Ownroot Collective a cheerleader for California micro-wineries

Ownroot Collective on a mission to elevate some of the best undiscovered micro-wineries in California.|

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 reach audiences beyond friends and family.

It’s a quandary facing many winemakers starting on the path of building their own wine brand, often a passion project they nurtured on the side while learning the trade at established wineries.

Rich and Rouse found help with Ownroot Collective, a Napa-based company founded by wine industry entrepreneur Terra Jane Albee that works with small wineries to get their bottles in front of customers.

“Ownroot is a like megaphone for small wineries,” Rich said. “Working with Terra Jane has been incredible. She brought us into the fold and connected us with customers who believe in her mission and trust her wine recommendations. There is no higher referral than that.”

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 uncommon varietals, like valdiguié, cinsault and verdelho.

“As a winemaker, it’s incredibly important for me to help diversify consumers’ palates,” Rich said. “Terra works with a tremendous variety of brands and varietals. That has been huge for us.”

Elevating the unknown

Ownroot Collective, which Albee founded in 2020, is an online wine subscription service on a mission to elevate some of the best undiscovered micro-wineries in California. 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 up-and-coming winemakers with side projects close to their hearts. Many make wine for some of the region’s top wineries, like Bedrock Wine, Scribe Winery, Thumbprint Cellars and Quintessa. But they’re not financially ready, just yet, 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 she had grown weary of seeing talented, independent winemakers go unnoticed. When the pandemic hit, she was contemplating her next career move when friends introduced her to their newly released wine.

“It was the classic tale,” Albee said. “The wine was delicious, but no one would ever hear about it. They hadn’t announced its release. They didn’t have a mailing list. They didn’t even know who they would send the announcement to. They had launched a wine brand but didn’t know what to do next. It was so screwed up that no one would ever hear about that wine.”

That summer, Albee said, she couldn’t let her frustration go. And she was beginning to fall out of love with the wine industry.

“That’s when I decided I had to do something,” Albee said. “I had to help these winemakers.”

Soon thereafter, she launched Ownroot to promote tiny wine brands and the unknown winemakers behind the labels. She compiled a list of 25 winemakers who had a winemaking project on the side, then built a digital wine club membership with a monthly fee of $8.95 and with no minimum wine purchase required.

Today, Ownroot features three winemakers every two weeks, with a single wine highlighted from each. Every wine on the Ownroot site has been vetted and approved by a panel of three sommeliers and must meet Albee’s four requirements: that it be refreshing, balanced and interesting and over-deliver for 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 a good fit for us,” Albee said. “People have put a lot of effort and soul into making these wines, and I want to respect that.”

Since 2020, Albee has featured about 60 winemakers from regions throughout California, including Sonoma County, Napa Valley, Mendocino County, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County. She said she’s never had a problem finding new winemakers to feature, as every winemaker knows at least three others making their own wine.

Obscure varietals

Winemaker Luke Nio of Filomena Wine Co. in ... said many winemakers with side projects focus on obscure varietals to stand out from the masses.

“The biggest challenge with making wine with obscure grapes is that they’re unfamiliar to most consumers. It can be a lot of work to get the wines into their glass,” Nio said.

“Ownroot gives us a platform to do virtual tastings, so we can talk directly to consumers about the wines. And it’s worked. We’ve seen solid retention after being featured on Ownroot.”

Nio, an assistant winemaker at Green & Red Vineyard in St. Helena by day, said getting exposure for Filomena has been particularly tough. The brand has little to no distribution presence in California, let alone other states.

“My wife, Kat, and I simply don’t have the time with our day jobs to be out there selling our wines, and we don’t make enough to be desirable to distributors,” Nio said. “Ownroot has given us an avenue to introduce our wines, talk about our weird varieties and share our passion for winemaking. Terra is truly a champion for the small and unknown.”

“Ownroot has given us an avenue to introduce our wines, talk about our weird varieties and share our passion for winemaking. Terra is truly a champion for the small and unknown.”

Taking a gamble with new brands

Winemaker Will Gondak believes Albee’s success can be attributed to her talent for finding tiny wineries on the cutting edge. She’s willing to take a gamble on promoting brands no one knows, he said.

“Terra takes a lot of risk selling wines no one has ever heard of,” said Gondak, whose side projects, Gondak Cellars and Little x Little, produce about 300 cases per year. “On the flip side, these are wines you can’t find anywhere else, and that can be a big draw.”

Gondak, whose day job is facility winemaker for Thumbprint Cellars and Portalupi Wine in Healdsburg, said the hardest part of having a wine brand isn’t the winemaking or fruit sourcing. It’s finding time to build a network. Ownroot has helped solve this problem.

In the meantime, working for Thumbprint allows him to build his personal brands while still receiving a paycheck.

“I’m not quite ready to take the risk of leaving my day job,” Gondak said. “But hopefully, I can become independent one day.”

People can’t Zoom anymore

For now, Albee said her biggest challenge remains finding new members and keeping her current membership engaged. After running wine clubs for many years, she understands there is a natural attrition that occurs as members leave to explore shiny new options.

“How do I sing the gospel of Ownroot and get heard through the noise of venture-backed wine clubs or companies with huge marketing budgets?” Albee said. “This is a bootstrapped business supporting other bootstrapped businesses.”

She also said the landscape of consumer engagement is changing. While virtual wine tastings on Zoom added a lot of value at the height of the pandemic, Albee said “the vibe is really different right now.” That’s spurring her to find new, unique ways to attract people’s attention.

“People just can’t Zoom anymore,” Albee said. “They’re just over it. That’s why I launched a Send Me Wine Sometimes membership that comes with blanket. I think people just need the comfort of a blanket these days.”

While Albee admitted Ownroot isn’t paying her mortgage just yet, she does sell a lot of wine. That she credits to the company’s slow and steady pace of success.

She created her five- and 10-year plans with scalability in mind, and she’s left a lot of room for growth. But, the growth has to be gradual and organic, she said.

“I think of Ownroot more like the Bounty Hunter model,” Albee said, citing the 30-year-old Napa wine and spirits shop with a devout following.

“(Founder) Mark Pope was very boots on the ground. He built the business based on discoverability and trust. If you trusted him, you knew his wines would be good. He started the business slow and scrappy, then he grew big. That’s the model I feel is more sustainable for me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com.

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