Janie Brooks Heuck – Managing Director of Brooks Winery

Episode 77

Janie Brooks Heuck, Managing Director of Brooks Winery, joins me on this episode. After Janie's brother died suddenly in 2004, she was asked to take over his winery business. Since then, Brooks Winery has received many accolades, including "Top Five Wineries Not to Miss in Oregon" from *USA Today*. The Brooks' family story has also been featured in the documentary *American Wine Story* which is available on Amazon Prime. On this show, Janie talks about how she moved from the health care industry to entrepreneurship, the role of her family in her current business, how she has pivoted the business during COVID-19 to make wine tasting more socially distant, and more.

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Kara Goldin: Yay, okay! Hi everybody! It’s Kara from Unstoppable. We’re so excited to have not only an amazing guest, but also a friend of mine, Janie Brooks Hueck. Janie is very awesome and we’re really excited to have her here. She is the Managing Director of Brooks Winery, which is one of the most… And she personally is one of the most energetic figures in the Oregon wine industry. She’s always had a commitment to social responsibility and the environment. And as of January of last year, Brooks Winery became a Certified B Corporation. Yay!

Kara Goldin: And the winery, if you are not familiar with this wine, it’s amazing. The winery is adorable and great. It’s received many accolades, including Top Five Wineries Not to Miss in Oregon from USA Today. And the Brooks story has captivated many through the documentary American Wine Story. If you haven’t seen it, definitely look for that. And you will want to, after hearing more from Janie and the founding story behind Brooks Winery. But Janie, welcome! Super excited to have you here.
Janie Brooks Hueck: Very honored to be here, Kara.
Kara Goldin: Super excited. So take us back to the beginning. How did you become involved in the company?
Janie Brooks Hueck: So the winery was founded in 1998 by my brother, Jimmy Brooks. And he had spent six years working harvest in Europe and moved back to Oregon and got a job in the wine industry. After a couple of years working for a winery, he started his own brand. Very limited on what he could do with it and so he moved to another location to be the head wine maker at a winery called [Maysara 00:01:58] and really was able to develop his brand there.

He grew the winery to about 2,500 cases. And then he passed away unexpectedly on September 4th in 2004 at the age of 38. It was a huge shock to the industry up here. I lived down in California and I got to his house the night that he passed away. I was sat down by 12 winemakers who said, “We figured out today who he was buying his fruit from and we need to talk to you about it. We really think what Jimmy was doing as a brand, by his focus on farming and Riesling, that it should continue. We also want to make sure these growers get paid and that these contracts get met in his absence.”

And the winery was the only thing Jimmy had that he talked about that he could leave to his son, who was eight years old at the time that he passed away. So they basically approached me that night and offered to take his fruit and make his wine for free in 2004, to give the brand an opportunity to continue and asked me to run the business side of it.

Kara Goldin: Wow, amazing. And they were just doing Riesling at the time, right?

Janie Brooks Hueck: And there was some Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir and Riesling.

Kara Goldin: What did you think? Obviously a lot to take in and I’m sorry about your brother. Obviously I knew that piece of the story. You didn’t have experience in the wine industry. For you, this was a giant decision. You weren’t living in Oregon. You’re from Oregon, but you weren’t living there. Ultimately, what was going through your head?

Janie Brooks Hueck: Well, initially I knew I was going to have to do something with his life because he was divorced from his wife. Our parents had passed away four years prior. I was his only viable living relative to deal with his house and his business. So I really didn’t have a choice when I offered to do this, but I didn’t know that I was going to continue it.

And you’re right, I knew nothing about the wine industry. But I was so struck by the generosity and the kindness of these people, because I have come out of competitive healthcare where nobody would have helped each other. And all of a sudden I fell into this industry with these people who… They had a vision for the brand and why they wanted it to continue. As I got to know them, I fell in love with them and the industry up here in Oregon and everybody that I talked to and met that was working with my brother.

I was a stay-at-home mom at the time. We had moved to California and I had decided to stay home with my kids. I had been at home for about four years and definitely knew that that was not probably the right place for me to be a stay-at-home mom. So this gave me an opportunity to get back into business. And I just loved it. I’ve had so much support from so many people. Our winemaker was my brother’s assistant. He came to me in the spring of ’05 and he said, “I want to come be the winemaker at Brooks. Would you be willing to keep this going for future vintages?” He’s still with me. We’ve been working together for almost 16 years.

Kara Goldin: That’s amazing. What developments have you done since then besides expanding the brand and the actual sales exponentially?

Janie Brooks Hueck: Probably the most significant thing we did is we purchased the vineyard that my brother wanted to purchase back in 2008, my husband and I did. Then we purchased a piece of property right next to the vineyard that in 2014 we built our own winery building. So that was a final commitment that we are going to be here for the long haul. We built a 13,000 square foot winery that probably has the best view in the Willamette Valley.

Kara Goldin: That’s amazing. And then you’ve also branched into other types of wines since you’ve taken it on as well.

Janie Brooks Hueck: Yeah, we make 60 different labels, primarily Pinot Noir and Riesling, but there are some other aromatic whites and we tend to dabble. We did a little Tempranillo and Syrah from the Willamette Valley, but primarily Pinot Noir and Riesling.

Kara Goldin: That’s amazing. What facet of the wine industry are you most passionate about? I’m a huge believer that brands grow when people are really passionate about an aspect about it. Are you trying to solve a problem around it? I think that the brands that are ultimately, and ultimately the companies, that have a hard time growing are really the ones that don’t think about it in relation to this problem that you’re trying to solve out there. And obviously with the Riesling he had really established the Oregon organic Riesling category, but what else did you see there that you built on, but also what facet would you say you were most interested in along the way?

Janie Brooks Hueck: I think product development. The wine industry in general, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in Oregon, California or in Europe, is a very traditionally run business that is primarily focused, as it should be, on producing wine. The marketing side for me has been the most fun because honestly there’s not a lot of skilled marketing people in the wine industry, unless you’re a really big brand.

So to be a smaller brand and to find ways to differentiate ourselves and to do things that people don’t do in the industry has been the most fun for me. I really like coming up with new products, new ideas, new programs that nobody else is doing and looked for a lot of input and advice through people in other industries outside of wine.

Kara Goldin: I think that’s so key. I know a little bit about your story too, where you own the fact that you didn’t know a lot about this industry, that you were jumping in and taking this on. But I feel like that’s something when I look at building [Hint 00:09:00] that so many people thought I was done from the moment I said, “Oh, I’m going to start a company.” They were like, “Oh, that’s really nice because you don’t have the experience.”

But I’m a huge believer that experience or inexperience ultimately allows you to actually be educated by other people and try new things that maybe others automatically think aren’t going to work, but maybe they were just tried a different way last time. Also getting advice or direction in some way from other industries too is also something that is unique.

You and I talked a few weeks ago. And one thing that I was just so impressed with, and I’ve told so many people about this, is that frankly, when you said, “Oh, let’s go do a Zoom call,” I thought it was not going to be a good situation. And you were like, “Oh, I just want to catch up. And I’ve got to go in a little bit because I’ve got some Zoom wine tastings going on.” And I’m like, “Wait, what? Back up a minute!”

Tell me a little bit about that. When COVID was going on, you didn’t sit there and say, “Okay, all the restaurants are closed. The winery’s closed. We’re closing business.” Instead, what did you do?

Janie Brooks Hueck: I was approached initially about doing virtual tastings. I do this often, I sit back and watch for a while and see what works and what doesn’t work. And there was a lot of bad marketing from a winery standpoint. And I’m sure in every industry, people talking at their Instagram Live and not asking the customer what the customer wants.

My approach to it was I’m going to do virtual tastings, but I’m not going to send you a three pack and tell you what to buy. I’m going to have you tell me, who do you want to have at the tasting? How many different wines do you want to try? What topics do you want to talk about and learn about?

People are enjoying them and the format is completely different, so it’s not a canned format. I have long conversations with each partner before we have the session. And they’ve been super fun. I’ve done everything from dinner parties with a lot of icebreaker questions that have nothing to do with the wines and talk about the wines quickly to full PowerPoint presentations with people that don’t know anything about wine.

Kara Goldin: I love it. Basically, you send the wine to people’s homes ahead of time and then they’re tasting them. And some of them, obviously, that’s not the dinner party situation, but in some of them it’s as simple as getting a group of people together and you’re explaining different aspects about the wine while they’re trying it in their own home. It’s amazing. That’s super fun.

And you said you’ve been busy, right? A lot of people are doing this. It’s not two people. A lot of people are doing these different tastings for clients or for friends. That’s super-

Janie Brooks Hueck: Clients, birthday parties. I did one a couple weeks ago with a group of families that they take a wine trip together every year. They weren’t going to get to do their wine trip, so they had a night with me instead. So there’s all sorts of reasons.

It’s so energizing for me because so much of my business usually is being on the road and meeting with my distributors and with my buyers and sommeliers. We’re not doing any of that anymore. My interaction with people has really been… Everybody obviously has been affected by COVID, but it’s a great way for me to get to know new people and we are doing it for teams, team meetings, just for morale, for different people’s teams and yes, clients. And some of it’s just personal.

Kara Goldin: That’s amazing. One thing that I think about a lot in your story is obviously you’re a family business. You were put into a situation where you took over from another family member unexpectedly. I think there’s probably some people listening where their parents started a company and they’re taking it over. What did you learn about this? What would you share with people was the most surprising piece of this?

Maybe it wasn’t as established as maybe you would have had a company established. But let’s just say from a brand standpoint, what were the key things that maybe you were changing or that you were respecting and holding? You ended the night with a group of his friends sharing that they wanted to continue it and they wanted to make sure that people got paid and all of those aspects, but where do you go from there, I guess?

Janie Brooks Hueck: Well, there’s definitely philosophies that Jimmy founded the company on that we have tried to maintain going forward. He was a big believer in biodynamic farming. We’ve continued to do that. He created all of our packaging. Our logo is actually his tattoo, the tattoo he had on his left shoulder that symbolizes the circle of life. And it was very important to him. So we’ve kept his packaging. Accessibility to the wine. He wanted reasonable price points. I have held our price points, so the wines are very accessible and approachable this whole entire time. And then the way he approaches wine making itself.

We use a certain size fermentor and we don’t have to get into the details, but when he was making 2,500 cases, we would use these two-ton fermentors to make all of our wine. Well, we make 20,000 cases now, but we still use two-ton fermentors to make our lines. So we’ve held his philosophies close to heart, between his winemaker and I, have different parts of the business.

My part of it then is how do you get your brand in front of as many people as possible? That comes back to why we make so many different wines and we make them in so many different styles. Our building and our winery for when people come here is all about the customer experience. It is not the typical tasting room bar. I did not want to do that because I personally don’t want to enjoy… I built what I wanted to enjoy. Every time I hear about something that’s typical in the industry, I try to go the other direction, right?

Kara Goldin: Absolutely. And I think it’s amazing, what you’ve built. Did you ever want to run your own company? Janie and I went to college together, so I’ve known her for a long time. So did you ever think like, “Oh, I want to go run my own company one day”? Was that ever a part of your-

Janie Brooks Hueck: It never was part of it, but I did have an opportunity. I was the third employee at a startup company back in the mid ’90s. We grew that company. By the time I left we had 250 employees and it was a $50 million in revenue company. I had done everything except the idea. I built the operations. I did the marketing, I did the finances. I think I probably had a lot of transferable skills to come over to wine. The challenge with wine is the capital investment and the lead time before you actually have an ROI, especially when you have growth.

Kara Goldin: Absolutely. Do you feel like being outside of Napa Sonoma, and maybe that’s a funny question especially with all the challenges they’ve had, unfortunately, with some of the fires, but do you feel like…

I feel like there’s these different areas of the West coast that are getting a lot more attention. Do you feel like that too over the years since you’ve taken this over that Oregon’s just become more of a magnet for some of these better wines?

Janie Brooks Hueck: Yeah, and on multiple levels. We have 450 wineries in the Willamette Valley, so we’re not short on producers. But we’re tipping that next generation point. So we’ve been around long enough for a generation. So you are seeing a lot of changes in terms of ownership of vineyards, of wineries. But the fact that people want to make that investment shows that we’ve really proven ourselves.

The first grapes were planted here in the late ’60s, but we’re also seeing a lot of investment because of places like Napa and Sonoma that are so expensive. Our land is much less expensive up here. Jackson Family owns a ton of land up here, a ton of vineyards. We’ve seen a lot of external investment.

Same thing with the French. There’s a lot of very strict rules in Burgundy about what you can grow and where you can grow it. We don’t have those rules here and we make beautiful Pinot Noir like they do in Burgundy. So we’ve had a lot of Burgundian producers come and put a stake in the ground and build a winery and start a brand here, too.

Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. That’s really super cool. So Jimmy’s son, that he wanted to build this company for, Pascal, where is he now?

Janie Brooks Hueck: So Pascal graduated from UC Santa Cruz two years ago. About a year and a half ago, he and his girlfriend who’s from France moved to Paris. He is living in Paris. Post shut down, he’s working in a wine bar as an assistant sommelier. He’s also doing rooftop gardening, which he just absolutely loves. He worked in the garden all four years in college. So he’s doing a lot of the urban rooftop farming in Paris, which he’s excited about. And then he’s going to go work harvest. He has worked a harvest here. He’s worked a harvest where my brother worked last year and then this year he’s going to Alsace.

Kara Goldin: That’s amazing. And do you think he’ll eventually come and jump in and take it over?

Janie Brooks Hueck: I do. I don’t know when. It might be 10 years from now, but he does want to be on the production side, which is why he’s getting so much harvest experience. He participates in our leadership meetings. We’ve had meetings on Zoom every couple of weeks for COVID and he’s participated in those. So it’s great. He’s getting more and more involved in the business.

Kara Goldin: I think it’s really smart having him go and get outside experience, too and wanting to come into the company and continue his dad’s legacy when he’s ready. That’s awesome.

Janie Brooks Hueck: He’s never had any pressure. He has known from day one that I was doing this, in a lot of ways, for me. It’s kept me connected to my home. I was born and raised in Oregon. It’s my family name. And literally, even today, Kara, I got an email from somebody that went to Southern Oregon with my brother and wanted to tell me how influential my brother was on his life. So I continue to have that connection, which has been, I think, a very good coping mechanism for me, honestly, to get through all the loss that I had. So it means a lot. And the fact that Pascal’s even interested is amazing.

Kara Goldin: I think about this a lot. When you were 20 years old, you never knew that this was your path. And now you’ve done so much to not only grow this business, but also grow a next generation.

What do you think has been the toughest for you? What have you been most afraid of in growing this business or things that you just didn’t know? I feel like so much you’ve figured out. You’ve had the tenacity and the curiosity. What’s been tough for you?

Janie Brooks Hueck: Like I mentioned before, probably the cashflow side of the business and how you really ever get that back. It’s only scalable to a point and you only want it scalable to a point. We actually made a decision a couple of years ago that we’re going to cap production at about 20,000 cases. We’ve done that for a couple of years and it is allowing us to get into that next level. So you’re not chasing growth, but you’re zooming in on technique and quality and details to make what we already do that much better.

Kara Goldin: That’s so interesting. And then direct to consumer is so critical as well. Super critical. I think in almost every industry, if you did not put any eggs into a direct to consumer plan, that’s probably one of the things that you should focus on now in terms of actually starting that channel. Would you agree?

Janie Brooks Hueck: Totally. And then anybody in the wine industry right now that doesn’t have a big direct to consumer support base is having a hard time for small family wineries. We’re about one third wine club, one third tasting room. So 60% of our revenue is very reliant on our direct sales.

Kara Goldin: As I shared with you, Hint, we already had a direct to consumer play started, but almost tripled that business. Since March it’s just been crazy. And again, like I think the rest of your channels don’t get shut down. Sometimes things happen like COVID, where things do get shut down, restaurants and for us, offices where we supplied lots of drinks into the offices. And who knows when they’ll fully open up and how big those office staffs will be. You’re the same situation, but a little different for restaurants. I’m so proud of you that you’ve also jumped in and done what you’ve done in the industry to kickstart that direct to consumer business. But also during COVID have these Zoom conversations.

Again, people will be like, “Oh, well of course that’s been going on and other people have been doing it.” But I think that the idea that you didn’t just stop and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about this.” And there’s plenty of people out there that did, in every single industry. In our industry there were so many brands that decided that they weren’t going to be in merchandising anymore in stores. They ended up losing shelf space in stores.

We were safe about it. We went in either before hours or late in the day when there were hardly people in there with our mask and gloves and everything else. You showed me and so many people that you look at what can be done in any situation, even when things are really tough.

Janie Brooks Hueck: Our restaurant business, that’s 40% of our business and yet it’s gone. And I don’t think it’s coming back anytime soon. Certainly my travel and visiting markets is not coming back for another year. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control and what you can build.

So much of this is about relationships. We’re sitting here together. Find your people and support each other and lift each other up. I can’t bring the restaurants back. I’m doing what I can to support their legislation and sending wine to my friends who are out of jobs, but I can really focus on my direct to consumer side.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, I think that’s so smart. What was the best advice that you ever received?

Janie Brooks Hueck: The best advice that I’ve ever received? Probably just perseverance and to keep going and to keep asking. There’s a business mantra that you have to ask the same question five times. And every time you answer it, you have to ask it again so that you really break down any situation. There’s no giving up. There’s no stopping. You can get to the end result.

I love that. That’s super great. So I always ask the question, what makes you unstoppable? And I think you partially answered it, but really the tenacity and the perseverance. And also, you have so much creativity in trying to figure out from here, where do we go? I’m always super impressed whenever I talk to you because it’s always like, “Oh yeah, well, we’re doing this.” And I’m like, “Wait, what? What are you doing now?” I love all that creativity. But what makes you unstoppable?

Janie Brooks Hueck: We’re launching a new product this week.

Kara Goldin: Oh, you’re kidding! No, tell me.

Janie Brooks Hueck: It’s all in the COVID world. We should actually do this together, Kara. You should be one of our partners. We’re going on the sensory evaluation of wine or what wine does to you from a sense standpoint. We’ve partnered with different producers. We have a coffee producer, a kombucha producer, a cider producer. We have two chefs to do food, a cheese maker, different things that are aroma therapy that are related to wine, but aren’t wine.

Every month people will subscribe. It’s a hundred dollars a month, $99 a month and you get two bottles of wine and then you get product from the partner. Then we execute a side-by-side tasting with the founder of the partner company, a master of wine and myself. Our first one is olive oil. There’s no reason we couldn’t do a Hint [inaudible 00:28:04]. That would be really fun.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, that’d be super fun. That sounds great. And how often are you doing this?

Janie Brooks Hueck: Once a month and we have them scheduled out through June of 2021.

Kara Goldin: That’s amazing. We should definitely talk about that. Sounds fun. That’s awesome. Very cool. Well, where can people find you, Janie?

Janie Brooks Hueck: Brookswine.com. A year ago I said, “I want to get a website that can do better eCommerce business,” so we just launched a beautiful new website in February, which ended up being [crosstalk 00:28:43].

Kara Goldin: That’s really nice. Are you on social and some other platforms?

Janie Brooks Hueck: Yeah, on Instagram and Twitter, we’re @brookswinery. And then on Facebook it’s Brookswines.

Kara Goldin: Awesome, and then to get ahold of Janie if anybody wants to reach out?

Janie Brooks Hueck: [email protected]. The cell phone number is 831-4828. And I kid you not, I put that in my weekly email every single week, because if people really want to reach me they are welcome to call me, too.

Kara Goldin: Oh my God, I love it. Well, thank you so much. This was a lot of fun. Everybody go buy at least a bottle of Brooks Wine at brookswine.com. And check out Janie and the story, the American Wine Story. It’s on Netflix?

Janie Brooks Hueck: It’s on Amazon Prime.

Kara Goldin: On Amazon Prime. It’s so good. I loved it. You guys should definitely check it out and it’s not only an amazing product and an amazing CEO, but also a great story on a legacy brand that is super wonderful. So thank you so much. I loved it.

Janie Brooks Hueck: Thanks for having me, Kara.