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Lessons From A Vineyard

Lessons From A Vineyard

Good things come to those who wait, the saying goes. And it is as true in engaging the culture as it is in making the perfect wine. Cultural repair takes time, and today’s social entrepreneurs should take a lesson from the slow, oak-barrel aging techniques of America’s top winemaker.

In 1933, two brothers named Ernest and Julio launched a wine business from a tiny shack in the lush northern valleys of Sonoma, Calif. They were two of 700 struggling winemakers across America, sinking every penny they earned back into the family business.

As the vines grew, so did their optimism. Neighboring vintners said the brothers told everyone who would listen, “…someday the Gallo name with their family crest would appear on bottles throughout the U.S.” It was wishful thinking in a post-Depression economy.

But lack of money and name recognition was the least of their concerns. Foreign winemaking giants, particularly the French, dominated domestic sales. And, during this period, Americans saw wine as an elitist drink for the wealthy, or the sinful indulgence of the winos. Paradoxically, wine was poured into crystal glasses in mansions, and nursed from paper bags in city alleys. The biggest market—Middle America—had too little money, and too much religion, to drink wine.

So, the Gallo Brothers made the best business decision of their lives. While others were looking to next year’s harvest or next quarter’s profits, they looked decades ahead. It was the difference between near-sighted and far-sighted vision. And that made all the difference.

The Gallo brother’s patience paid off. Literally. By 1975, according to Forbes Magazine, the E. & J. Gallo Winery was the largest wine company in the world; its nearest competitor was half its size.

Their financial success can be measured on the balance sheets. But in their decades of devotion and persistence something else happened. The Gallo brothers transformed the perception and practices of wine drinking in America.

“Gone are the days when wine was only imbibed at format occasions; when the wine bottle only made an appearance in somber dusky rooms or at candlelight dinners,” an industry newsletter reported in 1983. “Today, wine … entertains at picnics, social occasions, business luncheons, everyday meals and sporting events … [and] is becoming a part of everyday life.”

Not bad for two poor brothers in a California shack.

The roots of today’s most troubling social ills—from abortion to racial division to hopelessness to the abolition of absolutes—are too deep and entangled in the landscape for a quick shot of weed killer. It is going to take much more, a lot longer, than that.

That’s a tough thing to ask in America. We live in an era of instant credit, Cliff Notes, and one-night-stands. We don’t like wasting time. We want results, and fast. The same mindset that encourages one-minute rice and DSL lines spills over into politics and the pulpit. Politicians promise revolutionary changes before the next election. Pastors preach gas station salvation; a quick fill-up of Jesus ensures a thin body and a fat portfolio, and a guaranteed trip to heaven.

The tyranny of the quick and urgent—the right here, right now worldview—is the enemy of cultural renewal. We need fewer sprinters and more marathon runners. We need more Ernest and Julios in America—patient, faithful men and women who hold a far-sighted vision for transformation, and who are willing to stick with it even through the bad harvests.

It’s time to admit that many initiatives and programs aren’t living up to their promises. Never before in world history has there been so much wealth, so many organizations and churches, so much power and technology, yet so few results. Everyone seems to have an answer, but no one appears to have the solution. Schools keep failing. Poverty still lingers. Community continues to disintegrate. Truth keeps evaporating.

In our haste to “do something,” we often appear like children playing the carnival game of Gopher Bash—the game where a gopher randomly rises from one of eight holes and you swing a hammer violently at its poor head. A social malady surfaces in the culture and we quickly beat down only to have another one appear someplace else.

Don’t we all wish we could rewind thirty years and begin “seeding” the culture with the answers to the issues that litter today’s newspapers? What if we stopped thinking about next year or next election, and instead set our eyes on five, 10, even 20 years down the road? What if we stopped putting fingers in the holes of the levy, and began rebuilding the dam?

A wise man said, “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in this lifetime.” That’s not a great opening line for fundraising letters or a presidential campaign slogan. But it’s true. Rarely do great things happen overnight. Olympic gold medalists win a race in a few seconds, but only after years of training. Even the birth of a baby takes nine months of preparation. Or, think of the 18th century British politician, William Wilberforce, who devoted his life to end the nation’s slave trade, only to die three days before Parliament voted for its abolition.

God asks us to be faithful and to be humble. And that means having the courage to fight like the dickens for what we believe in, while always knowing that some things won’t be accomplished right away, perhaps not even in our lifetime, yet still having the faith and confidence to say, “That’s alright.”

In turning wine bottles or turning around the culture, the sediment only goes to the bottom over time. A little risk, some hard work, and a lot of patience allowed the Gallo Brothers to sell wine and, along the way, transform the wine culture. It’s helpful to remember what they didn’t do. They didn’t issue a press release after they planed the first vine. They didn’t spend thousands on new equipment when the old stuff worked just fine. And they didn’t stand in their competitor’s fields and complain about the size of their harvest. They were too busy looking toward the future.

Changing the culture through slow and steady steps won’t earn many pats on the back, or make many headlines. A lesson in faith and faithfulness, however, may just be what God is trying to teach us these days. Most of us are dirt poor in a small shack, but we have big dreams. So, get busy planting, and maybe we’ll see the fruits of transformation within our lifetime.


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