When winemakers Corrine Rich and Katie Rouse launched Birdhorse Wines in 2018, their biggest challenge was figuring out how to increase the visibility of their brand to reach an audience beyond friends and family.
This is a difficulty faced by many winemakers who are starting to build their own wine brand. It is often a passion project that they developed while learning the trade at established wineries.
Rich and Rouse found help from Ownroot Collective, a Napa-based company founded by wine entrepreneur Terra Jane Albee that works with small wineries to get their bottles in front of customers.
“Ownroot is like a megaphone for small wineries,” Rich said. “Working with Terra Jane has been incredible. She has brought us into the group and connected us with clients who believe in her mission and trust her wine recommendations. No higher recommendation.”
Rich, assistant winemaker at Scribe Winery in Sonoma, and Rouse, assistant winemaker at Bedrock Wine Co. in Sonoma, produce about 1,000 cases at Birdhorse. They focus on lesser-known wine regions and rare varieties such as valdiguié, cinsault and verdelho.
“As a winemaker, it’s incredibly important to me to help diversify consumer tastes,” said Rich. “Terra works tremendously with different brands and varieties. That’s been huge for us.”
Ownroot Collective, founded by Albee in 2020, is an online wine subscription service with a mission to elevate California’s best undiscovered micro wineries. What sets the platform apart is that the wines are made by winemakers who work elsewhere in the industry.
Rich and Rouse are among a growing number of up-and-coming winemakers with side projects close to their hearts. Many make wine for some of the region’s top wineries, such as Bedrock Wine, Scribe Wine, Thumbprint Cellars and Quintessa. But they’re not yet financially ready to give up their day jobs to focus full-time on their personal brands.
Albee, who has a background in wine marketing, wine clubs and direct-to-consumer sales, said he’s fed up with talented independent winemakers being overlooked. When the pandemic hit, he was thinking about his next career path when friends introduced him to his newly released wine.
“It was a classic story,” Albee said. “The wine was delicious, but no one ever heard of it. They had not announced its release. They didn’t have a mailing list. They didn’t even know who they were sending the message to. They had launched a wine brand but didn’t know what to do next. It was so messed up that no one ever heard of this wine.
That summer, Albee said, he couldn’t let go of his frustration. And he fell in love with the wine industry.
“That’s when I decided I had to do something,” Albee said. “I had to help these winemakers.”
Soon after, he launched Ownroot to promote tiny wine brands and the unknown winemakers behind the labels. He compiled a list of 25 winemakers who had a winemaking project and then created a digital wine club membership for $8.95 a month and no minimum wine purchase.
Today, Ownroot features three winemakers every two weeks, with one wine from each featured. Every wine on the Ownroot site is checked and approved by a panel of three sommeliers and must meet Albee’s four criteria: refreshing, balanced and interesting, and value for money.
“An important part of my ethos is that we never criticize a wine we review for Ownroot, even if it ends up not being the right fit for us,” said Albee. “People have put a lot of effort into making these wines, and I want to honor that.”
As of 2020, Albee has represented approximately 60 winemakers from regions in 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 make their wine.
Winemaker Luke Nio of Filomena Wine Co… said many winemakers with side projects focus on obscure varietals to stand out from the crowd.
“The biggest challenge in making wine from obscure grapes is that they are unfamiliar to most consumers. Getting the wines into the glass can be a lot of work,” Nio said.
“Ownroot gives us a platform to do virtual tastings so we can talk about wines directly with consumers. And it’s worked. We’ve seen solid retention since being featured on Ownroot.