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Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan

Posted January 6, 2009 | 11:07 AM (EST)

Lessons from a Vineyard: Ignore Predictions


I am so sick of the news. Every time I watch CNBC and see yet another pundit with yet another market prediction, I think of Chateau Musar -- and not just because they make me want to reach for a bottle.

In 1975, Gaston Hochar ran this modest vineyard in the Bekaa Valley. He was only 33 years old, but his father had died young, and there was never any question but that Gaston would take over and continue the business.

Civil war broke out in the Lebanon in 1977. As Nicholas Taleb recalls in The Black Swan, adults at the time were utterly confident that the war would end in "only a matter of days." Everyone, he says, felt the crisis was temporary.

Not quite everyone. Gaston Hochar asked his oldest employee how long he thought the war would last. The old man replied, "Monsieur Serge, you can never guess how long it will last. But it usually goes on for more than twenty years."

That night, Hochar called a staff meeting. He told them they would run the company on the assumption that the war would last for twenty years. The vineyard would continue to produce wine and to search for ways of reaching foreign markets. Nobody would be fired, but pay would be frozen. He sent his wife and children to Europe for the duration.

For the next twenty years, Gaston Hochar produced wine. Whenever the airports, roads or harbors opened, he shipped it to a worldwide market that was increasingly dazzled by the miracle of a great wine that seemed to have escaped from hell. Only two vintages were lost - one through frost and the other when there was no fuel to get the bottles through. Around the world, the wines won acclaim, not just for their moral victory but because the wines themselves seemed to grow in sophistication and grandeur.

When the war ended -- after sixteen years of kidnapping, murder and occupation -- Chateau Musar had won most of the wine world's honors and prizes. The business had done more than survive. It had grown, flourished, endured. Not one worker was killed.

Gaston Hochar and his employees had lived the first lesson of volatile times: stop trying to predict events. Assume the worst, make the changes demanded for survival and move on. Gaston Hochar and his employees had dug deep and found within themselves what all great companies must discover in tough times: Resilience.


This is the first in a series of posts about how great companies triumph over tough times.