Sun Tzu in the Vineyard

Deterrence in Every Bottle

I met Sun Tzu while day-drinking a year ago in New Zealand. My wife and I were on vacation and doing a winery road-tour when I met him. Originally from the United Kingdom, he was living a dream as a small batch winemaker on the northern edge of New Zealand’s South Island, west of Nelson. He looked normal in most respects, but when asked about his business, the legendary Chinese strategist appeared.

He told me about land and terrain and weather. He told me where the wind comes from with a watchmaker’s precision, how the local winds were actually all individual currents. He told me how the micro-weather patterns were different here versus in-town, which was about four miles away. He told me how that contrasted with his former home in the UK. He told me the month and year of every slight and major weather event and its exact impact on his grapes. He told me about the sun factor, the differences in intensity.

I guess I always suspected the people that produce food have a refined sense for these geographical factors. I’d never seen it in such detail, in person. It brought to mind Sun Tzu’s commandment to “know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.”

The winemaker was aware of the environment in which he practiced his craft. He made me believe he’d react to shifting future currents as a skilled sailor would. His deep knowledge provided no steel-reinforced guarantee, but it made me confident his business would flourish in coming years. We’ll visit him again.

But, since it was a vacation Tuesday morning, we went on to the next vineyard.

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There I learned about a threat New Zealand winemakers face. Birds.

Birds don’t bother European vineyards anymore because they’re dead. Native bird populations in places like Spain, France, and Italy have been reduced while they still thrive in New Zealand. 

Birds damage grapes by penetrating the skin and forcing the fruit to oxidize prematurely. And we’re not talking single sparrows here. More like large flocks of starlings that swoop in and chew up entire rows of grapes. 

Military readers will be familiar with deterrence theory, which is to get an adversary not to do something you don’t want them to do. It’s a behavior or a threat that’s often broken down into three (crude) Cs: capability (the means to carry out the threat), credibility (the will to carry out the threat), and communication (the adversary has been made to understand the threat). Imagine a caveman defending some food from another caveman with a stick, an angry face, and waving his stick—that’s essentially deterrence. 

Imagine you’re a winemaker with the bird problem. You can’t deter birds with the same fear of punishment. You can’t set up machine guns to fire into the sky at incoming flocks (it would be illegal and unproductive). You’ve got to deter by denial. You’ve got to make shrewd choices about how much you’re willing to spend to defend, balanced against how much you’re prepared to lose. 

The smaller family-run vineyards choose to place nets over nearly all their grapes. It’s a strange thing at first to see enormous nets covering crops. But these littler guys can’t bear the pain of a bird-pack pecking a large percentage of their product into oblivion. Their goal isn’t to stop the swarms of birds. It’s to get hungry flocks to move on to the next non-netted target.

The bigger, industrial wine producers are exponentially larger. If you live in North America or the UK, and you pick up a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, it’s from producers on this scale. These winemakers generally select grapes most birds don’t like and calculate the sheer size of their crop means that any losses will be relatively tolerable. Some may net a few rows, but only the vines closest to the edge of the vineyard (i.e., they won’t net the vineyard’s internal rows). 

This is how New Zealand winemakers deter by denying benefits. Some more, some less. It may not fit into standard models of deterrence, but it’s clearly deterrence, nonetheless.

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Maybe it was the wine, but I staggered away from our tour with an idea. 

These concepts from combat are everywhere and we’d do well to learn from their close cousin’s in everyday life.

Okay, okay—yes, all life is not war. But we shouldn’t look away from such obvious parallels. All life is a delicate balance of cooperation and competition, and so sometimes the overlapping principles between life and war make sense. 

It goes farther than the deterrence theory in every bottle of wine. Carl von Clausewitz’s ideas about friction in war might be deployed for use in parenting. To paraphrase, everything a parent does is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. 

Or teaching. How do you wield the stick? How do you issue benevolent threats to enhance learning environments? I heard of another professor at West Point who would have sleepy students hold a bucket of ice water to incentivize wakefulness. 

Or in business. How do you issue threats, not with weapons but with words, to advance your business interests? 

Day-drinking or not, in New Zealand or not—where else do ideas forged in war show up in day-to-day life?

How can you make deterrence work for you on a Tuesday?

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*Afterthought: “By being armed, but with no weapons, great battles may be won.” (Tao TeChing)

*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this community’s continued growth. 

All the very best & see you next week, Matt