons from wine back to his business: namely, the paramount importance of patience. “Wine runs on its own clock,” says Papay. “Fermentation takes so long. Aging takes so long. The wine’s gonna tell you what it needs.” Likewise with tech startups. “You have a notion you’re going to become the next Snapchat or Uber, and certainly there are cases of the unicorn billion-dollar business created overnight. But in most cases, there’s just a team of people laboring away, working to get it just right, with pivots and adjustments and patience and vision.”
Wine and startups, too, are both long learning processes. “I’ve been making wine 10 years now, and I’m just on the surface of learning to make great wine. Every time I talk to a winemaker or taste great wine, there’s a little bit of learning that can go into making the next batch better. It’s the same with a tech company: every day is an opportunity to learn what’s happening in the marketplace, to hear from customers.”
Wine–like startups and so many things–“is an endless journey to keep making it better.”