Why a profitable wine industry needs 'Red Teamers' and Devils Advocates

Robert Joseph explains why he often finds himself taking a different position to many other members of the industry.

Image by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash
Image by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

“Why are you so negative?”

The questioner - a producer of English sparkling wine - had just read a piece I‘d written suggesting that finding overseas buyers for all of the premium-price bottles the UK’s young vineyards will soon be producing may not be as straightforward as some seem to imagine.

Think of me, I replied, as a one-man Red Team.

He was unfamiliar with the term, and so, to be fair, was I until I was introduced to it by the woefully underrated US TV series, the Newsroom. (Watch this opening scene; you’ll either be hooked or switched off completely.)

Written by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing and writer of The Social Network and The Trial of the Chicago 7, one of the strands in the show involves a TV news team having to decide whether to follow up on a controversial story. Making the wrong decision could jeopardise the existence of their programme.

To help them make up their minds, they set up a ‘Red Team’ whose role is to step outside the situation and ask all of the ‘what if?’ questions that people and organisations bent on doing anything tend to overlook. According to Wikipedia, the concept was originally developed by German military planners over a century ago, and lies behind all war games, but it was given its name in the 1960s in the US, when the colour referred to the Soviet Union. Today, however, corporations are just as likely to be ‘red teaming’ as armies, and there is even a well-received 2015 book, by the American political scientist, Micah Zenko, called Red Team: How to Succeed By Thinking Like the Enemy.

Thinking like a Pope

In fact, the idea of empowering an individual to give an opposing view dates back at least as far as the 16th century when a cleric designated as the so-called Devil’s Advocate was asked by the Pope to argue the opposing case every time he was considering declaring that a dead man or woman would now be considered a saint.

I’m certainly no priest, but I’ve been dealing out diabolical advocacy ever since the 1990s when my WINE Magazine column was illustrated by a cartoon in which I had been given a pair of horns and a tail.

That long experience makes me biased of course, but I believe that, despite its long history, seeking out and considering the alternative view is far less common in business and politics than it ought to be. Far too often, we come to a decision and surround ourselves by people who, for whatever reason, reassuringly tell us we’re right.

The neocons behind the invasion of Iraq apparently never really considered the possibility that the Iraqi populace would not welcome western troops with open arms, any more than the men and women responsible for Brexit imagined that the European Union would refuse to give them the deal they wanted.

And those experiences, to be brutal, are what come to mind when people like that English wine producer confidently assure me that the undeniable quality of their fizz; patriotism and a trend towards buying locally produced fare in the UK; and global respect and affection for all things British are collectively going to assure vibrant domestic and export sales for volumes of wine that rise every year. And at premium prices.

Their confidence which has gone largely unquestioned by an enthusiastic media could, of course, prove to be well-founded. Without ambition, mankind would never have progressed very far, and plenty of flourishing enterprises have been built on passion and a hunch. But many, many more have failed. Maybe some of those could have benefited from seriously considering the possibility that they might have misjudged the demand for what they were offering, or that they may have underestimated how long and how much it would cost to get to where they were hoping to go. One of my favourite book titles is still Hope is not a Strategy.

No wine, please, I'm an accountant

The wine industry is, almost inevitably, often driven by enthusiasm rather than hard economics. That’s one of the reasons we all love it, but it’s also why I regularly advise those who have just launched or bought a wine business to employ a teetotal financial controller with no interest in anything other than its profitability. Their job is to force the winery owner to think just a little more level-headedly about the purchase of that lovely bit of hillside, or the planting of a few hectares of an unpopular grape variety, or the acquisition of a shiny new set of egg-shaped fermenters. Can we really afford them? Even if one of our biggest markets slaps heavy tariffs on our wines, or there’s a pandemic that closes all the restaurants on which we rely? And even if we have that spare cash, might there be a better way to spend it? These are arguments the boss can always win, of course. It’s ultimately their choice. But the wisest among them will appreciate the value of stress-testing their ideas.

How many in the English wine industry factored in a hard Brexit that would potentially add over €5 a bottle to their already high retail prices in Europe? How many of them game-played the long-term impact on their businesses of well-heeled competitors hitting the market with English sparkling wine at prices far lower than theirs - thanks to the use of the Charmat rather than the traditional method?

Like those bean counters and professional red teamers (yes they’re a thing), I don’t have to get everything right, and certainly often won’t. All we have to do is prompt the thought and discussion that will hopefully help some businesses to avoid getting everything wrong.

Robert Joseph





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