Friday, March 30, 2012

An Interview with Harvey Posert

(The second installment in a series of interviews with notable figures in the wine industry)

At the beginning of this month I sat down with a legendary winery public relations man, Harvey Posert.  Harvey worked with Robert Mondavi Winery for sixteen years, and was instrumental in creating the California wine lifestyle concept that was Robert’s vision.  He has also been a newspaper reporter, an ad man in the Mad Men era, and quite a successful PR man for Edelman and Wine Institute.  Harvey started out in newspaper reporting, then served in the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps, and now is happily consulting in public relations with his clients, most notably Bronco Wine Company (Two Buck Chuck).  I visited with Harvey at his house in Saint Helena, his dog Jerry checking in frequently to see if I had any treats to offer him. 

Harvey has seen the wine industry grow and prosper in Napa Valley.  He has formed many long-term friendships and continues to work behind the scenes on many winery projects.  So how did he get to where he is today, and what would he do differently?

What did you want to be when you grew up?  I wanted to be a foreign correspondent for a newspaper.  I had two uncles who worked at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, one as a sports writer, the other covering politics.  My father was an attorney, and my mom was a housewife, but an accomplished musician.  My mom wrote musical criticism for the local paper.  Writing always came easy to me, and at the age of fourteen I started working for the newspaper scoring sports games.  At 16 I was the city editor, providing summer relief for news desks including business, cotton, tri-state, and obituaries.

What encouragement did you get from family, teachers, etc?  My parents forced me to go to school outside of Memphis.  I went to prep school in Pennsylvania, and received my bachelor’s degree in English from Yale.  When I announced I was going to law school, my parents raised their eyebrows. 
To raise some beer money while attending law school I went to work for the Bar Association’s PR department.  I learned quickly that PR paid well; I could get $50 a week working for the newspaper and $100 a week at the PR firm.  Soon I had three boys and a wife to support, and I quickly did the math.  I went to the paying industry.  I worked for several years at a large PR firm, Edelman, and had my own firm.  At Edelman I was part of the firm’s evolution to become the largest independent PR firm in the world.

How did you end up in the wine business?  I was working in public relations in New York for the Edelman office there.  I was working with The Chocolate Association, National Bedding Association and other similar accounts.  I was raising three kids outside of Manhattan.  Edelman got the Wine Institute account and needed me to open up a California office.  I got here and thought, “Eureka, I found it.”  I spent July 4th of that year at the Atlantic Ocean and Labor Day at the Pacific Ocean.

What drew you to the wine industry and your role?  I was drawn to the personalities in the wine industry.  It also is a happy industry.  People laugh all day.  When I started in the industry it was all about sharing a glass of wine. 

With all the opportunities you had, why didn’t you leaveI loved the wine industry.  It was a growing industry. What isn’t to like?  Everyone is nice, gracious.  I grew up in Memphis with southern hospitality.  I knew more about PR than others here and I could make a difference.  It is also a nice business for a family.  I have two kids in it and I get enormous pleasure from getting to work with them and from us being able to help each other. 

Were their mistakes you made or lessons learned that you would like to share?  I don’t feel I made any mistakes, but think I could have done better financially.  If I had stayed at Edelman and done as I was told, I would have gone to Silicon Valley or stayed in agency work and made $500,000 a year instead of only $120,000 on average.  Thinking about mistakes made, I bring up David Brooks, the writer who recently wrote a series called The Life Report, asking people aged 70 and above to reflect on their lives.  Reading over the essays people submitted, I think the things I could have done better were to learn how to deal better with my parents and the women in my life.  From outside of the wine business I’ve learned that you have to have balance and intelligence so that you can make more good than bad decisions.

Were there mentors in your career?   I had three of the best mentors: 
Dan Edelman, Edelman PR.  Dan taught me how to adjust newspaper writing to the publicity biz.  He said to always throw the net out wide. 
Harry Serlis, President of Wine Institute.  Harry said you can’t ever know all there is to know about the wine biz.  It is OK to say “I don’t know.”
Bob Mondavi, Robert Mondavi Winery.  Bob taught me how to deal with people and teach people about wine.  He evoked the wine, food, culture belief and created the lifestyle. 
Did you have any protégés?  I am proud to have helped a complete generation of wine publicists. 

Is there any advice you would have given yourself years ago?   I would learn to understand the financial business.  It is an area that I have not been as savvy in as I think I should have been.

Are there any changes in the wine industry that you have experienced?  It was quite interesting coming to the Napa Valley in 1965.  When I started, I knew so little about wine.  With the changes of the wine industry to become a true “industry,” it has gotten very competitive.  Before, wine people were very cooperative, and it seems like the industry has moved to an MBA-type environment where wine is marketed in a commercial context, losing some of the glamour or mystique it once had.  I have also seen wine become a product.  When I started, wine was unknown to many, and now wine is on all tables.  It is rewarding that we were able to accomplish that in the States.

Southern hospitality is still quite present when you meet with Harvey.  He is a gentlemen, and quite smart.  He is involved in so many things and still has time to sit with a cub reporter like me, even popping a fresh batch of popcorn.  Thank you, Harvey, for your time and thoughts, and I look forward to our next meeting.  I’ll remember to bring Jerry some treats!