Wildwood Wine raises hope for Sonoma County nonprofits

Chris O’Neill has launched Wildwood Wine, a Forestville-based wine company that donates 25% of the wine purchase price to selected Sonoma County nonprofits.|

Former owner of Russian River Vineyards gives back through wine

When Chris O’Neill retired as partner of Russian River Vineyards winery in 2021, the hardest thing for him to leave behind were the relationships he’d fostered with numerous Sonoma County nonprofits.

O’Neill bought the formerly defunct winery with fellow investors 14 years earlier and since then had developed a passion for helping those in need, an urge that arose from the deep sense of community he felt in Forestville, where he’d lived since 2008.

“Forestville is the first place I’ve lived where so many people are doing good work in the community and giving themselves to others,” O’Neill said. “Everyone makes you feel welcome, and that makes you a part of something. I’m lucky to be at a place in life where I can help others, too. That was something I didn’t want to turn my back on.”

This month, O’Neill announced his launch of Wildwood Wine, a Forestville-based wine company that donates 25% of the wine purchase price to selected Sonoma County nonprofits, including Food For Thought, Social Advocates for Youth, the Ceres Community Project, Forget Me Not Farms and California Nurses for Environmental Health & Justice.

At Russian River Vineyards, O’Neill developed close partnerships with many of these nonprofits through joint fundraising. His new wine company will allow him to continue to give back.

“Originally, I thought I would stay involved by making a little wine on the side to pour at their fundraising events,” O’Neill said. “But that idea evolved into something much bigger.”

Years ago, O’Neill raised $8,000 for Social Advocates for Youth when he created a custom wine they sold during a fundraiser. He knew there was a thirst for wine that raised money for nonprofits.

“The wheels started turning once I began talking to people about my idea,” said O’Neill, who considers himself a serial entrepreneur. “That’s when I came up with the idea to create a sustainable wine business that would act as a fundraising engine for nonprofits.”

The idea was simple: Sell wine online and let customers choose which nonprofit to support with 25% of their purchase.

But the problem was, where would he source the wine?

“I brought up the idea with Anthony Austin, my former winemaker at Russian River Vineyards, and he said he’d love to help make some wine,” O’Neill said. “Then I started talking to other local winemakers who wanted to know how they could help. The idea has been so warmly received, and everyone is excited to jump on the bandwagon.”

Currently, three wines are available to buy on Wildwood Wine’s website (wildwoodwine.com), including a 2020 North Coast Chardonnay ($21); a 2022 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($38); and a 2021 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($26). A sauvignon blanc and rosé will be released within the next month or so.

The current releases were made by winemaker Anthony Austin and display beautiful wine labels painted by O’Neill’s artistic daughters, Erica and Leah Schleimer.

Looking forward, O’Neill anticipates the company will sell about 600 to 1,000 cases of wine per year. But for now he’s taking things one step at a time.

“We’re launching the business slowly because we have a limited amount of wine to sell, and we’re still trying gauge which nonprofits make the most sense,” O’Neill said. “We also want to make sure we our wines are accessible to the broad audience that support nonprofits. In the meantime, I am humbled to see so much interest in this project. It’s a really wonderful thing.”

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

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