Ben Gould always had a choice.
He may believe that circumstances forced his hand. And he may have had a little luck with forward-thinking mentors and fortuitous life experiences.
But the temptation to follow the status quo was still there. He just made a choice to act differently.
Gould grew up in Western Australia. As a young adult, he worked for his father, a winemaker. He enjoyed the experience. But his dad sold their vineyard before Gould could pick a profession for himself.
Ultimately, Gould decided to stay in the family business. To afford his own land in Margaret River, though, Gould and his wife, Naomi, first needed to sell their house.
This messy reality also impacted their initial winemaking process. “The cash flow wasn’t there to support a major operation from the get-go, and so practicality and pragmatism dictated the tempo.” As Gould recalls, “We couldn’t afford any of the yeasts, acids, or tannins” that most large winemakers use to create a consistent product.
Gould clearly launched his business under several constraints. Still, he could have aspired to become more sophisticated. He could have planned to incorporate new technology into the winery. He could have focused on introducing recent scientific innovations into his work.
But he intentionally made a different choice. He embraced his limits. And in doing so, he opted for an uncommon approach to winemaking. He committed to emphasizing simplicity over complexity.
And this choice became a major reason why Ben Gould is now an award-winning winemaker.
Historically – dating back to about 5000 B.C. – winemakers have lacked much choice. By default, the simple approach was the conventional approach. Without industrial equipment or deep scientific knowledge, winemakers just sought to convert sugar into alcohol.
But this basic goal became more complicated over time.
During the mid-1900s, European research on fermentation and disease prevention flourished. Soon, across the Atlantic, laboratories in California began to pay attention. And at Cal–Davis, in particular, scientists quickly turned the new knowledge into stainless-steel tanks, pure yeast cultures, and numerous additives.
Alice Feiring describes the evolution in her book, Natural Wine for the People. These innovations now offered winemakers a “bag stuffed with tricks” for turning grapes into wine. “With around 72 permissible additives and a variety of machines available,” she writes, “the possibilities for what you can do to a wine are dizzying.”
But to what end? For these winemakers, “Consistency of the end product is essential. Every wine-making action is aimed to a particular result – often based on marketing research – with no wild cards in the flavor and aroma. Color, flavor, and texture are to be uncompromisingly stable.”
To most winemakers, this new goal represented progress. And today, the winemaking process that relies on these innovations is considered the standard. Complexity, in other words, has become a “conventional” attribute of making wine.
Yet, an increasing number of winemakers and consumers reject what this approach entails.
Conventional wines, they argue, have moved winemaking too far away from its simple, transparent, and natural origins. As evidence, they point to how conventional wine has become “notorious for hiding potentially dozens of additives.” Since there is no legal requirement to list ingredients on bottles, your glass of wine may include:
Given this hidden reality, has simplicity in wine actually become the sophisticated approach?
In our daily financial decisions, when does simplicity become more sophisticated, too?
Like winemakers, we have a choice to opt for simplicity over financial complexity. As young adults, we largely start out new to money. Like a broke Ben Gould operating a new vineyard. Our limitations and ignorance often are pretty apparent. And the stakes feel low. So we keep our financial decisions simple.
But far too often, we admire complexity, particularly new technology and popular trends. We aspire to take a conventional approach.
At some point, our personal finances no longer look very personal anymore. Instead, they’re mass produced. We come to rely on the same generalized advice as everyone else.
And as part of this process, we incorporate financial additives that we may not actually need. Sure, you could tax-loss harvest your investments. You could max out your Flexible Spending Account (FSA) each year. You could purchase whole life insurance for your family.
But to what end? Making your finances more complex does not mean you’re making financial progress. As with conventional wine, a complex financial life may not necessarily feel problematic. You may even enjoy the end results at various times.
But you risk moving too far away from simple, easy-to-understand, flexible, and decisive finances. You risk losing sight of the essential point: turning your income into savings and investments that make your life better.
The French term terroir describes “how a particular region’s climate, soils, and terrain affect the taste of wine.” Terroir accounts for much of what can make a wine unique.
What if we applied the concept of terroir to our money? We then would free our financial lives to become less conventional. We could use our money in unique, personal ways that support the life we want to live. The choice to ditch complexity would not mean sacrificing quality at all.
Today, Ben and Naomi Gould operate two vineyards that are certified as both organic and biodynamic. They make wines, under the label Blind Corner, that use minimal sulphur as the only additive. Their wines are a natural reflection of Margaret River’s unique climate, soils, and terrain.
What they are making goes against what Gould learned from his father’s wine consultants. It ignores much of what he learned in his university courses, when he earned a Bachelor of Applied Wine Science.
But he never set out to follow that path. Instead, he wanted to use the simplest criteria, not much different from the idea of just turning grapes into alcohol. For him, “It’s been a journey by a process of elimination.”
What if we embarked upon a similar journey with our finances? What if we embraced our financial limits – our limited time, our limited interest, and in some cases, our limited knowledge? Simplicity may be an uncommon goal with money. But we always have that choice.
And both the process and the results can be more rewarding than we ever anticipate.
Hi, I’m Kevin. I’m a financial advisor in Washington, DC. I’m also the founder of Illumint, an independent financial planning company in the District that specializes in financial planning for Millennials like you. I empower our generation with the confidence to invest an inheritance, financial gift, or extra savings. If you’re new to Financially Well, welcome – you now have access to the leading finance podcast for Millennials. I encourage you to read, watch, or listen to the ideas I’ve shared about making your money work for you. And then when you’re ready, please send me your thoughts & questions!
Financially Well Podcast
Like modern winemakers, we have a choice between simplicity and financial complexity. But far too often, we take the conventional approach.
With money, most of the time, a good-enough solution is fine.
As Taylor Swift learned, self-awareness teaches us that the safest thing we can do with our money may be what seems risky to outsiders