Five Questions with Jim "Bear" Dyke

Bear walks us through his fascinating career journey, tells us how his business dealt with the pandemic shutdown, offers tips on selecting the perfect wine and relates a timely leadership lesson.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas in 1992, Jim “Bear” Dyke’s first job in Washington was parking cars at the U.S. Senate.  He spent time as the Washington representative for the Beer Institute and worked on campaigns, including Dole For President in 1996.  After a stint at Quinn Gillespie & Associates, he was named press secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce under Sec. Don Evans.  He served as RNC press secretary and then communications director from 2002-05, playing a key role in President Bush’s re-election.  Since 2009, Bear has been the proprietor of Mira Winery in Napa Valley.  His journey from politics to grapes was launched by a chance meeting at the Off the Record bar at the Hay-Adams hotel – where else?  In this month’s “Five Questions With…” Bear walks us through his fascinating career journey, tells us how his business dealt with the pandemic shutdown, offers tips on selecting the perfect wine and relates a timely leadership lesson.

Q:  How did you end up running a winery in Napa Valley? 

After the 2004 election, my wife Dawn and I decided to move to Charleston, S.C. for a change of pace and a more balanced work-family life. I started a public affairs firm, Jim Dyke & Associates, which eventually became Washington, D.C.- based JDA Frontline (but that’s another story).

In March of 2005, after a long day, on my first trip back to Washington in search of clients for the newly formed JDA, I thought a refreshing beverage at the Off The Record bar at the Hay Adams hotel seemed appropriate. As I surveyed the bar looking for the right spot, I noticed an open seat next to a gentleman showing the bartender his credit card and talking about the golden ratio. I sat, introduced myself by reciting my resume, and asked him what he did. He said he was a winemaker at Robert Mondavi. I told him to forget all that stupid stuff I had just told him and tell me about the wine business. How do you have the best winery in the world? How do you have the best wine? It’s so subjective. The Europeans have hundreds of years of head start on the Napa Valley.

The winemaker was Gustavo Gonzalez. He spent 17 years at Robert Mondavi and was head red wine maker. He has worked with over 3,000 acres in the Napa Valley, including all sub-American Viticulture Areas (AVA). If that wasn’t enough, he has made wine in five different countries, including a 100-point rated Italian wine. That late afternoon turned into evening and we talked about the Napa Valley  – and the unique Mediterranean climate that produces such exceptional grapes – over some beers, some wine and some cognac. We talked about what a successful winery would be – exceptional wines presented with humility. It would be all about the wine. By the end of the evening starting our own winery seemed like a no brainer.

The following day I called home to tell my wife, Dawn about my evening and this interesting man. After a detailed summation she responded with a simple word. NO. I told her that I wasn’t an idiot, I wasn’t getting in the wine business, but I did think Gustavo and I would be friends.

We became very good friends and the idea of having our own wine was a bit of a running joke until he called me in 2009 and said that one of the great grape growers of the Napa Valley was looking for a home for his Syrah. Make a little wine? What could go wrong? I told Gustavo that I didn’t want to work with a consulting winemaker and that if I was going to do it he would need to leave Mondavi and be a real partner. He said he would leave Mondavi if I would get out of politics. The deal was done and our adventure begun.

Syrah was not the ideal varietal to start a wine brand with given the Napa Valley is known for its Cabernets, but we never viewed our ideas as traditional and the relationship with an exceptional grower would allow us to build a broad portfolio of wines from the best blocks within acclaimed vineyards.

In 2016, a little deeper than making a “little bit” of wine, I purchased 16 acres just south of the town of Yountville in the heart of the Napa Valley. The property was originally planted to vines in the late 1890s but not continuously over the years. The vines weren’t exactly what we wanted so we ripped them out, brought in 15,000 cubic yards of dirt to make a mound and put in the infrastructure for a small city. We replanted with six different varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris. We designed the winery and hospitality house around the golden ratio, which technically makes us “perfect” (look it up).  We opened in September of 2019.

We now can connect wine lovers (and drinkers) with our wine and our story at our own place and make wine that is always closer to our hands and our heart.

Q:  “Miracles happen every day” seems to be a theme at Mira.  What is that all about?

The simple answer is “Mira” is the Latin root of miracle. Einstein said, there are two types of people in life. Those who don’t believe in miracles and those who believe everything is a miracle. We are the everything is a miracle kind of guys – from the way the seasons produce the grapes each year, turning grapes into wine, the big one – water to wine, and over the last few months just to make it through a day. Miracles are everywhere, every day, in various shapes and sizes. Sometimes you have to really be paying attention. Sometimes you don’t realize it at the time (like the first time I met Dawn) but they are there.

Q:  How has COVID-19 affected your business, what have you done to adapt, and how have consumers’ wine consumption habits changed this year?

Like most other businesses, COVID-19 has been a disaster to the bottom line. Having guests visit our winery is an important part of our ability to be successful and we were closed for three months and have only been able to do outdoor tastings since June.

Shortly after the scope of COVID-19 on the community became clear, we launched the SIP program where we sold wine and donated the proceeds to local restaurant employees. We ended up providing $150,000 worth of support.

We gave our customers access to wines from our library and started doing virtual tastings. We took the time to reorganize, improve our use of data and find new ways to connect with the Mira family. The stuff that isn’t so sexy but will help us be better at what we do long after COVID-19 is gone.

Ninety percent of wine sales prior to COVID-19 were for bottles $20 or less. It’s naturally the category that saw the most growth during the lockdown when people were drinking more wine. The major, I believe lasting, impact for us is more broad acceptance of direct-to-consumer purchases, which is when the consumer buys the wine directly from the winery rather than from a retailer or grocery store. 

Q:  Can you pass along any tips for your fellow BCAers about selecting and serving the perfect wine?

I am a bit of a contrarian. I usually come home and decide on the wine I want to drink regardless of what we are eating, but here are some general thoughts about wine:

The questions I most often get during tastings at the winery are – do I taste fruit? Maybe cherry? A hint of tobacco? Pepper? We have created an absurd barrier to entry in the luxury wine tier that makes people think there is a right answer to how you taste wine. It intimidates people and makes them abandon common sense. There is not a wrong way. It can be a fun game to play – what do I taste but everyone tastes differently and everyone should have the confidence that they are tasting whatever they think they are tasting. The most important question for me is – do you like the wine?

I look for interesting wines in the sense that they continue to evolve as I am drinking them. The first sip is a little different than the last. The next glass is a little different than the prior. The next bottle and so on. These are the types of wines we try to create and more often than not they are going to come from smaller producers who have the luxury of managing fermentation naturally in response to the grapes we harvested that year without relying on additives. Larger producers are typically forced into a more formulaic process due to the sheer volume of the product.

There are a number of great apps like Vivino that provide user reviews which can be useful tools for exploring a wine.

Q:  Can you share a leadership lesson you learned from your time in the Administration that continues to serve you well along with a favorite story or moment?

Don Evans, Gov. Marc Racicot and Ed Gillespie all taught me, by example, to be calm amid chaos. Emotional reactions to situations are a distraction from your ability to actually understand the issue and then address it appropriately. Ed taught me how to be more strategic, a better writer and to always have a plan. I was blessed to work with many great people which makes a difference when you are trying to get something done. The lessons – people matter, stay calm and have a plan have all served me well in business and in life.

On 9/11 I was meeting with Darren Grubb and Don Trigg in my office at the Commerce Department with the Today show on behind them. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, the meeting ended and a series of events took place which are a bit of a blur. Later that afternoon after the Commerce Department building had emptied I found myself in Secretary Evans office with Mike Meece. We were looking at the smoke coming from the Pentagon and talking about what was going on at the White House and the Capitol and the rumors about what was happening. After what seemed like a lengthy conversation, I mentioned that the Commerce Department was across the street from the White House and not that far from the Capitol or Pentagon as the plane flies. Mike casually mentioned that it was probably a stupid place for us to be and we left.

Bonus Question:  How did you pick up your nickname?

I am the third of four boys. My mom wanted, hoped, maybe prayed that I would be a girl. Back in those days the spouse was not allowed into the room during the birth. They would telephone out after the birth to tell those in the waiting area whether it was a girl or a boy. A friend of my parents gave them a book, Emily and The Little Bear which I would later plagiarize for a fourth grade writing contest (but that’s a different story). They had decided that if I was a girl I would be named Emily. The plan was when it came time to call out – just say its Emily or the little bear. They called out and said, “it’s the little bear” at which point my proper southern grandmother said you call that boy by his given name on his birth certificate or you will ruin his life. It wasn’t until a fifth grade school roll call that I knew my actual name wasn’t Bear. I now have a daughter named Emily so things seem to have worked out OK.