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This is Capitalism: Up Close, Inspired, Explained

Jul 20, 2022

A couple walks into a real estate office in Napa Valley, looking to buy a second home. If you guessed the next sentence would be, “And instead, they bought a winery!” you’d have the story of Laura Swanton, owner of Laura Michael Wines. Laura, a former high-tech exec, knew nothing about producing wines back in 1999 but she did know what it took to make and sell a product. And that’s what she’s been doing ever since, with her award-winning cabernet and zinfandel. In this episode of This is Capitalism, Laura talks with Patricia O’Connell about her journey from wine lover to wine producer. She shares the mistakes she made on the way, and how she arrived at the sweet spot in the volume of sales for Laura Michael Wines.


Listen in to learn about running a small winery and producing premium wines.

Key Takeaways:

[:24] Patricia O’Connell introduces Laura Swanton, owner of Laura Michael Wines.

[:39] Laura, a former high-tech exec, knew nothing about producing wines back in 1999 but she did know what it took to make and sell a product.

[1:03] Patricia O’Connell thanks Laura for joining This Is Capitalism, the podcast, extraordinary stories of extraordinary people.

[1:33] Laura shares how she got into the wine business. She and her second husband purchased a winery on an impulse, then added a second property! Laura continued in tech while her husband quit his job to run the winery. After three harvests, her husband left so Laura bought him out. She left her career to become a winery owner.

[3:10] Being a single woman winery owner was unique at the time. Laura married again, and they run the winery as a couple. Self-funded winery owners, as opposed to a multi-generational business, are also rare.
[4:09] When Laura was working in tech in San Francisco, she only got involved in the business on the weekends in the tasting room. When her second husband left, in August of 2002, the first harvest was coming in “like a freight train,” and she had to be there full-time for that.

[5:09] Laura’s high-tech career of 17 years, with manufacturing, had taught her about product distribution. Her college degree in organizational management taught her how to run a company. The big difference for Laura was that it was wine.

[5:53] Her first hire was a consulting winemaker, through a local winery. He taught Laura all about growing grapes and making wine. Laura has been training on the job for 20-plus years.

[6:20] In the world of wine, mastery is something you hope to achieve, but there is so much to it, you are always learning. Laura manages the relationships and farming practices of the places she purchases fruit from, while her husband manages their vineyard. They produce wine and sell it directly to consumers, not to distributors.

[7:57] Only one of the producers Laura buys from is 100% allocated to her. Laura contrasts the competition in the high-tech world to that in the winery world. Napa Valley growers believe that helping each other and maintaining a high level of product quality benefits the entire valley. Patricia comments that a rising tide lifts all boats.

[9:16] For eight months of the year, Laura is a farmer, and she shares workers, soil, air, water, and intelligence with everyone around her. If you’ve got a blight or pest, it’s not going to stay in Napa. It’s going to travel to the neighboring counties. Everyone needs to be very cooperative with each other to maintain the health of the industry.

[10:09] Laura talks about the humility and hard work that both sets of her grandparents showed. Her paternal grandfather was also a farmer who kept a large garden. Laura helped her grandfather in that garden. That background has helped her stay humble.

[11:04] Laura explains how she deals with natural problems. She tries not to worry about things she can’t control. She mitigates as much as she can any negativity that comes because of drought, wildfire, or a bug. The plants are resilient enough to get through the weather. It just causes major fluctuations in your yield.

[12:01] Lower yields can produce higher quality fruit.

[12:26] The quantity of production is legislated and requires a use permit. Laura has a small permit for 5,000 gallons. Laura is doing 1,600 cases a year, as opposed to the 15 million that others produce. Some producers only make a few hundred cases yearly. Laura is making a living at it; some wineries are passion projects.

[14:30] Laura tells how she started in distribution according to the conventional wisdom of the time. Distribution meant she could not sell to stores, restaurants, or stores in other states but only to a third-party distributor. It’s an expensive model to follow. Laura would bear most of the risk and little monetary benefit.

[16:18] It took Laura 10 years to realize she was not going to make the volume of product to make up for the low margin. Her husband, Michael, pointed her toward setting up a tasting room and selling directly to the consumer. That’s when the winery became profitable.

[16:59] It had become so ingrained in Laura that she wanted to be successful at running the winery that failure wasn’t an option. She had been building inventory (which takes years) for distribution and there’s a lot of cash involved in making inventory happen. Her biggest challenge as a business owner was managing cash flow. She was cash-poor.

[18:11] It’s not easy even now that she is selling direct, but she’s gotten better at managing the cash flow and the winery has gotten a little smaller. They were not selling the product fast enough to justify making as much inventory as when she was in distribution so they reduced volume by 25%.

[18:40] Now she concentrates on relationship-building with their wine club members and their extended families. They have been on Highway 29 for 20-plus years, so the visibility draws people to the winery. Laura makes friends with every concierge, limo driver, and hotel person that she can so they will send customers to the winery.

[19:29] Laura is a Calistoga Chamber member and her marketing is word-of-mouth. They are members of other industry groups, as well, with programs Laura Michael Wines participates in for more visibility. Being a community player is an important part of marketing, too.

[20:11] Laura Michael Wines has found its sweet spot and is not looking for a lot of growth. It would be very expensive to grow past the use permit they have. They would have to re-outfit their winemaking facility at a cost of millions of dollars with financing. They are living comfortably and enjoying life. Bigger is not necessarily better.

[21:09] Laura tells how the sales territory training she received in the high-tech world served her in the winemaking world. Only the product was different.

[21:59] Laura advises if you want to learn a new industry that the best thing you could do is to find a job in that industry. Laura would have learned a lot more and learned faster if she had been part of a winery administrative team or sales team before buying a winery without industry knowledge. Study and immerse yourself in the industry.

[22:40] Laura didn’t make the best financial decisions in the first years of her winery ownership. She’s thankful she was able to survive that lesson and get out of the financial sinkhole of distribution. She notes that in the last 15 years, most states’ laws around the industry have changed, to the benefit of tiny wineries like hers.

[23:57] The national recognition that premium wine could be shipped directly to homes was a game-changer for the industry. The larger wineries have to be in distribution. They cannot ship directly to consumers so she does not have to compete with them. The laws for the bigger wineries are different than for the smaller wineries.

[24:38] Laura’s succession plan is not in the family. Laura will sell the winery when she and Michael are ready to retire. Today, you can’t build what they have, so it will be a very interesting sale when it happens. Laura and Mike hope to find someone who loves the industry as much as they do. But there is a lot of consolidation happening.

[25:48] Outside of her product, Laura loves sparkling wine, whether from France or down the road. She and Michael also visit the neighboring wineries and take advantage of some of the varietals they don’t grow themselves. Laura has a California palate. Her ongoing mastery is in trying different wines from different countries.

[27:08] Patricia thanks Laura for joining This Is Capitalism: Extraordinary People, Extraordinary Stories.


Mentioned in This Episode:

This is Capitalism

Laura Swanton

Laura Michael Wines

Napa Valley



San Francisco

California State Route 29

Calistoga Chamber of Commerce