We had the good fortune of connecting with Mike Officer and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mike, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
It’s funny. Having given up a well-paying software development career in the investment management industry for self-employment (in agriculture no less!), most would consider me to be a risk taker. The reality, however, is that this couldn’t be any further from the truth. When my wife Kendall and I started Carlisle Winery in 1998, it was on the side of full-time day jobs. While we would have loved to have given up our daily four and a half hours of commuting, with two young children and a mortgage, there was no way we were going to cut the cords to our day jobs until we were confident the winery would succeed. It took six years for me to give up my day job, seven for Kendall. In terms of growing the business, we decided early on that we did not want the risk of debt. Hence, all growth would have to be self-funded. We also only wanted to grow as demand dictated. This play-it-safe strategy has led us from 675 cases in our inaugural vintage to approximately 9000 cases today. Providing for this growth was the addition of new vineyards. Even here risk was considered. Using the investment concept of portfolio diversification, we sought vineyards of different varieties and viticultural areas to help lessen any negative impacts of Mother Nature. If one area or variety performed poorly, no problem, we had vineyards in other areas to make up for it.
In the end, was it risky to give up a career in software and start a winery? I certainly don’t believe so. In fact, I have never felt more secure in my career than I do today.
What should our readers know about your business?
It’s been an improbably journey. When I graduated from college, I remember saying to all my MBA-bound friends that I would just be a career worker bee, that I didn’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body. Yet, decades later, I am owner and founder of a successful winery, specializing in the production of wines from some of California’s finest, historic old-vine vineyards.
What led me to this point? Simple. A passion for wine that developed at an early age. In fact, becoming a winemaker and grapegrower didn’t really feel like a choice. It was more like every cell in my body was screaming, “Be a winemaker!” Has it been easy? Not at all! The first six years when the winery overlapped with my full-time day job were incredibly challenging, especially during harvest. During harvest, I would get up at 3 AM and drive to the winery in my grubs to do punchdowns and pumpovers. Once finished, I’d change into my business suit and drive to the park n’ ride lot for a 2+ hour bus ride to San Francisco. After a full day’s work, it was back on the bus for another 2+ hour ride home. I’d drive straight from the park n’ ride lot back to the winery, change out of the suit into my grubs, do winemaking until 9 or 10 PM, and then finally get home for a quick bite to eat before going to bed and doing it all over again the next day. It was a grueling schedule, a schedule I would never want to do have again, but for the winery to succeed, there wasn’t a choice. It had to be done.
Now, nearly 2 decades later, I still work 7-days a week, often 10+ hours a day, but it really doesn’t feel like work. I feel incredibly fortunate to have turned my passion into a career. And in the process, my wife and I have built a successful winery and brand without compromise. We’ve done it with the utmost integrity and have stayed true to ourselves. It’s a dream come true.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
In my mind, Sonoma County is about food, wine, and natural scenic beauty. Hence, any guest to our area is given a good dose of each. For food, a must-do is a drive to Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall on Tomales Bay to slurp down a couple dozen Sweetwaters and Kumamotos. And since Point Reyes Station isn’t too far away, might as well pick up some cheese at Cowgirl Creamery to complement handmade salumi from Journeyman Meat Co. in Healdsburg! And no visit to Sonoma County would be complete without a visit to one of the many fine farmers’ markets. I like the Santa Rosa market at Luther Burbank Center. Weekly staples (when in season) include Costata Romanesco squash and heirloom tomatoes such as Black Krim, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and Striped German. If I’m feeling particularly indulgent, I’ll purchase some of the beautiful hand-decorated chocolates from Fleur Sauvage.
With so many great local ingredients available (meats from Sonoma Meat Company or Oliver’s and Seafood from Santa Rosa Seafood), most of the cooking would be at home. But if we wanted to go out, two restaurants come to mind, El Molino Central (some of the finest Mexican food I’ve ever had) and Diavola (don’t miss the Spaghettini with Pork Cheek Ragu). Hopefully there’s room for dessert. If so, a must-have is the lavender honeycomb ice cream from Nimble & Finn’s. If I’m ever on my deathbed and can only eat one more thing, this would be it. Oh, and somehow (maybe for morning coffee?), we’d have to fit in visits to the Downtown Bakery & Creamery and Quail & Condor.
With all this eating, exercise is needed! Fortunately, there are plenty of hiking trails in Sonoma County. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and Trione-Annadel State Park are two great places to hike. For something along the ocean, there’s the Kortum Trail in Jenner. And for scenic vistas, tough to beat Hood Mountain Regional State Park. On a clear day you can see the Golden Gate Bridge!
Finally, wine. Of course I’d treat any friend visiting to a tasting at our winery. But with over 400 wineries in Sonoma County, I’m sure we’d visit a few others. Which ones? It would really all depend on my friend’s taste. And if they wanted beer? Easy, Lagunitas for some IPA and Russian River Brewing Company for a glass of Pliny the Elder. And if my friend still wasn’t satisfied, I’d just take them to Bottle Barn (“where wine country buys wine”) to load up on their favorite tipple.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
There have been so many people who have helped my dream become a reality and success that it would be impossible to list them all. But first and foremost I would have to give a shoutout to my wonderful wife. Were it not for her love, support, and incredible hard work, and not to mention her maiden name, Carlisle Winery would not exist. I also have to thank Adam Lee, founder of Siduri Winery, Clarice Wine Company, and Beau Marchais Winery, for his encouragement and guidance and providing a home for us to produce wine in our first two vintages. Next, I have to give a shoutout to Jay Maddox, our winemaker of 21 years, for all of his hard work over the years. Not only is he one of the smartest people I know, he has a work ethic second to none. And finally, I have to acknowledge our customers. Without their support, we would not be able to do what we do.
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