by Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey
with Rick Kushman
Evolve Publishing, 2013
Softcover, 272 pages $15.95
The Barefoot Spirit succeeds on several levels.
Those in or around the wine business will enjoy some of the inside scoop on how a young couple naively entered their industry, made predictable mistakes and yet survived. And eventually prospered. Actually, though the product was wine, their journey might serve as a blueprint smart people with boundless energy and dogged persistence could apply to any business. There's also a “feel good” element to the Barefoot story. Houlihan and Harvey found ways to “do well by doing good.” when they applied their social consciousness in helping causes they thought worthy—and did it in ways that helped build their brand.
When a winemaker friend was owed money by a bankrupt Sonoma County winery in 1985, the couple came up with a novel way to make him whole. They convinced the winery, which was cash poor, but did have a couple of unrealized assets—unbottled wine in tanks and a functional bottling line—to resolve their debt in wine and bottling services. They would help their friend out by selling the wine. After all, it was good wine. How difficult could it be?
Well, 20 years later the Barefoot Brand was acquired by Gallo, so readers can presume that Harvey and Houlihan triumphed in the end. Beginning with a bare footprint-on-a-beach logo, they marketed their product as unpretentious and fun, creating a different audience for wine. Over those two decades they made every mistake possible. But they tried not to repeat any of them. Much of their difficulties were caused by their own ignorance of the ways things were done in the wine industry. But they listened to their clients and attempted to satisfy every request and overcome every rejection. They learned how the game was played, but they continued to apply common sense and creativity—qualities often lacking in an industry often convinced of its own wonderfulness.
The Barefoot Spirit is the story of the creators of the Barefoot brand. The fact that it is so readable is likely due to the skill of co-author Rick Kushman, a former daily newspaper journalist. His style is anecdotal and, though dialogue from conversations many years ago can't be repeated verbatim, they read easily and sound authentic. An unusual technique is employed with “Conversations with Bonnie and Michael” that conclude many chapters. These follow a simple Q and A format with Kushman posing questions and transcribing the answers.
The Barefoot Spirit is a window on the journey of two remarkable entrepreneurs as they progressed from tyros dismissed by most of the wine industry to innovators embraced by it. It's a quick read and has an upbeat message that is deftly delivered.
--reviewed by Dan Clarke