“Vino descalso is what they called it”, Michael Houlihan exclaimed with his hearty Northern Californian accent. “When they gave us a nickname I knew they loved it!” What Houlihan is referring to is the smashing success Barefoot Wine began to experience once it began to be marketed to Latino communities in the mid 1980s. This type of investment was unheard of at the time much to the dismay of traditionalist wine snobs of the era.
However, bucking tradition would wind up serving as good fortune for the then budding entrepreneurs. What was deemed as a foolish gamble would ultimately payoff as Barefoot Wine is now the top selling brand of its kind in the United States. Essentially they understood who comprised their customer base and appreciated the rich culture it constantly provided, which at the time was being largely ignored. “I grew up in California and it has a deep Spanish history. You pretty much run into Latinos all day along. I didn’t see them as Latinos. I saw them as customers. I knew if they found a product that delivered quality at a good price they’d be loyal. They’re looking for value more than anything else because they had limited income and opportunities. None of the American wineries were directly addressing the Latino community. There was no competition in the community other than Choncha y Toro. It’s not that they didn’t drink wine. They just couldn’t afford a $20.00 bottle”, Houlihan explained.
Barefoot Wine started this by selling 1.5 liter magnums to the Latino community for under $10.00 which during this era was completely unheard of, and to this day a revolutionary tactic. But it didn’t stop there. They would eventually provide wines to Latino business groups and community fundraisers under the premise that they allow Michael and Bonnie to present them. In addition to this they also answered questions about the product while attending these functions. They provided lists of stores where they could purchase Barefoot within a 10 mile radius of an event. “The Latino community in those days was compact and word traveled fast. Community is important to them and they are family oriented. They are bootstrappers and entrepreneurs”, Michael shared with me over the phone.
Yet the piece de résistance while marketing to Latinos would come at the suggestion of a head distributor named Emmanuel Rodriguez. The Barefooters were looking to expand their brand outside of the Latino market in their home state by venturing into South Florida, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico plus Puerto Rico. Rodriguez suggested that Barefoot use the approach beer companies were using in these markets by utilizing Spanish language shelf talkers. In 1990 Barefoot Wine tested these shelf talkers in the community of Santa Clarita, California and was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. The signs, which were hot pink against a black background, would allow Barefoot Wine to branch out to the Latino markets Michael and Bonnie wanted to enter. The success would come in the tune of 50,000 cases of wine sold in the first few years, and grew at an exponential rate once the decade of the 90s was in full swing.
“El vino para todas las comidas. The wine for all foods”, Houlihan chuckled when reflecting on his decision to use the shelf talkers. “The reason for that was because it was confusing to them. Certain wines go with certain foods. They were getting beat up by the wine snobs. Our approach was you decide what it goes with. We empowered them. The standard wineries were talking down to them. We decided not to be snobby in English and in Spanish. We were the first winery to address the community in Spanish. And they respected us for it. It’s about respecting your customer.”
By doing this, Michael and Bonnie created hallmarks of their own. Via their “worthy cause marketing” approach they sent representatives into communities to see what people wanted. They took sides on controversial issues. Barefoot Wine was at the forefront of supporting the LGBT community, conservationists, AIDS awareness groups, and stood behind immigration reform. The social activism displayed by this company demonstrated that it could not only be an ethical one but profitable too.
As for the current state of Latino entrepreneurship in relation to the immigration issue, Michael offered, “A smart business should take the quick path to citizenship. These people are paying taxes and will never see it. The Latino community is the fastest growing market of any so-called minority group out there. Don’t you want this market to buy your brand? They’re buying products and making contributions. Businesses that are smart enough should support the fast track to citizenship. Social consciousness is good business now more than ever. The Latino community has a high percentage of entrepreneurial spirit in their community and they got the brunt of the recession. Self employment may be the only means of employment in the future for many Latinos.”