Q & A: Michael Houlihan
Co-Founder of Barefoot Wine
Chances are, if you’re a wine drinker, you’ve gone Barefoot. You know the wine—the big bottle, the label’s bare footprint, the original flavors of red or white. The whole, “Get Barefoot and have a great time!” slogan.
Now Michael Houlihan—an Oakland product and 1963 Bishop O’Dowd High School grad—who co-founded Barefoot Wine with his longtime companion, Bonnie Harvey, has put his stamp on something besides a wine label: a book.
Titled The Barefoot Spirit, Houlihan and Harvey’s book (oops, “a business adventure story,” Houlihan says with emphasis) details not only how Barefoot Wine became a number one selling brand with no paid advertising, but also what it takes for small companies to succeed. And Houlihan should know: He and Harvey introduced Barefoot in 1986 and eventually sold what had become one of the nation’s top-selling brands to E. & J. Gallo in 2005.
After reminiscing with this writer about how she first encountered the wine at a 1994 Los Angeles wedding seated between two clown school graduates—yes, really—Houlihan sat down and answered a few of our more pressing questions.
Q: We love the fact that you grew up in Montclair in Oakland and that you went to Bishop O’Dowd. What kind of student were you? Did you have a class yearbook or annual where you were voted most likely to change the world through wine?
A: I was basically more of a student type of guy. I took classes seriously, got good grades. I knew high school wasn’t going to last very long. One thing, though, I won the student speakers contest for the Lion’s Club in high school. It was a typical high school speech, about what America means to me. I gave an example of a shipwreck where everyone comes on shore and the first thing you have to do is take an inventory of what you’ve got. You’re stranded on an island, so you have to be resourceful. The first community that lands has to be socialistic to survive, but then two or three generations later, you have the choice of two or three different shoes, two or three different carpenters. That’s like America. There is competition and the result is that the consumer gets better choices. I know that’s a high school mentality, but it’s funny, what America means to me really hasn’t changed much.
Q: You got into the wine business in an unconventional way: You were a business consultant and took over a company that owed money to a grape-growing client of yours. All you got out of the deal was wine in bulk and bottling services. Where did you go from there?
A: We didn’t have a name, a label and we didn’t know anything about wine marketing. We wound up going to another Oakland guy, Don Brown, who was the buyer for Lucky stores and I said, “Don, what should this look like, what do you need?” He told me, “It wants to have a name that people can pronounce and the image has to be the same as the name, and you have to see it from 4 feet away, and you should put it in a big bottle because there’s too much competition in regular-sized bottles, and it needs to be a red and white combination.” I thought, “I can do that. That’s what I have!”
Q: Why Barefoot?
A: I had a friend named Davis Bynum who had a label called Barefoot and he wasn’t using it anymore. I remembered that label. I said, “Davis, what are you doing with the old Barefoot label?” He said, “I haven’t used that in 10 years. I’m doing fine Pinot Noir now.” I said, “Would you mind if I took that label over?” He said I’d have to pay him for it.
Q: Whose foot is that on the label?
A: We didn’t like Bynum’s original label. Then we were going back and forth with an artist in L.A. but it was never to Bonnie’s liking. One day, she said, “I know where there’s a good footprint we can use. It’s on the end of my leg.” So she went down to the art store, got the largest inkpad she could find and sent the print of her foot to the artist and said, “I want it more like that.”
Q: OK, here’s the money question: Did you have wine for dinner last night, and if so, what was it?
A: Ah! Yes, I did. Not to plug Barefoot, but I like the Barefoot Lodi Zinfandel. It’s my favorite. You can get it for $6.99 and it’s from a wonderful grape-growing region—not Sonoma, not Napa, but Lodi, and it goes great with any kind of red meat or red pasta. I had it with red pasta with buffalo.
For information on The Barefoot Spirit book, visit www.thebarefootspirit.com.