Christian Burgos learned about wine through his then wife Marusia Gomez. “When we met, she used to drink wine, and I started drinking to make her happy, and then I became much happier.”
That love of wine has helped inspire a thriving company, Inner Group, whose growth has tracked the development of the Brazilian wine market. It started with a wine magazine called Adega, and then branched out into guides, television programmes, tastings, and even a credit card programme.
How he started the magazine
Burgos studied business, and went to work in the US, with stints at Price Waterhouse Coopers and then the financial sector. His work experience also included US political lobbying. He saved everything he made, with a view to opening his own business in Brazil.
He says watching how business was done in the US — and how fast it was done — taught him a lot. “At that time, if you had a problem in a US company, you say, ‘All right, what is the solution for this? How much money do I need?’ And I raise the money and fix it.” In Brazil, if there’s a problem, “you say, ‘How do I fix it without any money?’” because the cost of capital is so high.
if you had a problem in a US company, you ask: What is the solution? How much money do I need? And then you raise the money and fix it.
In 2003, aged about 30, he returned to Brazil and opened a publishing house; his first two magazines were about swimming and volleyball; tennis came in 2006, and business aviation in 2011. But his biggest publishing venture came about because of a 2004 conversation.
“I was in a tennis tournament, and one of the guys,” — who Burgos says worked for Forbes Brasil — told him they’d done a study of the wine market, with a view to opening a wine consumer magazine. As it happened, they’d decided to stay with business publishing, but the initial project was for sale.
Burgos had already passed on one wine magazine. Ironically, it was because he loved wine — he’d seen too many people lose money on passion projects.
When he heard that a publisher the size of Forbes was considering it, however, he changed his mind, and Adega was born.
What was happening in Brazil at the time
Today, Brazil is a dynamic wine market, but things were different 20 years ago. Wine had been produced in Brazil since the late 19th century, and wineries emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. But until the 1990s, the Brazilian government protected domestic industries from foreign competition, through high tariffs, import quotas, and other means. Very little wine came into the country, and what trickled in was expensive — so there was very little pressure on existing wineries and co-operatives to improve their products.
That changed in 1996, when a new trade policy was put in place and tariffs were reduced, including on wine.
Gradually, as foreign wines began to appear on restaurant lists and retail shelves, an enthusiastic audience developed.
By 2005, when Burgos launched Adega, “it was booming. There was one wine magazine and one gastronomy magazine, but in the month that I launched, there were four wine magazines. Everybody came up with the same conclusion at the same time.”
The wine culture has flourished, but the wine publications have not. Today, Brazil has two gastronomy magazines, says Burgos, and one wine magazine: Adega.
How Adega survived
One reason that Adega is still standing is that it remained editorially independent. The other was that Burgos took the internet seriously when others didn’t. “In 2005 and 2006, everybody received the message that magazines are dead and the internet is going to take everything,” says Burgos. He built a website and arranged to supply wine news to Brazil’s biggest internet portal, UOL. “I said, ‘Now we are going to have a readership and lots of advertisements and we are saved.”
But the internet pot of gold never appeared. “So, I said, back to square one. Magazines are going to die and digital is not a revenue option. What to do?”
Remain editorially independent and take the internet seriously, when others don't.
In 2010, he launched a wine guide. “Nobody made a Brazilian wine guide that lasted more than three years. But I said, if we have all the subscribers buy this wine guide, we are going to grow the value of the reader by 20%.”
Next, he launched another wine guide, Descorchados, in partnership with Patricio Tapia. Originally it covered Chile and Argentina, but over time it’s expanded to cover Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, and Bolivia.
That went well, so in 2013 he created a launch event. In that first year, 25 people turned up. Today, it involves 100 producers from South America and attracts more than 900 people, all of whom pay $50 for a ticket. And two guides have expanded to four, with Spain and Portugal now covered.
Business was growing — and so was Brazil’s wine market.
Brazil’s market expands
“There were startups and small importers starting everywhere,” says Burgos. “And we started to feel the wine message was reaching a point where it was fancy to know about wine and wine became a topic of conversation.”
The way alcohol was portrayed on television began to change. “If you had a villain in the soap opera, he used to grab a glass of whiskey. But if you had someone from a fancy, elegant culture, he would ask the butler to please bring the wine.”
Wine caught on with celebrities, who sipped it on Instagram. Wine education expanded, importers started up, and more wines arrived in Brazil. Wine companies brought advertising money with them and suddenly there were newspaper wine columns.
In 2010, Burgos launched a site called MelhorVinho.com.br, or “Best Wine”. He says he started it mostly because he was sick of people calling him from restaurants and bars “at crazy hours” to ask him what wine to order. “We said, OK, let’s create a website as a repository of our tasting notes.”
Creating an ecosystem
But the site didn’t solve the problem. “People kept saying, ‘Well, give me an idea of a wine I should drink this week’, because we were publishing 100 wines in the magazine every month, plus 2,000 wines in the wine guide. So we started a wine club.”
When asked how he maintained editorial independence while selling wine, Burgos says he’d been influenced by reading about the flywheel effect, which says that every part of a system should contribute to everything else, to amplify its overall effectiveness. “I came to understand that we had created an ecosystem and I should put things in the ecosystem that would help every other product.”
The wine club and wine guides served existing readers but also reached other people. So did the podcast, the events, and even a “wine run”, the half marathon in a Brazilian wine region.
Keeping it simple
Burgos says he takes his management inspiration from the military. “The people from the infantry should know what good infantry does, and the cavalry should know what the cavalry does. I keep it very streamlined, with everybody knowing the end goal, but being responsible for their own business units.”
He says people in the company will drop everything and help one another during the big events, but otherwise they concentrate on their own departments; he avoids committees at all costs. And his goal is incremental improvements, rather than major changes.
As the company grew, people began to approach him with projects. If he thinks it’s a good project, he will support it with free promotion, or with knowledge. The owners often ask him to become part of the business. “I say, OK, every year I have an amount of money to lose. If I lose the money, everybody still lives in a dignified way. Everybody’s going to be paid. So I say, ‘OK, let’s put some money into this business for a year or two’.”
If it doesn’t work out, he lets it go.
His business philosophy is to focus relentlessly on what his real business is. “Because of my experience as a lobbyist, I came to know that my business is influence. So we exert this influence by serving people. If you have this in mind, everything you do should be answering the question — are you growing your influence in the market?”
This approach can make decision-making easier. For example, when the local Brazilian wine industry tried to block the imports of wine, an industry colleague convinced him that he needed to use his influence. “I realised I had another role in the industry, so we started a seminar,” called Adega Ideal, “where we invite the biggest and most important guys and discuss what the threats to our industry are and what are the problems we need to address.” Once everybody understands the problem, they can try to solve it as a group.
“We now have this role in the industry and make no money, but if you give back to the industry and your readers, things come back to you. People jump into your new projects because they believe it’s good for the industry as well.”