Burning Hawk Wines: A Cause That Inspired a Brand



Photo credit: Nick Dunlop
With cause marketing becoming an increasingly hot topic, many companies are “cause washing” their brands, similar to that of greenwashing, in an attempt to create the perception of social consciousness without an authentic connection to the cause. Other companies use charitable donations as a promotion to increase sales with only a very small percentage of the purchase actually benefitting the cause. And in both scenarios, there is little to no impact to the cause, and more often than not, any positive contributions are counteracted by unethical business practices or negative environmental effects, putting the net social good of those efforts in the red.
But there are organizations who are deeply committed to the cause they support, where every facet of their business is aimed at alleviating the problem, and through which the cause itself becomes the very manifestation of their brand. Burning Hawk Wines is the epitome of that concept, whose story is even more powerful than the significant change they are creating, and whose vision for a world that respects — and protects — its wildlife is their sole purpose.
Moved by the incident upon which the winery was built, I reached out to founder, Nick Papadopoulos, to recount his experience, and share the many ways in which he is striving to protect hawks from the same fate that sparked the brand.

The story behind Burning Hawk Wines is very powerful. Can you share with our readers the background of why you decided to launch this philanthropic wine brand?
Prior to launching Burning Hawk Wines, my professional experience was as a mediator, facilitator, and business management consultant. Over the last decade, I have been fortunate to work on numerous projects with many exceptional leaders in many domains – from water policy and agricultural sustainability to telecommunications and the oil business.
In each of these sectors, the problems faced often have many facets and impacts. To understand and develop lasting solutions, I have learned that it is important to bring stakeholders and functions together in order to consider and tackle these problems from multiple viewpoints.
So this is the mindset I was carrying with me on May 29th, 2008, when an online article “Burning Hawk Starts Vineyard Fire” appeared on my computer screen. This was a very short story about a hawk that was electrocuted in the powerlines in Sonoma County. This hawk caught on fire and fell to the ground igniting a small fire in a grape vineyard.
This article caught my attention so I read further, noticing that most people commenting online were cracking jokes and mostly making light of the situation. Granted it was an unusual story, but after looking into the issue I saw that the issue of birds getting killed or injured by powerline collisions or electrocutions is nothing to laugh about. The problem is massive and it impacts everyone, bird lover or not.
Wildlife impact: Millions of birds a year are killed around the world through powerline collision or electrocution.
Energy impact: This issue is one of the major factors leading to power outages and energy system inefficiency.
Financial impact: The loss of electricity, power outages and wildfires costs millions, which impacts utilities and ultimately ratepayers.
Human Impact: Local bird rescue organizations and volunteers are on the frontlines of this issue and experiencing injured or killed birds has an emotional impact.
When there is an issue that impacts multiple stakeholders, there is potential to bring people together to work across their differences, combine talents and do something remarkable. Additionally, when there is an interesting incident or story such as “Burning Hawk” to grab people’s attention, there is potential to attract people and pull them into a deeper understanding of the issue or problem. Capturing attention is where the motivation to get involved starts.
Since this issue of the Burning Hawk happened in a vineyard, the first obvious idea that came to mind was to start a philanthropic wine brand that would bring people together to enjoy a fine wine, and in the process, raise awareness and funds to help address this issue. I emailed the idea to a few people and they said “go for it.” Then I shared the idea and a mocked-up label, and within days, had gathered multiple orders.
I then called or emailed dozens of people exploring the issue further and openly sharing the idea. Some no doubt thought we were crazy. But mostly, the leaders, scientists, conservation organizations, and others who knew about the issue, were very supportive and urged us to move forward. This groundswell of support was a real confidence booster and the mentorship and suggestions people provided were tremendously helpful.
It is important to note that I had no formal background as a cause marketer or as a fine wine entrepreneur. To me, this project was more than cause marketing to sell wine; it was to create a problem solving organization by leveraging the world of wine and cause marketing. We were looking to developing a private sector organization from scratch that would make a positive difference by leveraging something that plays a fundamental role in people’s daily lifecycle – the enjoyment of outstanding Napa Valley and Sonoma County wines paired with the knowledge that a crucial difference was being made.
Within days, dozens of people and organizations began to provide advice and pitch in. These range from seasoned business executives and filmmakers to energy utilities, bird watchers, and conservationists. And we were working tremendously hard to demonstrate credibility and instill confidence that we were serious about creating a wine brand to address this problem. Trust building in the first few days was critical to gaining buy-in and excitement.
What really made it happen though was when the team at Windsor Vineyards & Girard Winery (now part of the Vintage Wine Estates family of wineries) listened to my philanthropic pitch, and without wavering, offered to help us create Burning Hawk Wines. From the CEO down, this team jumped in to help. Note: In less than a week from the original article we had a concept bottle mocked up, the support of a reputable wine company, and consumers on board.


Thus Burning Hawk Wines and the parent organization, Resolution Wines, was born. “Resolving to Make a Difference Through Fine Wine Partnerships” was our original motto. Within 9 weeks, this wine brand took flight into the marketplace to raise awareness and funds for groups that are working to save or rehabilitate raptors, birds of prey, and other species of birds.
At this juncture, I need to mention that a few weeks into the project I accepted an offer to work full time for this family of wineries, which as I mentioned is now called Vintage Wine Estates. My responsibilities would to help move the organization forward in three primary areas:
Resolution Wines: develop and grow Burning Hawk Wines and other wine brands dedicated to important causes. There is a real market to serve the many causes in the world who need to sustain awareness and funds for their work. Why not use wine as one of the fundraising and awareness building vehicles?
Sustainability: Develop and manage the winery’s sustainability program, and
StoneFly Vineyards: Direct StoneFly Vineyards, which is devoted to serving the community of fly fishers and their causes.
As you can read this journey has been multifaceted, to say the least. So having the opportunity to share it with the readers of Triple Pundit is much appreciated.
How have you changed your business practices and manufacturing processes as a result?
From scratch, the Burning Hawk Philanthropic wine project was committed to implementing the basics of good business practices, incorporating the principles of sustainability, collaborative problem solving, alternative dispute resolution, and cause marketing.
Here are a few highlights:
Once the project began to take flight, we personally interviewed each primary member of the supply chain, from vineyard manger to winemaker and CEO, to understand their practices and commitments in terms of the 3 E’s of sustainability (Environmental Stewardship, Social Equity and Economic Viability). It was fundamentally important that not only we make a difference “Out There” in the world but also “In Here” within our own team’s practices and processes.
The Burning Hawk Wines team co-founded the Green My Vino Facebook application with Village Green Energy.
The resulting “Green My Vino Facebook Application” became the first wine brand in history to be launched on Facebook (August 13th) and:
+ Helped stimulate a massive number of Facebook members to get involved in greening California wineries from a renewable energy perspective
+ Purchased enough certified green and renewable energy to be carbon neutral for a year at our Carneros winemaking facility
+ Sparked a movement on Facebook, leading to thousands of dollars of investment in green energy by progressive wineries
Since launch, our Carneros winemaking facility has enrolled in the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program and has gone through the first round sustainability assessment of the SWP program.
We have conducted water and energy audits and have begun implementing efficiency measures in these areas to take what is already an advanced facility (from a resource conservation standpoint) and make it even better.
In November 2008, after noticing bits of fully recyclable wine labels in the trash, within 2 days we launched a bilingual recycling program to reduce our garbage bill, reduce waste going to the landfill, and increase the recycling and reuse of paper.
We have started a pilot project to see if we can’t eliminate or dramatically reduce plastic (shrink wrap) from the wine business. Just last week, we conducted back of napkin calculation estimating are that there is enough plastic shrink wrap used in the California wine sector to wrap the earth 5 times at the equator.
We are researching the applicability of Combined Heat and Power Applications (CHP), Solar, and other renewable energy production methods for our facilities.
We have sparked a new level of awareness amongst our team of employees and vendors. Each day I have no doubt that all team members are thinking more critically about sustainability related issues as they go about their business to craft, market and sell ultra-premium wines.

What has the response been to this incredible story from wildlife activists, winemakers, and consumers?
Up until launch (9 weeks from conceiving the idea), over 100 people and 15 organizations “pitched in” in ways large and small to help this vision take flight.
Since launch, dozens of other individuals and organizations have done something to help. A pinnacle event was being invited by Jan Wyrick and Liz Gordon of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival to be the event’s “Official Winery.” These people found us via word of mouth and provided us with national exposure and a platform for sharing our vision, our wines and our materials with hundreds of people.
Since launching in early August 2008 we have a few hundred “Causetomers” enjoying our wine in 22 states.
Response from individual wildlife activists and small to medium sized conservation organizations has been tremendous. However, some of the larger wildlife and bird conservation organizations have been a bit slow to get involved, which is attributed to a few reasons:
+ They have policies prohibiting collaboration with alcoholic beverage companies. We respect and honor these policies.
+ They have other massive and important efforts they are focusing on in this resource-constrained economy
+ Before jumping onboard to help, these organizations, understandably, want to see us demonstrate results first and also, interestingly, want to hear from the professional wine judges that our wine is outstanding and not junk wine. (Cause or no-cause, wine quality is essential.)
+ Large organizations are usually more sluggish and bureaucratic when it comes to speed-to-market, nimbleness and radical action.
What impact have you been able to make through this effort?
We have a long way to go to fulfill the purpose on our wine label: “A Philanthropic wine brand dedicated to saving millions of birds from the same peril.” However, in less than 7 months since launch, we have also made good progress and started to deliver results.
Here is a list of what we see as our impacts and accomplishments:
+ Speed to Market, Speed to Philanthropy: Many innovative projects never come to market. And when they do, it takes years. We have demonstrated to thousands of people that speed-to-market (or speed to philanthropy) can happen with a high degree of quality, and at the same time, at light speed. Today’s issues and problems require quality and speed.
+ Helped Popularize a Highly Technical Issue: We have introduced and helped to further popularize the technically wonky issue of “Avian Powerline Interaction” amongst thousands of birders, conservationists, and wine lovers who did not previously know this was an issue.
+ Wines Enjoyed by Hundreds: Hundreds of committed “Causetomers” and their guests have enjoyed our world-class Napa Valley Bordeaux Blend and Alexander Valley Chardonnay. These people are enjoying Burning Hawk wines, and at the same time, helping to spread awareness and make a difference.
+ Raptor Research Foundation and Raptors of the Rockies: We helped raise over $600 for the Raptor Research Foundation and Raptors of the Rockies late last year.
+ Mongolian Saker Falcon Project: As mentioned earlier we are currently devoting expertise and resources to help establish the Mongolian Saker Falcon Project as a legal non-profit entity. All the while, we have developed a pool of funds from the purchases of Burning Hawk wine to fund the project once the next phase of work is approved and begins in Mongolia.
+ Rocky Mountain Raptor Program: This coming month we are devoting our entire philanthropic effort to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, which will raise hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for this important organization. There will be live auction of our inaugural vintages of wine, where 10% of total net revenue for the month will be devoted to the RMRP.
Do you communicate the results to your customers?
Yes, it is vital to create a continual loop feedback and communication to causetomers, colleagues and stakeholders. This is the only way people know that their cause-investment is making a cause-impact and demonstrate that you fulfilling your promises. In addition, transparency leads to trust, and if you communicate transparently for a long enough period of time, you will earn trust, credibility and more causetomers. Then you are on your way to having a sustainable initiative that truly makes a difference.
We also involve our causetomers and stakeholders in key decisions. At key turning points or challenging decisions, we have polled our causetomers and partners for advice and suggestions.
Did you have a philanthropic focus before you started Burning Hawk?
Honestly, my wife Jess and I have always thought that “Philanthropist” was something that happens once one is lucky enough to retire at an older age with a big bank account. I never thought that one could get into philanthropy at a young age with a much smaller bank account Now we see Philanthropy as something that can be built into every business to deliver multiple streams of benefit.
You started Resolution Wines to connect fine wine with causes. What other wineries have gotten on board with this initiative? What partnerships and causes have you helped form as a result?
We have been able to contribute to, launch or help lead three other cause-related wines that fit within the Resolution Wines mission:
Fire Station Red: One of the resolution wines in our family is Fire Station Red, founded in 2001 by vintner and fire fighter John Drady. This is one of the original cause-wines and we are fortunate enough to be supported by the same company and leadership (Vintage Wine Estates). Fire Station Red has provided thousands of dollars of donations to fire services and burn treatment organizations around the US. John and I have been working closely together to share experiences and practices to evolve each brand.
ALS Never Give Up: We have worked with the Bay Area ALS Association to develop a “Never Give Up” label of wines to support the fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease. This is in the early stages of marketing but has raised hundreds of dollars to-date to help ALS.
StoneFly Vineyards: I have also been hired to lead StoneFly Vineyards, which is a cause-related winery dedicated to serving the fly fishing and angling community. We have recently become the official winery of the Federation of Fly Fishers and are devoting resources to aid their cause. Moving forward, we will be announcing other philanthropic and cause-oriented initiatives and partnerships.
What is the greatest lesson this experience has taught you?
There is no one great lesson, but rather many lessons that have come together. Here are a few that come to mind:
Trust your ideas and make the choice to act on them: If you have an idea, believe in yourself enough to atleast do one thing to bring that idea into reality and then share that idea with someone.
Transparency and Full Disclosure: Business leaders are trained in an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) culture. At times, this can be a powerful way to protect innovations and ideas. But until this project, I never fully realized the power of full disclosure and transparency. This is a key element of innovation and developing sufficient levels of trust needed to address some of the more complex issues facing our world. I’d like to see more FDA’s (Full Disclosure Agreements).
Seek & Ask for Mentorship and Advice: Too often we let key decisions and questions stay isolated between our ears. It’s important to actively seek out mentorship and advice. People love to help and we can’t solve the world’s problems alone.
Role of Mistakes & Adapting on the Fly: Recognize the powerful role that small mistakes play in new product or organizational development. Don’t let the fear of making mistakes hold you back from moving and taking action. Go for it and make corrections as you go.
Understand and Involve Key Stakeholders: In the field of conflict resolution and collaborative problem solving, we are taught to conduct a full assessment of stakeholders to make sure all the right parties and perspectives are involved. This project has reinforced the power of looking at the big picture context to see what elements, fields of expertise, and functions need to come together.
How do you see this type of deep connection to a cause influencing other industries?
We want to demonstrate what one idea, a great team, and a ton of passion can do to make a difference. Hopefully, we are another example that organizations and groups can look and derive positive influence from. We are increasingly learning, from such cause marketing organizations such as Cone, as well as our own direct experience, that consumers for the most part, are more attracted to businesses that demonstrate a genuine commitment to making a difference while doing business.
Apart from the incident that precipitated the creation of Burning Hawk, why do you think it’s important for companies to have a philanthropic element to their business?
The private sector needs to continue to accelerate involvement in addressing and solving the myriad of problems we face in the world. Philanthropic giving and service is one of the key bridges that can bring stakeholders from many sectors together to make something meaningful, valuable and profitable happen. Having a philanthropic element or mission can also catalyze people (employees, vendors, partners) to a higher level of performance because they actually care at a deep level about what they are doing and why they are doing it.
What do you think is the most critical aspect of developing — and sustaining — a cause-related strategy?
Business Basics Done Well: Cause or no cause, you still need to incorporate sound business practices including financial acumen, understanding marketplace and price positioning, creating your value proposition and make sure your product (in our case ultra-premium wine) stands out as extremely high quality.
Developing A Bird’s Eye View: Step back frequently to look at the whole system, see the big picture and see the dots that need to be connected. This mindset is not very common.
Care & Empathize: In other words, try to give a damn and incorporate empathy into your daily work and business. Make it personal!
Multidisciplinary or Cross Functional Dialogue: Learn some of the basics of facilitation and how to hold meaningful dialogue that keeps your team or stakeholders singing to the same hymn sheet and combining their expertise synergistically toward a common goal.
Aside from marketing and sales activities, where do you think companies should be focusing when it comes to social responsibility and philanthropy?
Every function or element of the supply chain needs to be involved in identifying issues that are critical to the company’s strategy or that are personally impacting employees or the surrounding community. From there, it is important to involve each function in the process of innovation, strategic planning and implementation. Then an organization can become more than a cause marketer, but also become a cause-driven organization at its core.
What do you think is the key attribute of companies like yours who are making a profit and making a difference?
In general, these companies have the ability to remove their blinders of conditioning and assumptions and look for areas of need and niches for being of service. When you see an area of need there is the opportunity to invest in creating value, and the potential to achieve a return on your human, social, and natural capital investment. These companies are also redefining and expanding the definition of “profitability” to include creating social, environmental and economic value.
Creating Cause Connections

Burning Hawk Wines demonstrates the tremendous impact that can be made when a brand is deeply connected to a cause. They also prove that you can have an authentic tie to that cause, even if the experience didn’t happen to you directly. While Nick did not witness the incident firsthand, he made it personal, and decided to champion it. And in doing so, built a brand that exemplifies change in everything they do — from their internal structuring and communications to their business practices to their product development and manufacturing processes. Marketing and sales are only the outward extension of forwarding those efforts, not the impetus behind them. And I believe that’s the critical distinction. If you re-read Nick’s interview, the sustainable and environmental activities that fuel the business itself are the key contributors of the change they’ve been able to affect, and the grassroots cultivation of community has been more effective in advancing their cause than a glitzy marketing campaign ever could. At the end of the day, there is no better advertisement than authenticity, and Burning Hawk Wines is a shining representation of that. Marketing becomes merely the megaphone for spreading the word.

Gennefer Gross is a writer, producer and co-founder of Gross Factor Productions, an independent film and television company focused on scripted comedy. An avid writer, author and idea cultivator, Gennefer thrives on creativity and contributes regularly to Triple Pundit on a variety of sustainable business topics. She also pens the popular series Hollywood & Green, exploring socially responsible cinema that helps connect consumers with important causes and environmental issues. And somehow she finds the time to write for her own blog, Tasty Beautiful, covering food and fashion in and around Los Angeles. Gennefer will also be launching Philanthrofoodie(TM), a charitable venture designed to spark social change through shared food experiences. An eternal student of life with an eclectic background, Gennefer brings unique insights on everything from breakthroughs in renewable energy to the latest dish in celebrity consciousness.

2 responses

  1. “Now we see Philanthropy as something that can be built into every business to deliver multiple streams of benefit.”
    What a wonderful realization. This a great story. It should inspire many other startups to not only succeed but do it for what they believe will change their world. I love hearing reports like this!

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