Vintage 'Undercover Boss' As Winemaker Bottles Up His Impulse To Fire

winemaking Undercover Boss Rick TignerWinemaking is one of those industries that seems to have irresistible appeal. Lush fields and fresh air make a vineyard seem like a much more humane place to spend a professional life than behind a desk. And that's mostly because they are. On top of all that, how can you forgo a life spent around fine wine and the cultural exposure that such an experience implies?

Of course, like any agricultural industry, winemaking can also be backbreaking work. Whether it's regulating crops or moving the countless barrels of merchandise, the day-to-day operations of a winery can be as monotonous or maddening as any task confronted by John Q. Cubicle.

So it wasn't all that shocking when a truck driver from Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, this week's featured company on CBS' "Undercover Boss," said it was quite possible to be "burned out" from the gig. But he didn't stop there. Indeed, Rene, the truck driver, displayed a cavalier and rebellious streak when describing his job to a man who called himself "Jake Williams." Williams had told Rene that he was a contestant on a reality television show and thinking about entering the wine business. So Rene, cursing with the frequency of a man drunk on the very wine he was delivering, described how deadlines were immaterial, given the loads for which he was responsible -- and that customer service is an afterthought.

"All that matters is that the truck is empty at the end of the day," he said, like a middle school student cheating on his homework.

Rene unknowingly picked the worst possible audience for such a disclosure. The premise of the highly popular "Undercover Boss" series, now in the third episode of its third season, is that it has a boss snoop on his or her operation. Rene wasn't unloading on "Jake Williams" but to Rick Tigner, the president of Kendall-Jackson. Tigner said that he almost fired Rene on a spot. But the executive, who oversees 1,000 employees doing half a billion dollars in business yearly, instead adopted a noticeably cool demeanor. Certainly, Tigner is used to confronting tough situations; his wife is currently battling Parkinson's Disease.

But Rene proved to be an exception and not the rule at Kendall-Jackson. "We're in the business of celebrating -- celebrating success, celebrating people's lives," Tigner said at the outset of the episode. And the other three employees who also helped train grocery worker "Jake Williams" live the credo. Laura works in crop estimation at a vineyard in Monterey, Calif., and manages to calculate the grape output of 3,000 acres of property with a staff that doesn't fully speak English. "Jake Williams" appeared shocked that the executives of Kendall-Jackson have no idea of the language situation.

At a bottling outfit in Santa Rosa, and at a wine-tasting bar in Healdsburg, both in California, the only one who seemed to be a drag on the operation is Tigner himself. "He doesn't have a clue," Marcos, an amiable 20-year veteran said of Tigner's performance on the bottling line. He was too slow and let bottles fall all over the place. And Tigner was a far cry from "Cheers' " Sam Malone while serving Chardonnays and Pinot Grigiots alongside bartender Savannah at a wine-tasting. Tigner said on camera that it had been some time since he engaged with customers, and he was nervous going in.

It was just this past May that Tigner ascended to the top post at Kendall-Jackson. After 20 years working in the sales division, he was groomed and tapped by company founder Jess Jackson.

Jackson, who died last year, stood in as a father figure for Tigner over the course of his life, the executive said. Tigner welled up on camera while comparing the fishing trips he took with Jackson to the experiences that he had with his own father, who had 10 DUIs over the course of his life.

So when Tigner says that he views Kendall-Jackson as family, it doesn't seem like a line. And it's in the spirit of family that he revealed himself to the company's four employees. Though few might accuse of Tigner being a heartless corporate man if he'd dismissed Rene, the truck driver, Tigner chose instead to try and rehabilitate him. Tigner let him know that he wanted him off the road for 30 days so that Rene could spend a month shadowing the company's office staff. And this after Rene opted not to apologize for his conduct, even after the CEO told him that he was less than pleased. "You see what you get," Rene said in explaining his attitude.

Tigner also seeks to help the other three workers. He gave $50,000 to launch a company-wide management training program that Laura, from the vineyard, will attend. He handed over another $10,000 to her to help with student loans. Tigner said that he wants to aid Marcos with the considerable daily commute that the bottler makes, so he gave him $5,000 for gasoline money. He also gave Marcos another $5,000, for equipment that the bottler needs to pursue his hobby as a disc jockey.

It's hard not to malign any corporate outfit that doesn't give benefits to an employee who works six days a week. But that was Savannah's situation at the wine bar. But in the reveal, Tigner acknowledged the problem and let Savannah know that she is now the beneficiary of medical benefits as a full-time employee. And with that comes a $5,000 raise.

But that's not all. Leaving the corner office and venturing onto the vineyard has motivated Tigner to vastly improve home life for all 1,000 of his employees. He announced an end to a policy of freezing 401(k) contributions after the recession, which he chalked up to his meeting Savannah (though surely he must have known that this was an unpopular policy before then.) And the man who found a father figure at Kendall-Jackson also revealed plans to help the members of the Kendall-Jackson family better understand each other. Literally, that is, by putting up $50,000 for bilingual language training. He will be one of the students learning Spanish.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that the $50,000 for the management training program was just for Laura's participation.

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