Wine and Community:
How Wine Events Build Community and Income
with Ross Halleck

Ross Halleck

Ross Halleck, Founder of Halleck Vineyard

Ross Halleck, Principal and Founder of Halleck Vineyard is a man of many talents and a colorful history. After traveling halfway around the world with a backpack, in his early 20s, he settled in Western Kenya to teach secondary school in a small village on Lake Victoria.

Returning to the US, he completed school at UC Santa Cruz in marketing communication and founded a branding agency in 1980 at the birth of Silicon Valley.

In pursuit of mutual passions, Ross focused his creativity on both high technology and wine with offices in Silicon Valley and Sonoma County.

In 1992, Ross planted a Pinot Noir vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. His first 2001 vintage was judged the #1 Pinot Noir in the US.

This launched Halleck Vineyard, which focuses on four varietals: Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Gewurztraminer, and it’s newest, a Dry White Zinfandel..

Between 2016 -2018 alone, Halleck Vineyard earned over 50 medals in 10 national and international competitions.  Most were Gold. Every wine earned a Gold Medal in multiple events.  Halleck Vineyard wines have been featured in multiple wine publications, including the Wine Spectator.

In 2019, Halleck Vineyard was judged #1 Pinot Noir in North America in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. This is the largest, oldest and most respected in the country. 7200 wines competed. Further, Halleck Vineyard was awarded not one, but two Best Of Class Awards, for two the two top price categories of Pinot Noir. They were also awarded a Double Gold and Silver in the same year. No other winery in the 40 year history of this competition has achieved this.

The spirit behind Halleck Vineyard is “Building Community Through Wine.” They accomplish this by:

  1. Welcome people to their home for private tastings.
  2. Sharing experiences around the world.
  3.  Supporting philanthropic endeavors that touch their hearts.

In 2017, Ross Halleck began a partnership with Josh Groban and his Find Your Light Foundation to support education in the arts in the public schools in the United States. Their first vintage, a Halleck Vineyard 2014, Find Your Light, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir sold out in four months. The 2015 vintage was released at the Find Your Light Foundation Gala in May, 2018. To date, Halleck Vineyard has assisted in raising approximately $200K for the Find Your Light Foundation.


Read the Interview

Hugh Ballou: Welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. Today, we are going to talk about wine and building community for your nonprofit. It’s more than wine. It’s really good wine. We’re going to touch on branding. How do you stand apart from others? Russell, how are you today out there in Aurora, Colorado?

Russell Dennis: I’m having a great day. It’s nippy for these parts. We’ve had some up and down temperatures. Nothing that a glass of wine by the fire can’t cure.

Hugh: Let’s get into this. Ross Halleck is the founder and principal everything of Halleck Vineyards in Sebastopol, California. Ross, welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange.

Ross Halleck: Thank you, Hugh. I appreciate your invitation to be here today.

Hugh: Ross and I met each other a number of years ago. He had this bottle of wine in his hand. He taught me how to really taste wine, and there is a whole routine behind it. A couple of years ago, he had an article in Nonprofit Performance 360 Magazine about the work he has been doing with charities, helping them raise money through a different program. Before we get into that, also, I sat in classes that Ross has taught people about how to create a world-class brand. Everything we do for a charity needs to represent our brand in the quality and be faithful and authentic to our brand. Let’s throw it to you, Ross. People don’t know who you are. Who is this guy who has this vineyard and does these wine tastings?

Ross: Let’s give people a sense of where Sebastopol, California is. We are in Sonoma County, which is north of San Francisco, and a little bit west of San Francisco. People think of San Francisco on the Pacific Ocean. But actually, California continues west and north, and we are further west than San Francisco. We can see the ocean from our property. On the other side of the property, we look out over Sonoma County and into Napa Valley.

I moved to Sebastopol about 30 years ago. It surprises me now when I think that. I was an immigrant from Silicon Valley. When I was in Silicon Valley, I had gone to school at UC Santa Cruz. I helped a whole bunch of other people birth Silicon Valley from what was previously the Santa Clara Valley, which was primarily known for apricots. My first job in Palo Alto was selling fruits and vegetables at a fruit stand on El Camino Real. A few short years, Santa Clara Valley became Silicon Valley with the introduction of high technology at that time. I was going to school at UC Santa Cruz in marketing and branding and graphic design. Silicon Valley is one of those vortexes who sucked up everybody who had even a modicum of talent. I started a business that grew to be a mid-sized business supporting high technology companies in developing their brands.

Coincidentally, I also had a passion for wine. I chose wine as my drug of choice in my mid-20s. Because branding and graphic design and marketing/communications is what I would describe as a horizontal discipline, I chose whatever I wanted to work on. I chose wineries in the Sonoma/Napa counties as target customers. I developed a practice in Palo Alto that included both the wine industry and high technology industry, and I pursued that for almost 25 years.

Hugh: Wow. When did you start Halleck Vineyards?

Ross: It was in the middle there. 1990. I was going back and forth between Silicon Valley and the wine country, servicing my clients. I had fallen in love with wine. I thought to myself, I could either live in Silicon Valley and commute to wine country, or live in wine country and commute to Silicon Valley. I had this house in Menlo Park, California that was persistently and consistently rising in value as a function of the growth of Silicon Valley. I thought, Maybe I should move to wine country and commute back. I was able to buy this five-acre property with a house plopped in the middle of it that had been vacant for two years surrounded by untouched land. I elected to roll the dice in a place that had never been wine country. Vineyards had not been planted here before. I planted a backyard vineyard in 1992/1993.

The vineyard produced fruit, but it took much longer than expected. I planted the vineyard with a lofty or fanciful notion that it would be a college fund for my then-infant son. I moved here, got married here, had my first child here. It ended up taking six years for that vineyard to produce a viable commercial crop. Fortunately, I had a job because they were lean years watching this thing grow. By the time it produced fruit, I had three sons. The idea of it being a college fund seemed remote. I thought I could make backyard garage wine if I wanted. In the very best possible circumstances, I could sell the fruit and pay for the agriculture.

Hugh: Wow. You grow a particular kind of grape? What kind?

Ross: We planted a Pinot Noir vineyard. Pinot Noir has a reputation of being a difficult crop to grow. Since I had never grown anything before, I had nothing to compare it to. I loved Pinot Noir, so if I was going to live on a vineyard, I was going to live on a grape that I enjoyed. We made wine from that first vintage. I call it the Vine Intervention. We won #1 Pinot Noir in the United States with that first vintage.

Hugh: People will be watching this video live, but they will also be listening to the podcast as a replay. I’m going to show a picture here [picture of Ross on the Nonprofit Exchange website] What are those things hanging on the bottles?

Ross: Those are awards. We’ve been quite fortunate to have won a lot of awards. In 2019, just a couple months ago, we won #1 Pinot Noir in the United States in the largest competition in North America. The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. There were 7,200 wines competing. The 40th year of the competition. We won #1 Pinot Noir with two wines. We won the top two tiers. They are bracketed by price. We won the top two price categories in Pinot Noir. We also won double gold, which is second place, and that is the first time in the history of the competition that anyone has won that level of recognition.

I’m cautious about being prideful about it because honestly, this isn’t something that I strove for. It’s not like an athletic event where you have times you can shoot for, you can work out, you can change your diet, you can change your workout regimen, you can change your target. We’ve been making wine that we like. Fortunately, this year a lot of other people liked it, too. There were 50 judges involved in this award. The likelihood of any wine on a blind tasting making it to the top, only one wine is given Best in Class. You can’t write an algorithm for it. To have two wines hit that status, let’s say we are grateful this has happened.

Hugh: That’s different from grapeful.

Ross: It’s like the Vine Intervention. And being grapeful.

Hugh: I don’t think you’re the kind of guy who brags a lot. You state the facts. You also have shown a real heart for giving. You do a lot of work for charities. You do wine tastings. It’s mutually beneficial. You are promoting your brand. It’s

Ross:, yes, without an “s.” Thank you for being articulate.

Hugh: Sometimes I’m right.

Ross: And enunciating.

Hugh: Articulate and enunciate. The article you wrote for our magazine was about how you help charities raise money. Talk about that work. You are promoting your wine, but you are also promoting the charity. We will talk about branding in a bit, but we can’t separate anything we do from our brand. This wouldn’t work for a conservative church because they don’t wave at each other in a liquor store. We would have to find an Episcopal church or a local community foundation where we can share the fruit of the vine and have fellowship together. Talk about the funding piece. The title is “Wine & Community.” Dig into that a little bit.

Ross: Our tagline is “Building community through wine.” I think of that as a three-legged stool. The first leg is we are a boutique. We are a small family winery. We don’t have a tasting room. We don’t have people hired on commission to sell wine. What we do is invite people to my home. When they come to Halleck Vineyard, they are sitting in my dining room overlooking the vineyard, and I am introducing them to our wines. It is more of a tasting seminar and a community experience, if you will. It’s not a sales event.

The second leg of that stool around building community is shared experiences. We have what I call our inner circle, which is our wine club. I create events around the country, around the world that I share with our wine club that include our wines. That has included a safari to Kenya, a wine and wildlife safari to South Africa, to Cuba, Honduras, Italy. We do multiple trips to New York. We do twice a year to New York. We either go to a Broadway show or do a dinner. We do the Ahwahnee Hotel, which his now the Majestic, in Yosemite. We create events that money can’t buy that contributes to this sense of community through wine.

The third leg is philanthropy. There is a joke which is more of a truism than a joke in the wine business. It goes like this: How do you create a small fortune in the wine business? The answer is you start with a large fortune. We didn’t do this. We bought this house that was almost in probate. Every year, one foot in front of the other, put a little here, put a little there. It has taken 30 years to create a winery that produces 1,400 cases of wine a year. It’s small. We’ve had this deep desire to give back. We weren’t of the set that was common in the wine industry where we could write big checks.

What we have done is taken some of these experiences that money can’t buy and auctioned them off to the charities of our wine club members. If you are a member of our inner circle and have a charity you care about, we will raise our hand and create one of these experiences, whether it’s a dinner in our community where we bring our wines and help host the event, or it’s going to see Josh Groban on stage on Broadway where we saw Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Josh joined us after the show. We create an experience money can’t buy. In the last 10 years, we have raised probably three quarters of a million dollars for a whole range of charities.

That third leg of building community through wine has probably been the most meaningful for us and the most supportive of our business. I believe strongly that this private/public partnership is critical to everyone’s success. The most effective way of building community is by joining others. That is what we have done through this program of creating experiences that money can’t buy and auctioning them off for the charities of our members.

Hugh: That’s amazing. Do other wineries do this kind of thing? Is this unique to you?

Ross: I think there are other wineries who do this kind of thing. I don’t think it’s a focus of any other winery I know of. We didn’t invent the wheel here. I attended many auctions and have been invited to many auctions. It was Jennifer, my ex-wife and partner, who came up with the idea. Let’s create auction lots and offer them to our wine club members to benefit the charities we care about. We started doing that about 12 years ago. It’s become a cornerstone of our business. It has expanded to include making wine for one particular charity that has taken our model to a whole other level. I’m excited about that and what we’re doing. In fact, it’s with Josh Groban. I’ll be with him this week on May 4 for my fourth time with him on stage. We’ll be auctioning off a wine we make with him called Find Your Light, which is named after his foundation to benefit arts education in public schools in the United States.

Hugh: That is such important work. I’ve been a listener of his music for years. He’s quite a celebrity. You dropped a number out of thin air. You have helped charities raise $375,000, somewhere in that ballpark?

Ross: ¾ of a million.

Hugh: ¾ of a million. Oh, 750.

Ross: Yeah, 750,000.

Hugh: That’s a few dollars more. There are several spokes. I’ll give Russell a chance to interject. He’s a good observer, and he also asks the hard questions, so watch out. You and I have started a preliminary discussion, and we have some energy around you coming to my part of this country and partnering with our music organization. Can I share that with Russell and the world here?

Ross: Certainly. It’s in its nascent stages, but I have no doubt it will come to fruition.

Hugh: You are a guy who pulls things off, and so am I.

Ross: Let’s keep our clothes on for this though. I’m just kidding. You said, “You’re a guy who pulls things off,” and I said, “We’ll keep our clothes on for this though.”

Hugh: I see that. Don’t go that far. I’m coming on as the president of the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra. We are considering the idea of Ross coming in to do a dinner. The general manager of the Hilton here has done this in other venues in town. Having a partner who knows how they work and is ready to talk about it.

We’re also going to talk to you about how to fine-tune our brand. This is an area I find most nonprofits have a vacuum of knowledge with their branding and why it’s important. It’s a key component. Everything you’re talking about, what you’re known for and why people should give to you, and why people should attend your dinner, well, it’s going to be fun, but how do we show up as representation of our brand? The piece you’re talking about in this interview is the relationship building piece that is so key. Getting people on boards, getting people to volunteer, getting people to support this charity with my time, talent, and donation is a key component.

He will be on this side of the country in the old mountains, in the Appalachians. We don’t have an ocean to look at, but we have some pretty mountains. We’ll treat you good.

Ross: I love that part of the country. I have driven through the Appalachians.

Hugh: The Parkway is 27 minutes from my house. We’ll move to the next place in building community, not only amongst ourselves, but also with the people in the community who want to support the arts. We do have a rigorous plan in place for supporting arts education in school with the Symphony Orchestra. That is an initiative we want to put some energy behind.

Russell, what are you hearing so far? Do you have some questions about building community and social events? Dinners are different from wine tastings. It’s a different experience.

Ross: Or about branding.

Hugh: Or about branding.

Russell: Our friend Danna Olivo talks about creating an experience for people, and that’s what draws them to you. It’s critical to have a good brand that resonates with people to talk about who you are and find out what matters to them. Talk about how you go about drawing people into this. They start out in your wine club. How do you go about finding out what charities they’re interested in and getting that conversation rolling?

Ross: It’s upfront and straightforward. Our wine club has a page on our website. It has a list of benefits. Some of those benefits are free tastings at my house. One includes being able to stay on the vineyard for a night a year as our guest. It includes bringing friends to the winery for a barrel tasting. I don’t have the exact words in our head, but it also includes if you have a charity you care about, we will host an event to benefit our charity. That ends up being one of the key reasons many people join our wine club. Of course, they have to love our wine.

I’m not ignorant or shy about recognizing that wine is a commodity product. There are just thousands and thousands of wines out there to choose from. It’s table stakes that people like our wine. I’m appreciative that they do. It separates us from the ones they don’t. It doesn’t separate them from the ones that they do. There are probably a lot. That’s the beauty of wine: it exists everywhere in the world, and there are many choices.

One of the ways we differentiate ourselves is: What do you really care about? Let us support you in that. On our list of benefits is if you have a charity, we’ll do an event. Our wine club members reach back and say, Okay. Let’s roll up our sleeves and figure this out. We have an auction or event coming up, and we would like to include a vintner dinner or a trip to New York or a trip to Africa or any of the things that we do as part of our everyday doing business as part of their fundraising efforts.

Russell: It looks like excellence is built into everything you do. That doesn’t hurt your brand or attracting people to you. When you talk about experiences money can’t buy, and you walk into a charity, they have probably done other fundraisers before. When you start planning with an organization that you haven’t come into contact with, that is brought to you by one of your members, how do you communicate process? How do you go about showing them how to run through a process where they create an experience for people? I know each organization is different. How do you coach them through that process?

Ross: It depends on the experience we’re offering. Let’s use the vintner dinner as an example because it’s pretty straightforward. The first thing we ask is: Do you have someone in your organization who is connected to a great chef or great restaurant? Or is one of your supporters a great chef or a great restaurant? If that is the case, and it is very often the case, many charities have people who care deeply about them. It’s the wondrous part of being in this country is how much private participation there is in charitable organizations, I ask for an introduction. I get on the phone with the chef or the restaurant or the restaurant manager, and I send a list of wines over. I have tasting notes I’ve developed. They send me a menu of what they’d like to prepare. I talk them back and forth. I send them wine. If I’m in the neighborhood, I will drop in, and we will do a tasting, or they will come to my house and do a tasting. We will create.

It’s like rolling up our sleeves and saying, “How can we create an incredible experience for ourselves and everybody involved and make the world a better place at the same time?” You can’t get a better scenario than that. We are all smiling all the time. We create a menu. We create the pairings. We often auction these off with no date associated with it so that the date is agreed upon by all parties. Whenever it’s a live auction, assigning a date to something limits the number of people who can participate. If you don’t put a date to it, a lot of people can bid. Sometime in the next year, we can pick a date. If it’s in North or South Carolina, I will fly there. Anywhere in the country, I will fly there. I will send the wines. The chef and I will host.

Russell: With what you do, it’s a personalized experience. The space that you’re in has an energy to it. That would be the same for the people who are running the charities you work with. Talk about some of the ways you help them to create that atmosphere around the places they work and come into contact with people so they can strengthen their connections with others.

Ross: That’s an interesting question. As a vintner, I’m not sure I have engaged in that activity. As a brand strategist, I have often participated in that task. I think what’s important to clarify before I answer that question is to make sure that people understand what a brand is. It’s a word that’s bandied around quite a bit. Hugh was mentioning that nonprofits have often little clue about what a brand is. I would go so far that most people in any line of business, in any activity have very little understanding of what a brand is.

One thing I have the privilege of doing is teaching at Sonoma State University in their wine business program. They have an MBA program for wine professionals. I ask that question to these people. Oftentimes, there isn’t a response in the room. It’s not just nonprofits who don’t know what a brand is. For the sake of this conversation, I will articulate what a brand is so people have an idea of what we’re striving for. Does that make sense as the next step in answering your question?

Russell: Most certainly.

Ross: I don’t want to run down a rabbit hole if that’s not what you meant. A brand is simple. It’s difficult to execute, but it’s a simple concept. A brand is simply a promise. The important thing about that word is understanding what you are promising and to whom. It’s not an easy task to distill what any given organization, whether it be nonprofit or profit, is promising to the people who are critical to their success. Those people I describe as their target audience.

Articulating and enunciating what that promise is is the work of a brand strategy. It usually takes the form of four or five sentences. Two or three. It has several components. It has to touch on what your core values are and consequently align with the core values who your target audiences are. It has to describe a benefit you will provide to them. It has to describe a way you will deliver that benefit in a way that is unique and compelling. When I take the word promise and put it in those three categories, you start to begin to understand how difficult it is to achieve those few sentences.

I have a workshop I do with profits and nonprofits alike. I’ve done it with as large a company as Agilent Technologies and HP and small companies like Legal Aid of Sonoma County and Sebastopol Center for the Arts. It is a full-day workshop to get under the skin or the sheets of articulating what this promise is and getting everybody on the same page of delivering that promise. Once you have an understanding of what you are promising, how did you describe it? That élan, that spirit, I don’t remember the word you used to describe this feeling of engagement, of excitement.

Russell: There is an energy field in the space. You create an energy field around the cause that resonates with people. Having the right partners is critical to that. A big piece of community building is bringing on the right partners, whether they are in the form of sponsors or media or anyone to create a win-win scenario for everybody. That’s important. It’s important to be clear about what resonates with everyone so that you put the right people together. It makes sense to have a restaurant and a winery work with a charity. That doesn’t necessarily mean because you have a winery and a restaurant, there is that synergy there, or the right connection or energy field around that event or the charity. I’m sure you get a lot of opportunities of people approaching you to help with these events. Talk about some of the criteria that you use to try to look at whether something will be a good fit and how you might make adjustments if there isn’t a good fit.

Ross: We don’t have a lot of criteria for it being a good fit. There are some. But the first criterion is whomever is approaching us is a member of our wine club. Right there, we’re family. You’re supporting us, so we want to support you. It’s an unspoken reciprocal relationship we have.

From that point, there is one criteria. It has to be a live auction lot. We don’t contribute to silent auction lots. We have found that silent auctions, while they may be effective in a modest way for charities, they end up being a place where people are searching for bargains. We find that live auction lots often go for more than face value. Because of that energy field you’re talking about. We are really looking for that energy field. Live auction lots, you have a lot of parts that are working together to get people excited. There is a number of particular tasks that are required to achieve that energy. In the case of a nonprofit in an auction, we ask that they cultivate their donor base. We don’t like showing up at a live auction, and it’s the first time people have seen it.

When we put together an event with Josh Groban, when we brought people to New York to see his show, it was for a charity in Southern California. The organizers of the auction knew many of the donors and spent the week before the event taking them out to lunch, breakfast, coffee, whatever was appropriate, and saying, “This thing is going to happen. You need to be part of it.” Doing that with people so by the time when we got to the auction, by the time that slide went up, and I was there and was able to get up and talk a bit about it to create that energy, there were already people teed up ready to bid. They didn’t know each other. It was a fueled event. That is where we can create the greatest value for all parties, where that energy field is cultivated. Does that make sense?

Russell: That makes perfect sense. You have a built-in tribe. What is the message you have for other businesses as far as making an impact in their community to go along with their monetary bottom line? They may want to support a charity event. What are some key things that you tell a business owner who wants to do this type of thing that they need to put in place to make sure they start off well and become effective at it?

Ross: I love the word “tribe.” To be in business, you said that I have a tribe already. Anybody in business has a tribe. Those are the people who are supporting you. Those are the people who have chosen you out of the many choices you have. That is your tribe. There is gratitude associated with that, and there is also a recognition that in having a tribe, there are certain social responsibilities that go with that. I think that given the state of the planet and the world, of our government, and the shift from- I can’t say shift because I can’t speak too specifically about it. It feels like there has been a shift in social responsibility on the part of our government to the private sector. In order for us to have a world we want to live in, we have to be giving back. We all need to recognize that. In fact, when we do recognize it, our tribe becomes more supportive of our private interests, our business interests. That word is reciprocal.

Russell: I would go a step further and say given the climate we are in globally, not just here in the United States, we are in a place where it’s all hands on deck. Profit-making businesses, nonprofits, the government, nobody is set up specifically to deal with all these problems. It takes more collaboration and partnerships and hybrid structures. We are seeing new business structures pop up everywhere to deal with social problems. It’s very exciting. We have to get creative about it and be more effective with the resources we use. We are thrown a lot of money at things, and they haven’t shifted a lot. What are your thoughts on that?

Ross: All I can say is I only can do what I can do. We’re a small organization. We have to be surgically precise in how we extend ourselves. I wish I could write the big checks. This is just a way that I can leverage the resources at my disposal to make an impact. It’s grown considerably over the years. It’s become a cornerstone to our business. I may have said this before, but it’s the most meaningful part of our business.

Hugh: Ross, you are making an impact and allowing people to write checks. The aggregate allows you to have a large impact. Ross, I appreciate you bringing up the shift in social responsibility. We want the government to do anything when really the business sector needs to step up. The tax-exempt business sector we call nonprofits, it’s a call to action. I think what you’re doing is teaching people there are other ways to build relationships and to bring value to each other.

We are 2/3 of the way through this interview, and I want you to bring up other topics. Russ, those were insightful questions. I have to work hard to make sure he doesn’t show me up too badly.

Ross: This isn’t a competition.

Hugh: No.

Ross: It’s a conversation.

Hugh: You raise your value by hanging around people who are better than you, which isn’t hard for me. I’m in good company right now. Ross, you mentioned Josh Groban and his work. You connected at some point in history. He had an interest in wine when you first met, then you worked with him and his charity. Talk about that relationship and the things you have done or are doing.

Ross: We began this idea of working private/public long before we met Josh. Josh actually found out about that. Initially, he tasted our wine when he was in New York performing on Broadway. I got a call that asked if I wanted to make wine together. My initial response was, “We’re a small family winery. Making a Josh Groban celebrity wine is not in our road map.” His response was, “I don’t want to make a Josh Groban wine. I want to make a Halleck Vineyard wine, but I’ve read about the things you do. I want to work with you in creating a wine for my charity called the Find Your Light Foundation.” I said, “That’s interesting. What does the foundation do?” He said, “Find Your Light Foundation funds arts education in public schools in the United States.” I said, “That’s all I have to hear. I’m in.”

I have three sons. They are all adults now, but they are all artists. They are all working in their fields. They all went to public schools. Some of the programs they were beneficiaries of, they are only in their mid-20s, are gone. It was a very short and dramatic shift in public education in the last 10 years. This felt close to home, close to family, and something that we could hook our wag into.

As it happened, we became acquainted. He invited me to New York. I go to New York anyway. He offered me tickets to see him on Broadway and offered us producer seats on stage to see this performance called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. I put the word out to my wine club members, and those tickets were snapped up immediately. One of my wine club members said, “Listen, we have a gala coming up. I’m wondering if we can get some tickets to go with you and auction them off at our fundraiser.” I asked Josh’s management if I could have a few more tickets for yet another charity. They gave us half a dozen more tickets, and we raised another $10,000 for that charity. They joined us at the event. That was the first time I met Josh in person, backstage in his dressing room, and then he joined us after the show.

With that, he came to Sebastopol, and we made wine together. We created a blend. This is a fun story. This brings us full circle. Indulge me for a second. He picked this barrel out of all of our barrels. When we make wine, we have different vineyards that we purchase fruit from, and then we make wine out of that fruit. We keep them in separate lots and see what will blend with what to go in what bottle. Josh was there. “Listen, let’s go through all the barrels we have.” It was 30-40 barrels at that time. “Let’s taste them. You can pick any one. We will use that as the base wine for your Find Your Light Pinot Noir.”

He picked this vineyard that we’d never used for making a single vineyard wine before. It was a small two-acre vineyard behind this guy’s house; his name was Peter. We’d been buying it for a number of years. Several people had owned it over the years. The most recent guy was named Peter. His last name happened to be Hass. We’d never made a Hass Vineyard wine before. It was a hodge-podge vineyard in the backyard of some guy. But he picked that vineyard out of all of our barrels. We were thrilled because it didn’t take out of any of our other programs, so that was good news for us. We were happy to do whatever he wanted.

I called Peter that evening or that next day. I’d met Peter one time before. He’d come to my house and purchased wine for his daughter’s wedding; he wanted wine with some of his fruit in it. I called him and said, “I thought you might be interested. There was this young man here named Josh Groban who selected your vineyard to make wine for his foundation.” I actually hadn’t assumed that Peter would have heard of Josh Groban. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t heard of him before he called me. I’m not a music person. I expect him to ask some questions about Josh and about the foundation.

Instead, I got, “Come on.” “What do you mean?” “Josh Groban was at your house?” “Yeah. Do you know him?” “Oh my gosh, he’s one of the most incredible voices of our time. He can sing fluently in four languages. He’s a phenom. He’s using our grapes to make wine for the Find Your Light Foundation?” “Peter, do you know what this foundation is?” “Yeah, I do.” “How do you know that?” “We have a little foundation of our own. I’m familiar with other foundations in our space.” “Peter, that’s so sweet. What’s your foundation called?” He goes, “The Hass Family Foundation.”

When I heard that, being from the Bay Area, my jaw dropped. “Peter, you’re that Hass?” I’ve heard of the Hass School of Business. That’s not avocadoes, folks. He said, “Yeah, we’re that Hass.” For those who don’t know, the Hass Family founded, and continues to own, and a few weeks ago they went public for the second time, Levi Strauss. The Hass Foundation has hundreds of millions of dollars, and one of their focuses is the arts.

So Peter asked me, “Might you have the opportunity to introduce me to Josh and Jake, the executive director? We might want to participate more than just providing the grapes for this project.” I said, “It so happens that next month we are attending this gala at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay. Jason Mraz is performing. Josh is performing. Some of the young beneficiaries are performing. We have a couple of tables. Why don’t you join me as our guest? I’d be happy to introduce you.” Peter says, “That’s kind of you. I look forward to seeing you there. We’ll pick up a table.” He bought a platinum table, and I won’t tell you what that means. He sat next to me, and I introduced him to Josh and Jake. He will be with me this weekend. He bought another platinum table. They are in discussion as to how the Hass Foundation may fund the Find Your Light Foundation.

That all started from a little vineyard in my backyard. I am eternally grateful for having been in this unusual and synchronistic position to connect these two people who are doing such great work in the world.

Hugh: You are an amazing connector. Ever since I’ve known you, you look for possibilities with people.

I’d like to do another show sometime in the future about branding and the importance of branding. Maybe even if you wanted to invite Josh or Peter Hass to talk about social responsibility with you, how do we create social responsibility through our work as business owners? How do nonprofits approach that topic with businesses? It’s something you said shifted to the business community. They’re making money now. Some of them don’t know how to leverage their financial assets to the benefits you’re talking about.

Bring this back full circle. How difficult, how complex. You’re talking about a vintner dinner and a chef and an auction. How difficult is it for a charity to pull off one of those events?

Ross: I think an auction is a big deal. I have never organized an auction. I would be speaking out of school to suggest that I could answer that question to the fullest required for someone to take it as a how-to. I do know being a contributor and a participant in auctions, I touch many people at these auctions before my event makes it on stage for bidding. It requires certainly an embedded group of potential donors. It requires a venue. It requires lots of logistics. The Sun Valley Wine Auction and the Napa Valley Wine Auction, both of which I’ve attended for many years, runs many days. They are events that go four days. Starting with party after party after social event after concert until the seminal event, which is several hours of the auction. There is a tremendous amount of money invested in creating this experience for people that essentially entertains them out of the money in their wallets.

Hugh: Is an auction a different event than the vintner dinner?

Ross: It is. The vintners’ dinner is an auction lot. It is something that is auctioned at an auction. The vintners’ dinner is something I am familiar with creating and organizing and pulling together. I am a big part of making that happen. I ask for contributing participants, be it a chef, hotel, or restaurant. I know everything about making it happen.

Hugh: We could do a vintners’ dinner here in Lynchburg without doing the auction, if we know the right people to invite to the event.

Ross: Correct.

Hugh: We have a venue. We have a chef. We have a Rolodex of who should be here. It’s finding the right time of year that will attract the right kind of people, and get it on your calendar. Is that right?

Ross: That’s exactly right. The quid pro quo is that I come and do this, and that the people are teed up to not only enjoy the wine, but are interested in a future relationship with me as well in purchasing wine and becoming members of our wine club.

Hugh: It’s mutually beneficial for the charity as you will explain to someone who is interested. They will go to Is there a way they can contact you on the website?

Ross: Yes. You can also email me at

Hugh: Russell, he said he didn’t know if he could talk for an hour, but here we are at :55 and counting. What parting thought or tip or challenge do you want to leave in the minds of clergy/nonprofit executive directors/membership directors trying to up their game? Then Russell will close out the interview.

*Sponsor message from Wordsprint*

Ross: I think the word of the day is engagement. I am invested in engaging in our community. I encourage all of us in the profit and nonprofit world to be fully engaged in our communities. To choose whatever path is open for you for that engagement. In my case, it’s been creating experiences with people. That has opened up lots of doors. One could never have guessed it would have created as much impact as it has, but I think that it all started from an intention for engagement.

Hugh: Thank you so much.

Russell: Thank you, Ross. It’s all about setting intention and finding the right partners. That brand brings that attention to you. So many things are possible when you have the right partners and engage and collaborate with the right people because it’s a group effort to continue to make the kind of difference you are all making every day.

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