When winemakers Corrine Rich and Katie Rouse launched Birdhorse Wines in 2018, their biggest challenge was figuring out how to push their brand’s visibility to an audience beyond friends and family.
It’s a no-brainer when many winemakers set out to build their own wine brand, often a passion project they nurtured on the side while learning the trade at established wineries.
Rich and Rouse found support in Ownroot Collective, a Napa-based company founded by wine industry entrepreneur Terra Jane Albee that works with small wineries to get bottles in front of customers.
“Ownroot is a megaphone for small wineries,” Rich said. “Working with Terra Jane has been amazing. He introduced us and connected us with customers who believe in his mission and trust his wine recommendations. There is no greater reference than that.”
Rich winemakers at Scribe Winery in Sonoma and Rous, assistant winemakers at Bedrock Wine Co. in Sonoma, produce about 1,000 cases at Birdhorse. They focus on lesser-known wine regions and unusual varieties, such as valdiguié, cinsault and verdelho.
“As a winemaker, it’s incredibly important to me to help diversify consumer palates,” said Rich. “Terra works with many brands and varieties. That has been huge for us.”
Ownroot Collective, founded by Albee in 2020, is an online wine subscription service with a mission to promote some of California’s best undiscovered micro-wineries. What sets the platform apart is that the wines are made by winemakers who have day jobs elsewhere in the industry.
Rich and Rouse are among a growing number of winemakers with side projects at heart. Many make wine for some of the region’s top wineries, such as Bedrock Wine, Scribe Winery, Thumbprint Cellars and Quintessa. But they aren’t financially ready, yet, to quit their day jobs to focus on their personal brands full-time.
Albee, who has a background in wine marketing, wine clubs and direct-to-consumer sales, said he was tired of seeing talented, independent winemakers go unnoticed. When the pandemic hit, he was considering his next career move when friends introduced him to a newly released wine.
“It was a classic story,” Albee said. “The wine was delicious, but no one would ever know about it. They did not announce the layoff. They didn’t have a mailing list. They didn’t even know who to send the ad to. They launched a wine brand but didn’t know what to do. It was so screwed up that no one would ever know about that wine.’
That summer, Albee said, he couldn’t let go of his frustration. And he was beginning to fall in love with the wine industry.
“That’s when I decided I had to do something,” Albee said. “I had to help those winemakers.”
Soon after, he launched Ownroot to promote small wine brands and the unknown winemakers behind the labels. He compiled a list of 25 winemakers who had a winemaking project on the side, then built a digital wine club membership with an $8.95 monthly fee and no minimum wine purchase required.
Today, Ownroot features three winemakers every two weeks, highlighting a single wine. Each wine on the Ownroot site has been reviewed and approved by a panel of three sommeliers and must meet Albee’s four requirements: refreshing, balanced and interesting, and delivering more than its price.
“An important part of my ethos is that we never criticize a wine we’re reviewing for Ownroot, even if it’s ultimately not right for us,” said Albee. “People have put a lot of effort and soul into making these wines, and I want to respect that.”
As of 2020, Albee has partnered with approximately 60 winemakers from regions throughout California, including Sonoma County, Napa Valley, Mendocino County, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County. He said he’s never had a problem finding new winemakers because every winemaker knows at least three others who make their wine.
Winemaker Luke Nio of Filomena Wine Co. … said many winemakers with side projects rely on obscure varietals to stand out from the crowd.
“The biggest challenge in making wine with dark grapes is that they are unknown to most consumers. It can be a lot of work to get the wines into the glass,” said Nio.
“Ownroot offers us a platform for virtual tastings, where we can talk directly with consumers about wines. And it has worked. We’ve seen strong retention after being featured on Ownroot.”