A Lesson in Craftsmanship

I was fortunate enough to drink one of the world’s truly iconic wines last night while at dinner with my parents for their 60th birthdays. The wine was a 1984 Penfold’s Grange, only 4 years younger than me and it was obscenely good. Grange is so much more than just a wine – it is the true artistic expression of a master craftsman at the zenith of his ability. Everything about this wine, from its genesis to where it is now, can teach us about what it takes to do or make something that makes its mark in the world.

1. You have to be bold

After touring the wine regions of France, Max Schubert set himself a goal no less lofty than to beat the master winemakers of Bordeaux at their own game. He wanted to craft a wine that rivaled the great Bordeaux wines in quality and ageing potential. One of my favourite sayings is “set goals that scare you, then set bigger ones”. You can’t make your mark on the world by simply going through the motions and doing what everyone else has done. NASA did not put a man on the moon because they ummd and ahhd about it – Kennedy boldly made the announcement that that was the county’s goal, and NASA had to come up with the goods. When you want to do great things, you can’t take the attitude of “I’ll walk this path and see where it takes me”. There is no challenge with such an attitude, and it is challenges that spur one into action. You need to have a vision. That vision gives a goal to be worked towards and thus the steps to that goal can be identified.

2. You have to challenge convention and break some “rules”

The French wine industry has always been about the expression of terroir in their wine. This means that the aim of the winemaker is to showcase the climate and soil in the flavour in the wine, which is why wine from certain regions is so highly valued and the appellation system exists in France. In layman’s terms, terroir is the reason that any one grape variety, say chardonnay, when grown exactly the same way by the same winemaker in two different regions will taste completely different. Max Schubert did the unthinkable with Grange – he sourced the grapes from a variety of areas and turned the wine into an expression of the winemaker instead of the terroir. All of a sudden hundreds of years of tradition was thrown away by an Aussie winemaker who thought he had a better way of doing things. In almost every human endeavour it is because someone thought they could do better, thought they had a better idea or a better way that we have advanced so far as a species.

3. You need to learn from the best teachers available

Schubert didn’t just start concocting different mixtures of grape and accidentally stumble onto the secret of Grange, he went to France and studied with the winemakers of Bordeaux. In order to beat the best at their own game, he needed to study exactly what the best were doing and how to get their results. Building expertise and the ability to branch out on your own successfully comes from the example of others. Einstein would not have arrived at his Theory of Relativity without the work of people like Newton or Archimedes centuries before. In judo, my skill increased exponentially when I started training with Olympic level players and coaches compared to when I trained at other clubs. Likewise working in intelligence, I sought out the best people I could find and continually picked their brains on everything I could think of. It is arrogant to think we come up with everything on our own – it is by standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before us that allows us to see farther than if we stayed on the ground.

4. You have to have faith in your vision

Schubert began making Grange in 1951 on an experimental basis, with the 1952 vintage being the first commercially released. Poor reviews followed and in 1957 Schubert was ordered to cease making Grange. He persisted in secret and as the early vintages began to age, the true value of Grange began to be appreciated. Schubert was instructed to restart production in 1960 – management was unaware he had never stopped. Schubert had faith in his vision and in his ability as a winemaker that Grange would be truly special. He wasn’t worried about early criticism – he was playing a long game and so persisted in his work. It is very important when you have a goal or vision to have faith in your ability to achieve it – 90% of the criticism you will hear will be from people that don’t want you to succeed, and you have to be able to persist through such criticism if you are ever going to be successful

5. You have to have patience

Part of the problem with the world right now is the erroneous notion that true success can happen overnight with a great idea. Any person with intelligence knows this isn’t the case. Behind any one idea must be a hell of a lot of work, patience and persistence if it is to come to fruition. Grange is the perfect example of true craftsmanship taking time. It is a wine designed to be aged – drinking it upon release would be an incredible waste. Development of such a wine is something that can’t be rushed – all you can do is put it in a cellar and wait for it to slowly develop at its own pace. When you open it, you are rewarded with a truly remarkable wine. To even further underline the point, the original vintage of Grange is still drinking well. That original vintage is over 60 years old. Facebook is another great example of patience yielding rewards. In its early days, Mark Zuckerberg resisted the temptation to plaster his site with advertising when its popularity rose. He knew that he had something big and didn’t want to scare away his user base by encroaching on their experience with annoying pop ups and banner ads. He allowed the site time to mature while he continued to work on it, eventually realising that his site would allow a unique form of focused marketing to specific target groups (because people’s profiles contain personal details). In addition, due to the connection between Facebook users, referral and word of mouth advertising is being seen as the future in online advertising and is making Google very, very nervous. None of this would have been possible if Zuckerberg had given in to the first opportunity he had to make money.

Most of us will never change the world or make a mark on it as large as Max Schubert did with his iconic Grange. However, I believe that by following his example of true craftsmanship and applying it to anything we do, we can reach our highest potential in our pursuits in life.

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