Nathan Carlson of ‘Center of Effort Wines’: “You need to build trust with your team”

Remember that you are representing the company no matter whom you are interacting with. I try to teach my team to treat everyone with integrity and respect, from our guests and wholesale customers, through to vendors, salespeople, truck drivers, delivery people, competitors, and one another. You never know when you are going to need a […]

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Remember that you are representing the company no matter whom you are interacting with. I try to teach my team to treat everyone with integrity and respect, from our guests and wholesale customers, through to vendors, salespeople, truck drivers, delivery people, competitors, and one another. You never know when you are going to need a favor from your FedEx driver, need to borrow a tractor from the farmer next door, etc. We have had business referred to us many times from competitors and vendors who know that we will do a high-quality job and treat the client well.


As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan Carlson, General Manager / Winemaker for Center of Effort.

Nathan grew up in rural Minnesota in a family with a rich history of farming and craftsmanship, but wine was not a part of his daily experience. It was while at college that Carlson began to work in restaurants and developed an intense interest in learning about the wines of the world.

After college, Nathan moved to Santa Barbara where he worked in several wine-focused restaurants. A chance meeting led to a part-time position at Richard Sanford’s eponymous winery, a pioneer of Pinot Noir in what would soon become the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. The camaraderie of the local wine industry, deep agricultural traditions, and sense of possibility convinced Nathan to leave restaurants to pursue wine as a career. Carlson’s career has led him to make wine throughout the Central Coast, Sonoma and Napa Valley. After a brief stint in Oregon, he was drawn back to the Edna Valley, where prior to his role at COE, he worked as winemaker for a number of well-respected brands.

Nathan came to Center of Effort just as the new vision of the Swansons was getting underway. He first purchased Chardonnay from the vineyard as a client and was eventually invited to join as Winemaker and General Manager two years later, in 2010. Understanding the intricate complexity of the business, he has spent the past ten years learning the vineyards intimately, identifying techniques specific to the site and assembling the right farming, equipment and people to execute the work that needs to be accomplished on a daily basis. It is important to Nathan that sustainable agriculture has been part of COE from the start, which goes back to his early life and concern about the effect that farming has on the environment.

Nathan and his partner Kristin live about 20 miles from the winery in Atascadero, and love to travel as much as possible. They enjoy time at home with their pets, as well as hobbies that include baking sourdough bread, cooking, canning, cycling, and gardening.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I didn’t grow up in a wine-drinking family. It was really while I was working my way through college in a restaurant with a good wine program that I began to learn about the regional specificity and traditions associated with wine. After school, I continued to work in some really top restaurants with thoughtful wine programs and threw myself into learning more about it. When I moved to Santa Barbara in the late 1990s, the local scene was exploding. At the table, I met many of the pioneers of the Central Coast wine industry and talked my way into a couple days per week working for a winery in what was about to become the new Sta. Rita Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area.) Once I became embedded and saw the way that the local growers and wineries supported one another and celebrated each other’s successes, I was pretty hooked.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The wine industry can look very glittery and fancy from the outside, but the reality is that it is a lot of hard work, and the financial compensation is not always great. I took a big pay cut when I left fine restaurants and dedicated myself to full-time as an entry-level cellar-rat at 7.50 dollars/hour. I had a crisis for several months when I literally was sleeping in my car, on friend’s sofas, camping on the Big Sur coast on the weekends, and not sure how I could push forward and make this work. But I loved what I was doing, loved the creative process and complexity of the business — I was struggling financially, but I also was learning and growing every day, and I found that for me, happiness and satisfaction has little to do with money. That was a huge, important lesson to learn early in my career.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our Estate-grown winery business is at the heart of Center of Effort, and we consistently produce some of the top wines in our region year after year, utilizing labor-intensive and detailed handmade winemaking techniques. We have total control over all aspects of the winegrowing and wine making.

But behind the scenes, my team also serves several other much larger companies in making their wines on a more commercial scale. By applying the same concepts of quality to our client work, we have supported them in producing very successful wines for larger markets — at the moment, we help our partners to make the best-selling domestic rosé wine at Whole Foods Markets and are the primary wine production facility for the fastest growing Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon in its category. Having a diverse business is a strength for us in the current world that has been punishing to the wine and hospitality industries over the last year.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Figure out what you are in this for. You need to have a personal ‘WHY’ that is not tied to other people’s expectations. We work long hours, whether in wine production, sales, farming, or other aspects of the industry — and often have a busy season like the wine harvest or the end of year sales cycle, which can take you away from your family and other commitments. Make sure to find a way to balance that, to have something to look forward together at the end of harvest, whether travel, a shared project, or other reconnection time. Wine has beautiful traditions and adds so much to friendship and sharing at the table. But alcohol can also be destructive — it is really important to stay in control and model responsible behavior and know when to walk away from it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

It would be impossible to call out just one person. My heart overflows with gratitude when I think of the mentors whom I have had in my life and whom I have learned so much from, and who took chances on me.

One story that comes to mind was when I was working alongside the owner of a small winery — we were doing some miserable work shoveling out a drainage trench that had backed up with foul-smelling fermenting wine waste.

“There is the story of a couple peasants in medieval France who were digging in the muck, working on what would become Notre Dame more than a hundred years later” the winery owner said, leaning on his shovel with a wry smile. “A nobleman rode up and asked them what they were doing. The first replied ‘what does it look like we are doing? We are digging a ditch’ but the second peasant smiled and said ‘Good Sir, I am building a Cathedral!’”

It is all about perspective — controlling your inner narrative and knowing that no matter how minor or unpleasant a task, that it supports and relates to the end result.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

A good company is functional. It gets the tasks done more or less on time, at more or less the quality level that is needed. It compares itself to its peers and is satisfied measuring success against them.

A great company tries to improve on itself. It asks what can be done better. It incorporates input and feedback from the team. It is willing to admit when it doesn’t succeed and adapts. It measures progress against itself, not others.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

You need to build trust with your team. It is really important that they know that they can disagree with you or question your approach with respect and be heard.

You need all of your team members to be thinking about how they can continue to grow personally and professionally. Connection and networks are really important to our business, and the more all of my team members have diverse skills and influences, the stronger decisions we can make together.

Remember that you are representing the company no matter whom you are interacting with. I try to teach my team to treat everyone with integrity and respect, from our guests and wholesale customers, through to vendors, salespeople, truck drivers, delivery people, competitors, and one another. You never know when you are going to need a favor from your FedEx driver, need to borrow a tractor from the farmer next door, etc. We have had business referred to us many times from competitors and vendors who know that we will do a high-quality job and treat the client well.

Do your best work, no matter if it is for ourselves or for a client. Think about what you would want when you are in their position and make their interaction with your company as easy as possible. This can be applied at every level of our business, from how to set up for a guest wine tasting, to how to lay out an invoice so that it is clear and supported with backup documentation.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

A business without a purpose will have a difficult time connecting with customers and attracting top talent to the team. Having a strong sense of purpose also simplifies a lot of decisions — Center of Effort’s internal focus on Sustainability has made it easier for our team to implement their own solutions and focus on the right direction on a day to day basis.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Look outside of your own discipline and see where ideas can be brought in from outside your own industry.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

The wine industry can have some violent boom and bust cycles, and we are impacted by weather events, fire, earthquakes, tariffs, drought, disease and pests. In years that we have excess fermentation capacity, we have forged partnerships with growers who have surplus grapes and helped them to find markets for the resulting wines. When the demand swings upward again, we have profited our winery and grower partners by connecting supply with demand. This helps us to operate efficiently and spread our costs and makes us a trusted and valued partner.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

I feel running a successful company requires a team of talented people working seamlessly behind the scenes together. The name Center of Effort is a sailing term that references the point on the sailboat where everything is in balance to move the vessel forward. Running a successful company means having a team working together to move the company forward. From our production team creating our estate wines, to our hospitality staff working hard to deliver excellent customer service, at Center of Effort we truly believe in the mission of creating sustainable wines and excellent social experiences.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

In my experience, the best strategies are simple; listen to your customers, do your best to answer their needs and meet them where they are. Using a variety of outlets from social platforms, email marketing, videos, phone calls to in person events (when those are allowed again), meeting your customer where they feel comfortable is the best way to see an increase in conversions. Keeping detailed statistics from each of those outlets will allow you to measure your success and make changes as needed.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Understanding that every customer is different and not taking the approach that one size fits all is a great way to earn a reputation as a trusted beloved brand. Being consistent in message and actions while treating every guest with kindness and integrity is essential in creating a positive brand. Treat your customers with integrity and fairness, do not take them for granted! Operate with a spirit of generosity, make them want to belong and represent and share the brand with their friends. At Center of Effort, we pride ourselves in going the extra mile and working hard to not only meet but exceed the expectations of our customers.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Creating a Wow! customer experience is the goal every business leader should have with each interaction. Being successful starts at the top with training and practice. In my experience hiring qualified staff who care about the guests, take pride in their work and providing those employees with training to be able to represent the company well is the first step. Treating each guest with the same level of importance as the next and always being one step ahead of their needs helps create a relationship and trust. Keep detailed notes to be able to continue that relationship beyond their visit by sending them a personal thank you note or offer that would be of interest to them. And as easy as it sounds, always go the extra mile.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Social media is a platform that is here to stay and constantly evolving. My approach to social media is to choose the three top platforms that work with your brand and take your time to do them well. One of the most concerning part of social media is the speed at which information is shared and that other people can post or comment on your information. Monitoring the conversation at all times, responding to comments and keeping information accurate is a great way to keep your customer’s trust.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think one mistake that happens when starting a new business is assuming that the knowledge you have from other ventures will always apply to the current one. Taking a step back, researching the new industry, speaking to key influencers and putting together a solid business plan will go far in avoiding unnecessary errors.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

How can our readers further follow you online?

Further follow us online:

You can find more information about Center of Effort on our website www.COEwine.com or follow us on our social channels.

Instagram: @coewine

Facebook: @coewine

Twitter: @COEwine

We look forward to connecting with you online and in person when able.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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