How Natural Winemaker Frank Cornelissen Innovated While Staying True to His Brand


Brian Kenny:

Somewhere in the Caucasus, around 6,000 BC, someone discovered grapes fermenting in a jar and for some unfathomable reason, decided to taste it. And thank God they did because this is thought to be the origin of wine. Aside from water, wine may be the longest-standing beverage in human history. Even today, it is among the top five most consumed drinks in the world. Throughout history, it has played an important role in culture and religion.

In 2023, we consumed about 25 billion liters of wine globally. A sure sign that our romance with wine is as strong as ever, but as the oenophiles, that’s Greek for wine lover, are quick to point out, they don’t make it like they used to. The wine most of us drink today bears little resemblance to that of our ancestors and to some, that’s cause for sour grapes.

Today on Cold Call, we welcome Professor Tiona Zuzul to discuss the case, “Frank Cornelissen, the Great Sulfite Debate.” I’m your host, Brian Kenny and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Podcast Network. Tiona Zuzul studies how leaders and organizations learn to adapt in response to environmental shifts and periods of discontinuous change. That sounds like the perfect area of research for today’s conversation. Welcome to Cold Call.

Tiona Zuzul:

Thank you so much, Brian. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Brian Kenny:

I’m going to start by asking you to tell us what the central issue is in the case and what your cold call is to start the discussion.

Tiona Zuzul:

Okay. Before we get into that, can I ask you, have you tried Frank’s wine?

Brian Kenny:

I have not tried Frank’s wine.

Tiona Zuzul:

Maybe that is something that we’ll need to fix after this podcast.

Brian Kenny:

I said I’ve got to find some natural wine. I don’t know if they sell it in my local wine store or not.

Tiona Zuzul:

We can figure that out.

Brian Kenny:

We can figure that out.

Tiona Zuzul:

We’ll take some time to figure that out. The central issue in the case is a decision that Frank Cornelissen, storied natural winemaker, faced in 2018. Frank had been making wine in Sicily, in Italy for the last 17 years. He was seen as one of the preeminent natural winemakers, a rock star in the natural wine making scene, and he was as known for his wonderful wines as for his unwavering commitment to the principles of natural wine making, which we’ll get into in a moment. And one of the challenges that artisanal winemakers like Frank face is that every harvest is essentially a “bet the vineyard” decision. If you are committed to growing a small number of grapes and producing a small number of bottles, then if anything happens to a year’s harvest, you risk not being able to survive if you can’t make wine in that year.

And in 2018, Frank encountered some unfortunate weather conditions, so it was a really rainy year. As he was harvesting his grapes, he realized that tiny specks of mold had formed on their skins, and he knew what this meant. That he might lose the harvest. He also knew one potential way to save the grapes, which was to add sulfites or sulfur dioxide, which is a commonly used preservative in wine making. The issue is that Frank had spoken out very publicly against the use of sulfites throughout his career. So the decision that Frank faced in 2018 was: do I add sulfites, saving my grapes, but potentially risking the winery’s reputation and going against my own principles as a winemaker? Or do I not add sulfites and risk losing the harvest and potentially the entire winery?

Brian Kenny:

Yeah.

Tiona Zuzul:

So the cold call in the case is very simple. What should Frank do?

Brian Kenny:

How did you hear about Frank? Why did you decide to write about this? Are you a huge wine fan, first of all?

Tiona Zuzul:

I am a wine fan, and my grandfather was a winemaker-

Brian Kenny:

No kidding.

Tiona Zuzul:

And an agronomer in Croatia. That’s right, yes. So wine is something that I’ve grown up with. I also, as you mentioned, study new industries, periods of profound uncertainty, and so I’ve been studying the evolution of wine making and in particular natural wine making since about 2017. And I’d been conducting interviews with a number of people in the industry. The natural wine market at the time was very small, so everyone knew everybody’s business, and I’d heard about this story of the decision that Frank faced through my interviews.

Brian Kenny:

Okay. I’m guessing you’re the person that gets to order the wine when you go out to dinner, and I would leave that to you because I am definitely not a sophisticated wine drinker. I know what I like, but it’s probably not always the best thing. Tell us how wine is made. What’s the general process for how it’s made?

Tiona Zuzul:

So this is a very complicated question, and I’m sure that both Frank and my grandfather, if he was alive, would take issue with the incredibly simple answer that I will give. But essentially, wine begins with grapes that are grown in vineyards. The grapes are harvested. Sometimes this is done mechanically, sometimes it’s done by hand. Then the grapes are crushed. This used to be done, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures and videos of people crushing grapes.

Brian Kenny:

I’ve seen the “I Love Lucy” episode where they’re-

Tiona Zuzul:

That’s right, yes. Well, it turns out that in some wineries, this is still how they crush grapes. Of course, most grapes are crushed using hydraulic presses and machinery, and then winemakers can begin to intervene in the wine making process. So at this point, they can add sulfur in order to stabilize the wine, get rid of bacteria. And they can also choose to add yeast to kickstart fermentation, or they can let the wine ferment naturally using its own naturally occurring yeast. During fermentation, the wine becomes alcoholic, and then winemakers can age it. They can, if they choose to, filter it and bottle, cork, label it and get it out to distributors.

Brian Kenny:

Joking aside, I think a lot of people have this romanticized version of how wine is being made, like the Lucille Ball episode. It’s very natural and everything, but the case describes it as an industrial product, which set me back for a second. Why is it considered industrial in some instances versus agricultural?

Tiona Zuzul:

So this is really a contentious topic in the wine community, and so I want to be clear that it’s the proponents of natural wine making. People who are advocating for a return to tradiTional wine making techniques that claim that wine has become an industrial product. This is not necessarily a belief that’s shared by everyone in the industry.

But the key difference is that we think about agricultural products as starting with the plant. So wines are starting with the grape and the way that wines were tradiTionally made, and the way that my grandfather, for example, made wines is that he would try to make wines that were as clean and pure of an expression of that grape and the land in which the grape was grown.

Industrial products don’t start with the grape. A lot of these commercial wineries will start creating their wine by thinking about what is it that the customer wants? So we know that people have a preference for Chardonnays that reach a particular level of acidity, a particular level of sweetness, a particular level of oakiness, a particular alcoholic content. If it’s a red wine, certain kinds of tannins. And we figure that out through consumer research, and then we start thinking about how can we manipulate grapes that we’ve grown often in different parts of a country or even different parts of the world in order to create that taste.

So the difference between this industrial versus agricultural wine making is really the starting point. Is it consumer tastes or is it the grape?

Brian Kenny:

So that’s a really interesting point though, because the natural… I guess I’m guessing now. The natural winemaker would say, you get what I grow. I mean, this is your only option, and the natural wine consumer must say, I’m open to whatever you’ve got. I’m not going to limit my options.

Tiona Zuzul:

That’s right. And that’s actually one of the big criticisms that’s levied against natural wine is that it is often quite unpredictable. Because year-on-year, the grapes can produce very different wines and even different bottles can taste very different.

Brian Kenny:

Interesting. Okay. And so the fundamental difference here is that natural wine making, they don’t introduce any sulfites or yeast or any other ingredients into the process.

Tiona Zuzul:

Yes. So this is also something that’s contested. What does natural wine making actually mean? At minimum, most would agree that natural wine is low intervention. And so what that means is that the winemaker really tries to add as little as possible to the naturally occurring process of wine making and subtract as little as possible.

So something that most people don’t know is wine bottles don’t contain labels. And so probably the assumption that you had, Brian, before reading this case was, well, there’s probably grapes and I don’t know, maybe some yeast that got fermentation going.

Brian Kenny:

I had heard of sulfites before.

Tiona Zuzul:

Yeah.

Brian Kenny:

Because my wife claims that they give her a headache, but now I can go to her and say, that may not be true. So I want to get into that.

Tiona Zuzul:

It may not be true, but it turns out that the FDA has approved more than 60 additives that winemakers can add to the wine that they make. And these include things that stabilize wine like sulfites, but they also include things like oak chips that bring up that oak flavor that we discussed, things that can be used to achieve a particular color or clarity, including egg whites or collagen.

Brian Kenny:

Wow.

Tiona Zuzul:

Yeah. That’s why not all wine is actually vegan.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah, yeah.

Tiona Zuzul:

And so natural winemakers insist on using wine with as few… Or creating wine using as few of these interventions as possible. So at minimum, that typically means only using natural yeasts, and some will go so far as to say nothing should be added.

Brian Kenny:

Tell us about Frank. How did Frank get into the natural wine making business?

Tiona Zuzul:

So Frank grew up in a family that loved wine. And then because of his love of wine, he became a wine agent, traveled all over the world, and in particular Europe tasting different wines. And he sort of had a moment of insight when he traveled to Georgia and met with a number of winemakers there who were really making what he considered to be beautiful wines using ancient techniques. Things like aging the wines in clay amphoras that were buried underground.

And so Frank decided to try making wine in this way. Frank is a very philosophical person, and so he began thinking about how to make wine by developing a philosophy of wine making, and then he started traveling to try to figure out where can I grow grapes that will allow me to express this philosophy that I’ve developed. He settled on Italy and in particular Sicily because he loved the volcanic soil there. He thought that would result in really interesting grapes, and he committed to making wine in a completely no intervention way. So nothing added, nothing subtracted.

Brian Kenny:

Was he the first to do this or one of the early adopters, I guess?

Tiona Zuzul:

Natural wine had been made since the 1960s in the Beaujolais region of France. However, at the time when Frank started making it, it was still really a niche market, and particularly in Italy and especially in Sicily. So Sicily was a region with many winemakers, but they typically made quite low quality, inexpensive wine that was just sort of for personal or domestic consumption. And so he was known as one of kind of the godfathers of Italian natural wine making.

Brian Kenny:

Okay. Can you describe a little bit about the operation that he was running? I want to get to the point, at some point talk about how was he able to scale this because it seems like a very laborious process.

Tiona Zuzul:

It is, and when he started the winery, he was committed to doing everything by hand, including bottling, corking, labels. As the interest in his wine started to develop, he began producing more and more, and then he slowly began expanding his operations by buying plots of land throughout the region. And he slowly started to modernize some of his processes, but he really remained committed to both slow growth and to natural wine making principles.

Brian Kenny:

What was his pricing strategy? Was it super expensive? I mean, how do you make money doing this, I guess?

Tiona Zuzul:

It was quite expensive, especially for… So Frank has wines that range across a spectrum of prices. None of them are super low end and his highest end wines, he deliberately priced as the region’s most expensive wines.

Brian Kenny:

Wow. It’s an interesting strategy.

Tiona Zuzul:

It is an interesting strategy, and particularly if you consider the context of Italy, which has these really storied wine regions like Piedmont. People expect the wine from there to be incredibly expensive. Sicily wasn’t that way. And so to price a Sicilian wine, not even a natural wine, but just a Sicilian wine in this way raised a few eyebrows.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah. So let’s go back to 2018, which was the setup for the case. He had a choice that he had to make. Can you tell us what he decided to do?

Tiona Zuzul:

Can I ask you, what do you think he did?

Brian Kenny:

I’m going to say he stuck to his guns. He stuck to his philosophy and decided not to add the sulfites.

Tiona Zuzul:

He didn’t. He decided to add sulfites.

Brian Kenny:

Okay.

Tiona Zuzul:

But here’s what I found really interesting about his decision, and I want to backtrack a little bit and explain that the addition of sulfites is something that is contested within even the natural wine community. So most natural winemakers do add sulfites at some part of the wine making process because it’s very difficult to stabilize wine unless they do that. Frank was unusual in that he was one of a minority of winemakers who really committed not to do this.

Brian Kenny:

Okay.

Tiona Zuzul:

So what was interesting is that he decided to add sulfites, but he used this decision point as kind of a catalyst for a broader reflection on what is really important to him in wine making. And he realized that his own approach to wine making had become so dogmatic that in some ways it was betraying the same ideals that he began the process of wine making with.

Because if your thought is I really want to express the grape that I have in front of me, then you sometimes have to acknowledge that that grape will be imperfect, and that doesn’t mean that you throw it away. It means that you do what you can to try to create a beautiful wine from it. And so he not only added sulfites in 2018, he then started adding sulfites in his wine making in subsequent years as well. When he describes this year, he talks about it as a gateway year for him.

Brian Kenny:

Interesting.

Tiona Zuzul:

Yeah. And he says I was making wines that were good before, but after that, my wines became really spectacular.

Brian Kenny:

So what is the reaction of the natural wine making community when Frank decides to do this?

Tiona Zuzul:

It was mixed. A number of people, including the people who had intrigued me to explore Frank’s story more were extremely upset and thought that this was just a rejection of his principles. And in fact, I interviewed some wine store owners who refused to stock his wine.

Brian Kenny:

Really?

Tiona Zuzul:

The truth is that most people weren’t really aware of the fact that this occurred. One of the things that’s interesting is that sulfites, at least at the time, are not something that had to be labeled on wines in Italy. And wine does have some naturally occurring sulfites as well. So even if a label said contains sulfites, it wouldn’t be clear if those were added sulfites or naturally occurring sulfites. So there was nothing in the wine bottles themselves that would indicate that a change had been made. If you read the wine connoisseur blogs, which-

Brian Kenny:

Which I don’t.

Tiona Zuzul:

They’re pretty fun. People can debate some seemingly tiny details. Some real wine lovers did become aware of the change simply because the wine tasted different. Some of them liked the new taste.

Brian Kenny:

I was going to say was it better? Did it taste better?

Tiona Zuzul:

Some think so, but there are others who say it’s completely uninteresting now.

Brian Kenny:

Really?

Tiona Zuzul:

It’s become just like every other wine in the region.

Brian Kenny:

Was he using the natural wine making as a branding and marketing advantage before he decided to change tacts? Was he gaining some sort of distinction as a result of sticking to this philosophy?

Tiona Zuzul:

I think so. His staunch stance is what brought a lot of attention his way.

Brian Kenny:

So you study strategy, you look at how organizations innovate. I’m wondering if you saw this as a situation where by virtue of the fact that he was so beholden to the natural process and to his philosophy, was he limiting his ability to innovate as a business person?

Tiona Zuzul:

Yes. Absolutely.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah.

Tiona Zuzul:

So I actually have a paper in a completely unrelated industry, the air taxi industry, that I had written many years prior to this case that explores this phenomenon. And one of the things that I found in the paper is that revoluTionary founders who are really committed to particular principles and particular nascent markets can make commitments and then also, generate audience expectations that can actually restrict their ability to learn and enact changes that they need to make as an industry evolves and as their own business evolves.

What I found really interesting about Frank’s case is that he didn’t fall prey to this trap. Whether or not you think that his decision was ultimately the right one, he was willing to revisit his identity as a winemaker and even his philosophy as a winemaker in order to innovate and adapt to new conditions.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah. I mean, that seems like something our faculty talk about a lot is keeping your mind open to new ways of doing things.

Tiona Zuzul:

That’s right. But another thing our faculty talk a lot about is knowing your true north and knowing what you stand for. And what I love about Frank’s story is that it shows that there can sometimes be a tension between these two things.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah.

Tiona Zuzul:

How do you choose what to do?

Brian Kenny:

Do you think he went through this? I’m sure he did go through the mental calculations about the trade-offs that he was making by introducing the sulfites. What was he thinking would’ve happened if he didn’t? He could have lost the whole…

Tiona Zuzul:

He could have lost the whole harvest and there’s a question around could the winery have survived? He believes that it could have, but it would’ve been a massive financial hit that could have changed the course of growth that he previously anticipated.

Brian Kenny:

I’m sure his team was happy that he made the decision that he did. Tiona, this has been a great conversation, as I knew it would be. I’ll give you one last question, which is if you’d like our listeners to remember one thing about Frank’s case, what would it be?

Tiona Zuzul:

The one thing that I would love listeners to remember about the Frank Cornelissen case is that it’s incredibly important to be disciplined about one’s identity, principles, philosophy. Whether that’s as a winemaker, as a founder, or as a leader. But it’s also important to recognize that an identity that’s fixed or principles that are too rigid can actually prevent much-needed change, progress and learning.

One of the things that I find fascinating about what has happened to Frank since 2018 is that he has faced similar weather conditions a number of times now, and that’s the reality of wine making, facing climate change. There will be increasing unpredictability and so there’s a question around whether his staunch stance prior to 2018 was actually suited to the context that he’s now operating in.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah, that’s a great takeaway, and I’m looking forward to trying his wine that you’re going to help me score. I think you said that in the beginning of the conversation.

Tiona Zuzul:

Yes. Promises were made.

Brian Kenny:

Tiona Zuzul, thank you for joining me on Cold Call.

Tiona Zuzul:

Thank you.

Brian Kenny:

If you enjoy Cold Call, you might like our other podcasts, After Hours, Climate Rising, Deep Purpose, IdeaCast, Managing the Future of Work, Skydeck, and Women at Work, find them on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And if you could take a minute to rate and review us, we’d be grateful. If you have any suggestions or just want to say hello, we want to hear from you, email us at coldcall@hbs.edu. Thanks again for joining us, I’m your host Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School and part of the HBR Podcast Network.

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Brian Kenny:

Somewhere in the Caucasus, around 6,000 BC, someone discovered grapes fermenting in a jar and for some unfathomable reason, decided to taste it. And thank God they did because this is thought to be the origin of wine. Aside from water, wine may be the longest-standing beverage in human history. Even today, it is among the top five most consumed drinks in the world. Throughout history, it has played an important role in culture and religion.

In 2023, we consumed about 25 billion liters of wine globally. A sure sign that our romance with wine is as strong as ever, but as the oenophiles, that’s Greek for wine lover, are quick to point out, they don’t make it like they used to. The wine most of us drink today bears little resemblance to that of our ancestors and to some, that’s cause for sour grapes.

Today on Cold Call, we welcome Professor Tiona Zuzul to discuss the case, “Frank Cornelissen, the Great Sulfite Debate.” I’m your host, Brian Kenny and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Podcast Network. Tiona Zuzul studies how leaders and organizations learn to adapt in response to environmental shifts and periods of discontinuous change. That sounds like the perfect area of research for today’s conversation. Welcome to Cold Call.

Tiona Zuzul:

Thank you so much, Brian. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Brian Kenny:

I’m going to start by asking you to tell us what the central issue is in the case and what your cold call is to start the discussion.

Tiona Zuzul:

Okay. Before we get into that, can I ask you, have you tried Frank’s wine?

Brian Kenny:

I have not tried Frank’s wine.

Tiona Zuzul:

Maybe that is something that we’ll need to fix after this podcast.

Brian Kenny:

I said I’ve got to find some natural wine. I don’t know if they sell it in my local wine store or not.

Tiona Zuzul:

We can figure that out.

Brian Kenny:

We can figure that out.

Tiona Zuzul:

We’ll take some time to figure that out. The central issue in the case is a decision that Frank Cornelissen, storied natural winemaker, faced in 2018. Frank had been making wine in Sicily, in Italy for the last 17 years. He was seen as one of the preeminent natural winemakers, a rock star in the natural wine making scene, and he was as known for his wonderful wines as for his unwavering commitment to the principles of natural wine making, which we’ll get into in a moment. And one of the challenges that artisanal winemakers like Frank face is that every harvest is essentially a “bet the vineyard” decision. If you are committed to growing a small number of grapes and producing a small number of bottles, then if anything happens to a year’s harvest, you risk not being able to survive if you can’t make wine in that year.

And in 2018, Frank encountered some unfortunate weather conditions, so it was a really rainy year. As he was harvesting his grapes, he realized that tiny specks of mold had formed on their skins, and he knew what this meant. That he might lose the harvest. He also knew one potential way to save the grapes, which was to add sulfites or sulfur dioxide, which is a commonly used preservative in wine making. The issue is that Frank had spoken out very publicly against the use of sulfites throughout his career. So the decision that Frank faced in 2018 was: do I add sulfites, saving my grapes, but potentially risking the winery’s reputation and going against my own principles as a winemaker? Or do I not add sulfites and risk losing the harvest and potentially the entire winery?

Brian Kenny:

Yeah.

Tiona Zuzul:

So the cold call in the case is very simple. What should Frank do?

Brian Kenny:

How did you hear about Frank? Why did you decide to write about this? Are you a huge wine fan, first of all?

Tiona Zuzul:

I am a wine fan, and my grandfather was a winemaker-

Brian Kenny:

No kidding.

Tiona Zuzul:

And an agronomer in Croatia. That’s right, yes. So wine is something that I’ve grown up with. I also, as you mentioned, study new industries, periods of profound uncertainty, and so I’ve been studying the evolution of wine making and in particular natural wine making since about 2017. And I’d been conducting interviews with a number of people in the industry. The natural wine market at the time was very small, so everyone knew everybody’s business, and I’d heard about this story of the decision that Frank faced through my interviews.

Brian Kenny:

Okay. I’m guessing you’re the person that gets to order the wine when you go out to dinner, and I would leave that to you because I am definitely not a sophisticated wine drinker. I know what I like, but it’s probably not always the best thing. Tell us how wine is made. What’s the general process for how it’s made?

Tiona Zuzul:

So this is a very complicated question, and I’m sure that both Frank and my grandfather, if he was alive, would take issue with the incredibly simple answer that I will give. But essentially, wine begins with grapes that are grown in vineyards. The grapes are harvested. Sometimes this is done mechanically, sometimes it’s done by hand. Then the grapes are crushed. This used to be done, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures and videos of people crushing grapes.

Brian Kenny:

I’ve seen the “I Love Lucy” episode where they’re-

Tiona Zuzul:

That’s right, yes. Well, it turns out that in some wineries, this is still how they crush grapes. Of course, most grapes are crushed using hydraulic presses and machinery, and then winemakers can begin to intervene in the wine making process. So at this point, they can add sulfur in order to stabilize the wine, get rid of bacteria. And they can also choose to add yeast to kickstart fermentation, or they can let the wine ferment naturally using its own naturally occurring yeast. During fermentation, the wine becomes alcoholic, and then winemakers can age it. They can, if they choose to, filter it and bottle, cork, label it and get it out to distributors.

Brian Kenny:

Joking aside, I think a lot of people have this romanticized version of how wine is being made, like the Lucille Ball episode. It’s very natural and everything, but the case describes it as an industrial product, which set me back for a second. Why is it considered industrial in some instances versus agricultural?

Tiona Zuzul:

So this is really a contentious topic in the wine community, and so I want to be clear that it’s the proponents of natural wine making. People who are advocating for a return to tradiTional wine making techniques that claim that wine has become an industrial product. This is not necessarily a belief that’s shared by everyone in the industry.

But the key difference is that we think about agricultural products as starting with the plant. So wines are starting with the grape and the way that wines were tradiTionally made, and the way that my grandfather, for example, made wines is that he would try to make wines that were as clean and pure of an expression of that grape and the land in which the grape was grown.

Industrial products don’t start with the grape. A lot of these commercial wineries will start creating their wine by thinking about what is it that the customer wants? So we know that people have a preference for Chardonnays that reach a particular level of acidity, a particular level of sweetness, a particular level of oakiness, a particular alcoholic content. If it’s a red wine, certain kinds of tannins. And we figure that out through consumer research, and then we start thinking about how can we manipulate grapes that we’ve grown often in different parts of a country or even different parts of the world in order to create that taste.

So the difference between this industrial versus agricultural wine making is really the starting point. Is it consumer tastes or is it the grape?

Brian Kenny:

So that’s a really interesting point though, because the natural… I guess I’m guessing now. The natural winemaker would say, you get what I grow. I mean, this is your only option, and the natural wine consumer must say, I’m open to whatever you’ve got. I’m not going to limit my options.

Tiona Zuzul:

That’s right. And that’s actually one of the big criticisms that’s levied against natural wine is that it is often quite unpredictable. Because year-on-year, the grapes can produce very different wines and even different bottles can taste very different.

Brian Kenny:

Interesting. Okay. And so the fundamental difference here is that natural wine making, they don’t introduce any sulfites or yeast or any other ingredients into the process.

Tiona Zuzul:

Yes. So this is also something that’s contested. What does natural wine making actually mean? At minimum, most would agree that natural wine is low intervention. And so what that means is that the winemaker really tries to add as little as possible to the naturally occurring process of wine making and subtract as little as possible.

So something that most people don’t know is wine bottles don’t contain labels. And so probably the assumption that you had, Brian, before reading this case was, well, there’s probably grapes and I don’t know, maybe some yeast that got fermentation going.

Brian Kenny:

I had heard of sulfites before.

Tiona Zuzul:

Yeah.

Brian Kenny:

Because my wife claims that they give her a headache, but now I can go to her and say, that may not be true. So I want to get into that.

Tiona Zuzul:

It may not be true, but it turns out that the FDA has approved more than 60 additives that winemakers can add to the wine that they make. And these include things that stabilize wine like sulfites, but they also include things like oak chips that bring up that oak flavor that we discussed, things that can be used to achieve a particular color or clarity, including egg whites or collagen.

Brian Kenny:

Wow.

Tiona Zuzul:

Yeah. That’s why not all wine is actually vegan.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah, yeah.

Tiona Zuzul:

And so natural winemakers insist on using wine with as few… Or creating wine using as few of these interventions as possible. So at minimum, that typically means only using natural yeasts, and some will go so far as to say nothing should be added.

Brian Kenny:

Tell us about Frank. How did Frank get into the natural wine making business?

Tiona Zuzul:

So Frank grew up in a family that loved wine. And then because of his love of wine, he became a wine agent, traveled all over the world, and in particular Europe tasting different wines. And he sort of had a moment of insight when he traveled to Georgia and met with a number of winemakers there who were really making what he considered to be beautiful wines using ancient techniques. Things like aging the wines in clay amphoras that were buried underground.

And so Frank decided to try making wine in this way. Frank is a very philosophical person, and so he began thinking about how to make wine by developing a philosophy of wine making, and then he started traveling to try to figure out where can I grow grapes that will allow me to express this philosophy that I’ve developed. He settled on Italy and in particular Sicily because he loved the volcanic soil there. He thought that would result in really interesting grapes, and he committed to making wine in a completely no intervention way. So nothing added, nothing subtracted.

Brian Kenny:

Was he the first to do this or one of the early adopters, I guess?

Tiona Zuzul:

Natural wine had been made since the 1960s in the Beaujolais region of France. However, at the time when Frank started making it, it was still really a niche market, and particularly in Italy and especially in Sicily. So Sicily was a region with many winemakers, but they typically made quite low quality, inexpensive wine that was just sort of for personal or domestic consumption. And so he was known as one of kind of the godfathers of Italian natural wine making.

Brian Kenny:

Okay. Can you describe a little bit about the operation that he was running? I want to get to the point, at some point talk about how was he able to scale this because it seems like a very laborious process.

Tiona Zuzul:

It is, and when he started the winery, he was committed to doing everything by hand, including bottling, corking, labels. As the interest in his wine started to develop, he began producing more and more, and then he slowly began expanding his operations by buying plots of land throughout the region. And he slowly started to modernize some of his processes, but he really remained committed to both slow growth and to natural wine making principles.

Brian Kenny:

What was his pricing strategy? Was it super expensive? I mean, how do you make money doing this, I guess?

Tiona Zuzul:

It was quite expensive, especially for… So Frank has wines that range across a spectrum of prices. None of them are super low end and his highest end wines, he deliberately priced as the region’s most expensive wines.

Brian Kenny:

Wow. It’s an interesting strategy.

Tiona Zuzul:

It is an interesting strategy, and particularly if you consider the context of Italy, which has these really storied wine regions like Piedmont. People expect the wine from there to be incredibly expensive. Sicily wasn’t that way. And so to price a Sicilian wine, not even a natural wine, but just a Sicilian wine in this way raised a few eyebrows.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah. So let’s go back to 2018, which was the setup for the case. He had a choice that he had to make. Can you tell us what he decided to do?

Tiona Zuzul:

Can I ask you, what do you think he did?

Brian Kenny:

I’m going to say he stuck to his guns. He stuck to his philosophy and decided not to add the sulfites.

Tiona Zuzul:

He didn’t. He decided to add sulfites.

Brian Kenny:

Okay.

Tiona Zuzul:

But here’s what I found really interesting about his decision, and I want to backtrack a little bit and explain that the addition of sulfites is something that is contested within even the natural wine community. So most natural winemakers do add sulfites at some part of the wine making process because it’s very difficult to stabilize wine unless they do that. Frank was unusual in that he was one of a minority of winemakers who really committed not to do this.

Brian Kenny:

Okay.

Tiona Zuzul:

So what was interesting is that he decided to add sulfites, but he used this decision point as kind of a catalyst for a broader reflection on what is really important to him in wine making. And he realized that his own approach to wine making had become so dogmatic that in some ways it was betraying the same ideals that he began the process of wine making with.

Because if your thought is I really want to express the grape that I have in front of me, then you sometimes have to acknowledge that that grape will be imperfect, and that doesn’t mean that you throw it away. It means that you do what you can to try to create a beautiful wine from it. And so he not only added sulfites in 2018, he then started adding sulfites in his wine making in subsequent years as well. When he describes this year, he talks about it as a gateway year for him.

Brian Kenny:

Interesting.

Tiona Zuzul:

Yeah. And he says I was making wines that were good before, but after that, my wines became really spectacular.

Brian Kenny:

So what is the reaction of the natural wine making community when Frank decides to do this?

Tiona Zuzul:

It was mixed. A number of people, including the people who had intrigued me to explore Frank’s story more were extremely upset and thought that this was just a rejection of his principles. And in fact, I interviewed some wine store owners who refused to stock his wine.

Brian Kenny:

Really?

Tiona Zuzul:

The truth is that most people weren’t really aware of the fact that this occurred. One of the things that’s interesting is that sulfites, at least at the time, are not something that had to be labeled on wines in Italy. And wine does have some naturally occurring sulfites as well. So even if a label said contains sulfites, it wouldn’t be clear if those were added sulfites or naturally occurring sulfites. So there was nothing in the wine bottles themselves that would indicate that a change had been made. If you read the wine connoisseur blogs, which-

Brian Kenny:

Which I don’t.

Tiona Zuzul:

They’re pretty fun. People can debate some seemingly tiny details. Some real wine lovers did become aware of the change simply because the wine tasted different. Some of them liked the new taste.

Brian Kenny:

I was going to say was it better? Did it taste better?

Tiona Zuzul:

Some think so, but there are others who say it’s completely uninteresting now.

Brian Kenny:

Really?

Tiona Zuzul:

It’s become just like every other wine in the region.

Brian Kenny:

Was he using the natural wine making as a branding and marketing advantage before he decided to change tacts? Was he gaining some sort of distinction as a result of sticking to this philosophy?

Tiona Zuzul:

I think so. His staunch stance is what brought a lot of attention his way.

Brian Kenny:

So you study strategy, you look at how organizations innovate. I’m wondering if you saw this as a situation where by virtue of the fact that he was so beholden to the natural process and to his philosophy, was he limiting his ability to innovate as a business person?

Tiona Zuzul:

Yes. Absolutely.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah.

Tiona Zuzul:

So I actually have a paper in a completely unrelated industry, the air taxi industry, that I had written many years prior to this case that explores this phenomenon. And one of the things that I found in the paper is that revoluTionary founders who are really committed to particular principles and particular nascent markets can make commitments and then also, generate audience expectations that can actually restrict their ability to learn and enact changes that they need to make as an industry evolves and as their own business evolves.

What I found really interesting about Frank’s case is that he didn’t fall prey to this trap. Whether or not you think that his decision was ultimately the right one, he was willing to revisit his identity as a winemaker and even his philosophy as a winemaker in order to innovate and adapt to new conditions.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah. I mean, that seems like something our faculty talk about a lot is keeping your mind open to new ways of doing things.

Tiona Zuzul:

That’s right. But another thing our faculty talk a lot about is knowing your true north and knowing what you stand for. And what I love about Frank’s story is that it shows that there can sometimes be a tension between these two things.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah.

Tiona Zuzul:

How do you choose what to do?

Brian Kenny:

Do you think he went through this? I’m sure he did go through the mental calculations about the trade-offs that he was making by introducing the sulfites. What was he thinking would’ve happened if he didn’t? He could have lost the whole…

Tiona Zuzul:

He could have lost the whole harvest and there’s a question around could the winery have survived? He believes that it could have, but it would’ve been a massive financial hit that could have changed the course of growth that he previously anticipated.

Brian Kenny:

I’m sure his team was happy that he made the decision that he did. Tiona, this has been a great conversation, as I knew it would be. I’ll give you one last question, which is if you’d like our listeners to remember one thing about Frank’s case, what would it be?

Tiona Zuzul:

The one thing that I would love listeners to remember about the Frank Cornelissen case is that it’s incredibly important to be disciplined about one’s identity, principles, philosophy. Whether that’s as a winemaker, as a founder, or as a leader. But it’s also important to recognize that an identity that’s fixed or principles that are too rigid can actually prevent much-needed change, progress and learning.

One of the things that I find fascinating about what has happened to Frank since 2018 is that he has faced similar weather conditions a number of times now, and that’s the reality of wine making, facing climate change. There will be increasing unpredictability and so there’s a question around whether his staunch stance prior to 2018 was actually suited to the context that he’s now operating in.

Brian Kenny:

Yeah, that’s a great takeaway, and I’m looking forward to trying his wine that you’re going to help me score. I think you said that in the beginning of the conversation.

Tiona Zuzul:

Yes. Promises were made.

Brian Kenny:

Tiona Zuzul, thank you for joining me on Cold Call.

Tiona Zuzul:

Thank you.

Brian Kenny:

If you enjoy Cold Call, you might like our other podcasts, After Hours, Climate Rising, Deep Purpose, IdeaCast, Managing the Future of Work, Skydeck, and Women at Work, find them on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And if you could take a minute to rate and review us, we’d be grateful. If you have any suggestions or just want to say hello, we want to hear from you, email us at coldcall@hbs.edu. Thanks again for joining us, I’m your host Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School and part of the HBR Podcast Network.



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