‘Drinking and Knowing Things’: The story and unique spirit of sommelier Michael Juergens

By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur. 

Michael Juergens is a Certified Sommelier who has written a book titled “Drinking and Knowing Things.” He also has a company called Bhutan Wine Company. As an entrepreneur and a bestselling author, he was featured in the latest episode of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur to discuss how he got noticed with all the businesses that he has been building.

Image from LinkedIn

Telling Stories

In the book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, the author talked about how the Sapiens were able to defeat the Neanderthals because they can tell stories. Though they were dumber, smaller, weaker, and bad at everything, they can tell stories. 

Michael believes that, somehow, we’re neurologically pre-wired around this idea of stories. And we resonate well with them. 

This is why one of the things he tries to do in all of his businesses is to tell some sort of a story. It doesn’t have to be a long story — but one that people can respond to differently than how they might respond to other mechanisms; one that they can also retell themselves. Just because you have a cool story, you can have these ambassadors for your brand.

The Story Behind the Bhutan Wine Company

The idea behind Michael’s Bhutan Wine Company is that there’s a hidden Shangri-La in the middle of the Himalayas and they’re making wine there.

People who know Bhutan typically think of the place as the happiest place on Earth — they have vistas and stunning landscapes. Then, he thought of putting some wine into that. And with that, he’s able to create imagery around it. 

Talking about the company’s name, he shared that they didn’t try to come up with a fancy one. This way, it can spark interest of people about Bhutan having wine. It’s a juxtaposition putting two elements that don’t seem to be on the same page, because people typically associate wine with France, Italy, Spain, and Australia.

When Michael tells the story about his company, he mentioned that it has to be more precise. 

When people think of Bhutan, they don’t connect it to wine or they don’t even know where it is. In fact, when he first went there, he thought that it was an island in Indonesia. When he scheduled a trip thinking he was going to Indonesia, his girlfriend said that Bhutan is actually in the Himalayas.

So if people don’t know what it is, there’s a curiosity that takes over. But if people do know what this is, they can even be more curious. Because they already have a picture of what they thought it is, then you bring up something new. In his case, building a wine industry there.

Different Stories for Different Audiences

This idea of a story and the juxtaposition of the obvious and completely non-obvious can make a kind of intrigue among people. But what do you do with it? Sometimes, entrepreneurs are great with the headline story. But how do you take it out to the people that you need to hear it, knowing that there are different audiences who are not necessarily in the same place?

Michael shared the way he does it is that he has five or six different stories related to Bhutan. And he tells different stories depending on the audience.

Image from Unsplash

One story is how only a few countries in the world can organically grow wine but don’t do it. Anywhere in the world that can grow wine has already been doing it for thousands of years. So the idea of getting a whole country to build an industry for whichever product is a fascinating story for an entrepreneur — or an artist. It’s sort of: Here’s the biggest canvas in the world, you can do whatever you want.

Another story is that in Bhutan, they don’t measure economic growth. They measure gross national happiness and that’s one of the things that they’re known for around the world.

The question then becomes: How does wine fit in with that strategy for that nation? Michael’s idea is that wine can bring people together. It’s a joyous thing that helps build bridges and communities. When you look at the cultural impact of wine in places like Champagne or Burgundy, it’s a very different and telling story. 

Then, Michael also has this sort of environmental play. Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world and it’s on track to be the only 100% organic country on Earth. So he also has a story of bringing in some additional plant life for biodiversity, sustainability, and agricultural harmony.

Telling different stories about Bhutan depending on the audience is a clever move. And it’s really what public relations (PR) agencies ask clients to do — to look at what the readers or the audience are going to be interested in for different media outlets. 

The Story Behind SoCal Rum

Michael also has a rum company called SoCal Rum, which stands for Southern California. They received the highest Silver Rum rating from a quality perspective, which is 95 points.

It’s a very different story but it also has the same juxtaposition aspect because rum doesn’t typically come from Southern California. The story around this company is more about the Southern California lifestyle, capturing the essence of beach and fun. 

People from around the world know Los Angeles. They do their vacations there. They save up money for years to go and visit the place. His company then introduces that he has this product wherein you can experience some of that in a bottle. Their label has sunsets and waves on it, but it also happens to be the best in the world.

Screengrab from SoCal Rum’s website

Rum is sort of the preserve of places like Jamaica; there’s an association there with rum and that kind of lifestyle. Through his company, he took that to a different place. Their product can be considered as the Southern California version of the Caribbean and Jamaican lifestyle.

However, it’s not just a gimmick. The quality of their product — and their story — is indeed high.

He fuses the SoCal kind of lifestyle and quality of their rum into everything that they do to tell the story of the company. For their marketing efforts, they have a social media person who crafts clever photos and texts to keep reinforcing that message. For instance, one post features a guy surfing and a cocktail, and it sends a message that says, Hey, you can also do this.

On Creating Content 

Michael is doing what’s called the Master of Wine certification. Around the world, there are about 417 of them; 57 in the United States. It’s the highest classification that you can get in this field and he has been pursuing it for a number of years. 

It started when his friends were asking him about which wines they should try. They acknowledge him as the wine guy. Though he’s not really responsible for figuring such things out, he still gave it a try.

He started a little email, which states his wine recommendations, that he sent to around 10 friends. Then his friends responded by asking for more. They also forwarded that to their friends, and so on. Now, he has thousands of people from around the world on his blog

Michael never did anything to market it. What he focused on was to create authentic and genuine content for his friends. 

Today, there are many bloggers and content creators who measure their success in terms of the number of subscribers or how much volume of content they put out there. He took a very contrarian approach to that. 

He wanted to create true content and get it in the hands of people who were looking for that. He’d rather have a thousand super-engaged people than a hundred thousand people who are deleting it every time a piece of content hits their inbox.

For Michael, it’s really about visualising content creation as writing for friends — putting his heart as well as his spirit into it.

When you look at the comments on his Amazon page, you’ll see how everyone loves the voice that he uses. It’s not snobby. There’s a lot of f-bombs (which is literally how he talks to his friends). Because the topic is wine, people think it would be written snobby. But he talks about it not in that way. And that authenticity allows people to engage with his content differently than how they would engage with other wine spectator articles.

In a way, it’s another juxtaposition. Michael has taken the perception of how wine would be written about and did it differently. 

This recurrent theme of juxtaposing two dissimilar things makes his content more accessible and notable. The way he’s getting his subscribers is sort of the true definition of going viral; a cascade effect where people share content because they like it and they want other people to read it.

Curating a Book

In “Drinking and Knowing Things,” Michael compiled and curated his articles.

Image from Amazon

He shared that there was a point when it became very difficult for him to manage his inbox. One of the things that he did was to contract with a company to build him a website where people can self-subscribe. When you go to it, you can simply put in your email — there are no big, sign-up forms and credit cards — then, you’ll be able to get his content. 

This allowed people to afford it much more easily: you just have to click on a subscribe button. Whereas before, people would have to email him so he can add them to his list. So removing that obstacle allowed Michael to get a bunch more followers.

The second thing that happened was people started emailing him to ask about past issues. After about 400 requests for all the old articles, he thought of a way to make it easy for people: He then put 52 of his articles together and self-published a book on Amazon so they could just go and grab it.

The book became a bestseller, which was the craziest thing for him because he never set out to make it a bestseller. He only wanted to make his life easy by stopping all those requests for old issues. 

When launching a book (I myself launched one in September), you have to do the marketing three months in advance. You need to get out to people and do reviews. 

For Michael, the secret to him having a bestselling book is that he already has a captive audience — people who really like the content that is coming out and who are asking him for the back issues. When he made his book available, he had already built an audience. 

His audience also sends his book to their own friends because they think it’s going to be hilarious and entertaining for them. During Christmas time, he also sees his book sales spike dramatically. And he attributes it to people buying the book as a stocking stuffer.

All these aren’t part of a strategy. He literally started doing — and he’s still doing — wine content creation for fun. The fact that people respond to it is just awesome.

The Moral of the Story

There are entrepreneurs whose goal is to make a billion dollars. 

To reach that goal, they need to think about a market niche that they can get into and where they can build a product to fill that niche. Some of them end up making an algorithm that can, for instance, connect printers wirelessly to phones. When they sell it to a company like Google, they make a billion dollars. Nobody in the history of everybody wakes up in the morning already passionate about printing algorithms or whatever.

However, Michael shared that life’s success shouldn’t be measured by that. Coming from the Bhutan mindset, you should measure your life by how happy you are.

Image from Unsplash

For him, the way he achieves happiness is to do epic things with cool people. So he just focuses on doing that, and if the money comes, then it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Ever since he adopted that mindset, all of his businesses have exploded.

Getting into Bhutan

During the podcast, he recounted how his girlfriend read a book in high school about a woman who moved to Bhutan and married a Bhutanese person. He and his girlfriend have been together for almost 16 years and she’s been talking about it all the time.

An opportunity came up to run a marathon in the country (they’ve been running marathons across the world). So he signed up, thinking back then that Bhutan was in Indonesia. When he heard that her girlfriend was excited to go, he got it for her as a present. This is how they ended up in Bhutan for the first time.

When he was there, he thought how amazing the place was — and how they should have a wine industry there. So he dealt with it.

Taking a Different Perspective

There’s a fundamental difference between writing things that other people want to read and writing things that you want to tell them.

In PR, clients often want to tell people what they offer so that they’d buy it. On the contrary, what clients need to do is ask their audience about what they’re interested in and then share that with them. 

Michael seems to have cracked that code.

When he was first studying wine, he shared that the books that he bought were all very dry and boring. And what he wanted was a story that could capture his attention and teach him about wine but not written in a dry way. However, that book didn’t exist. So he wrote one.

He wrote a fictional novel about a secret underground world of high-stakes gambling and wine tasting competition run by the mafia. It’s the kind of story that he wanted to read, but it doesn’t exist. So he wrote it just for fun, and the book had great success, with the audience asking him to write another one.

He wrote a couple more books containing stories that he wanted to read but didn’t exist. Then it sort of led to his friends asking for some wine recommendations. This led to the blog, which led to the book, “Drinking and Knowing Things.”

Michael has this theory that the universe is like whitewater rapids. It’s going to take you somewhere, but the question is: How fast can you get there with as little bruising as possible?

If you’re in the whitewater rapids, when you just follow the flow, steer and nudge a little bit, you can get to the bottom fast. But if you paddle and try to go sideways, you get banged up and get exhausted because you’re fighting the flow.

Ten years ago, this is exactly what he did: He just went with the flow. Every book that he wrote was sort of built on the last one. 

To get hold of Michael, you can check out his businesses’ websites and Instagram accounts:

 www.bhutanwine.com or @bhutanwine; www.socalrum.com or @socalrum; and www.drinkingandknowingthings.com or @drinkingandknowing.

This article is based on a transcript from my podcast The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, you can listen here.


Cover image by Kym Ellis on Unsplash.