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E-commerce sites lift Napa Valley’s independent winemakers

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In a valley with more than 500 wineries and countless others across the country and globe, it is getting harder and harder for independent winemakers to stand out and get their bottles on the shelves. And with the closures of tasting rooms during COVID-19 shutdowns — where many wine enthusiasts get to try new and unfamiliar wines — the game got even more difficult to break into.

Luckily, some tech nerds with a passion for wine have stepped up, creating e-commerce platforms solely promoting the work of independent, small-scale winemakers.

“When the pandemic first hit, we had this huge rush of either wineries that were [already] in distribution and knew that the pandemic would maybe be a good thing for them because people were buying more wine, and then you had the majority of wineries who didn’t,” said Rachel Woods, co-founder of e-commerce site, Vinebase.

“They didn’t have that access or the audience,” she said. “I remember distinctly waking up on a Monday morning, and wineries that I had built relationships with had that moment of panic, ‘Oh my gosh, I was trying to sell my wine to tasting rooms and now tasting rooms are closed.’”

Woods then called up some of her other colleagues in the wine and tech spaces, and they put their brains together to come up with a way to encourage wine-lovers to buy directly from independent wineries despite these in-person closures. The result was Vinebase’s precursor, supportourwineries.com, where small-scale wineries could sell their product online using Woods’ and her coworkers’ software.

“It ended up blowing up in a way that was really exciting but also really eye-opening,” she said. “We had over 250 wineries to go and submit information to be part of this campaign in a matter of weeks.”

“That triggered this huge research endeavor, and I came to the realization that we could solve it … We could bring all of these independent wineries together on one site, and we could build a marketplace that can help consumers go discover those wineries.”

Nowadays Vinebase sells wine from hundreds more producers, including Napa Valley wineries like Merisi Wines, Resolution Wines, Lost Toy Cellars and Peter Paul Wines. Since you would normally have to visit independent winemakers’ websites one-by-one to buy their product, aggregating all of this information was integral to the Vinebase operation.

In order to achieve this without generalizing or editorializing, Woods says that all of the content on Vinebase is created (and owned) by the wineries, including self-identifying tags like “women-led,” “minority-led,” “family-owned,” “vegan-friendly,” and more that customers can then use as filters on the site. On the other hand, using a back-end login portal, winemakers are then able to control everything.

“It really is their page, their shop, their experience,” said Woods. “In fact, like 80 percent of the code is built on that side of the site.”

Woods says that most of the winemakers on Vinebase manage their brands as a side hustle, but many hope to one day be able to work full-time for themselves. However, getting wines on shelves is a challenge for wineries with a team working together, let alone independent winemakers, creating yet another barrier for these small-scale producers.

“What we have realized is that to get there, you really have to have that marketing team that is going to help build that brand awareness, and when you’re selling online, you also need that IT team to go and build a great website and have an e-commerce store, not to mention you also need a compliance team,” said Woods. “There are so many things you need when you're an independent winemaker who is in that startup phase … Vinebase is kind of like that marketing team in a box.”

Vinebase also has a partnership with FedEx and Walgreens so folks can pick up their wine deliveries rather than having it sent to their homes, and only charges $2.95 per transaction on their end to ensure that winemakers get a fair cut.

“We want to succeed when wineries really succeed, and for us, that’s being able to power that shift to where buying directly from wineries is the norm,” said Woods. “We’ve taken a stance with our software to be that partner for the winery, and to really be there in the trenches with them, helping them grow.”

Another e-commerce site promoting independent winemakers is Naked Wines, which funds independent winemakers through upfront payments from its member base, which the company calls “Angels.”

“Our customers put in $40 a month as Angels to invest in their own wine accounts, so it’s not towards a particular case or purchase or bottles, it’s just to go into their account and they can spend that on any wine they want,” said Christy Bors, head of the Naked brand here in the U.S. “As soon as they deposit that, we use it as our funding to pay our winemakers and to have them sign up for a contract.”

Essentially, the Naked Wine winemakers are then given a salary and an already agreed-upon rate to buy their fruit and the costs associated with production, allowing them to dive right into the winemaking process once their project gets approved.

Naked Wines sells wine from a slew of Napa Valley producers, including Macario Montoya of Sin Fronteras, who was actually one of the site’s first winemakers. By managing supply chain hiccups and other outside-the-winery tasks for Montoya and their other independent winemakers, Naked partners are able to focus on the actual winemaking and experimentation, which Montoya says is greatly appreciated.

Similarly, the “Angel” membership structure in itself is conducive to trying new things, as Bors says direct feedback and customer polls help guide different projects and what types of wines they feature on the site.

“We really like to interact with our Angel base and ask them what they’d like to see next,” said Bors. “And if a winemaker has a particular idea like if Macario wanted to go to Spain, we would put that to a vote for our customers and say, ‘He wants to make a Tempranillo, would you back that yes or no?’”

“We always want to make sure our customer feels as connected to the wine as the winemaker, and that is a fun challenge for us as marketers,” she said.

Naked Wines also recently launched a fundraising initiative for a new mentorship program, which will have Montoya as lead advisor. Specifically focused on elevating the careers of Latino winemakers, the program was over 70 percent funded at the time of this interview and the company hopes to be able to kickstart it by next harvest.

“Naked Wines, years ago, decided to invest in me as a winemaker and now I have the opportunity to take that love and pass it on to other winemakers,” said Montoya. “As a Mexican American winemaker, I want to give back to my community, because unfortunately, across pretty much any sort of agricultural food industry, the fact of the matter is that the Latino community makes up a major part of the workforce, specifically here in California with grapes.”

“And yet, within the production, you see them at the sort of lower levels — the cellar workers, the cellar masters — but when you go up the ladder to assistant winemaker or viticulturist, there’s very few,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s right.”

The proposed Walt Ranch vineyard project in Napa County remains a controversial issue and sparked a recent protest.

Sam Jones’ most memorable Napa Valley Register stories of 2021

Wine industry reporter Sam Jones breaks down her favorite stories from 2021.

You can reach Sam Jones at 707-256-2221 and sjones@napanews.com

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Napa Valley wine industry reporter

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