Mike Kelly (MBA ’22) talks with Daniel Schmid (MBA ’22) about how the 1661 Schmid Family Vineyards is bringing new ideas to an old industry.
Tell us more about your background and what inspired you to be an entrepreneur.
Growing up on my family’s winery in Austria was full of entrepreneurial challenges. How do we price a bottle of wine? Which products are complementary to our wine? What do our customers want? I always enjoyed customer interactions and being hands-on while helping out with a farmer’s market or in our store. Beyond the winery, there are stories of me selling rocks to my relatives (don’t ask) or drawings to my neighbors as a kid (I really can’t draw very well). My first professional experience was working at a Fintech startup in Austria, and when I found myself in more corporate settings, I felt that starting and taking ownership of new initiatives was extremely rewarding.
What is the problem that you are trying to solve?
I am trying to solve two problems. First, how do we transition our family’s generational winery from a family business to a self-sustaining, healthy business that can be run by a non-family team? Many small-scale wineries stay alive because of their owner’s effort rather than a healthy business model. Our challenge therefore is to preserve our passionate and unique approach to making wine while bringing in a professional team that can keep developing our winery.
The second challenge that we are trying to address is that agriculture accounts for 19% of global CO2 emissions. A big part of those emissions stems from raising livestock as well as growing crops such as rice. However, I believe that wine as a differentiated product should serve as a lighthouse example that nature-based, agricultural products can preserve our planet and our climate rather than harm it.
What is your solution?
We have found an innovative approach to help us in the initial stage of managing the business transition and to put us in a position to onboard a team later on. In particular, we have created a flagship leadership training program for graduates and young professionals on a gap year. The program is called “CEO for a Year”.
Through ceoforayear.com, we are recruiting top business talent from some of the world’s best schools. In particular, we are enabling one applicant to take over the responsibility of our winery for an entire year. They will learn what it means to lead a small business and will get to know all of its functions – from people leadership to production and inventory management, to marketing and sales. All while spending a year living on a vineyard close to Vienna, Austria, and becoming a wine expert in the process.
We are also taking an uncompromising approach aimed at producing the highest-quality wines while protecting our planet. While sustainability has been a buzzword in the wine world for years, it is oftentimes not backed up by clear metrics and rarely focuses on CO2 emissions. Our winery’s long tradition of taking care of nature has led us to transform vineyards into biodiverse ecosystems and has been recognized with sustainability awards in the past. Now we have started a new effort with the aim of becoming the first truly CO2 negative winery and setting an example for other small businesses and the rest of our industry. We want to achieve this through employing sustainable farming practices (e.g. no-till farming) and a continuous effort towards cutting lifecycle emissions (e.g. electrification of vehicles).
What was the inspiration behind your company/idea?
We were able to trace our winery’s history all the way back to 1661. In that history, I was continuously inspired by the individual stories of some of our ancestors. The naming of our new wine—Wolfshuber’s Secret—pays tribute to some of these stories.
Who is the team behind your startup?
I am supported by my family—in particular my brother Josef, who has decades of experience as a winemaker.
How did you get started?
Last summer, I shipped 600 bottles of our wine to Boston, which was the first time my family has exported our wine on that scale. Even though the wine was mainly intended for friends here at HBS, in a sense, that was my start of taking over and relaunching the winery. It also inspired me to redesign our label and start the initiatives I mentioned earlier.
I am currently looking for importers and distributors that will bring our wine to restaurants and shops in the US. We are recruiting for our “CEO for a Year,” and we are about to bottle the inaugural vintage of our Wolfshuber’s Secret Grüner Veltliner white wines.