“When we started, what we heard a lot was people walking into a store and looking at a shelf of wines and having no idea how to make a decision that was right for them,” says Kendra Kawala , a co-founder of Novato’s Maker Wine. “As an indicator of quality, people often go back to things they’ve tried before, or they pick the coolest, shiniest label, and that’s sort of their journey to choosing the wine.”
Maker Wine was founded in 2020 by Zoe Victor, Sarah Hoffman and Kawala, three Bay Area women in their early thirties who were completing their MBAs at Stanford University.
“We first came up with the idea of starting a business, then we used classes, projects and school curricula to test our ideas and bring them to life,” says Kawala.
The original plan was to make fine wines more accessible, easier to navigate, easier to ship, and easier to taste. The three women had an original approach. They were going to put their products in cans.
“We didn’t want to make it silly, but we wanted to make it a bit lighter and fun, and easier to understand. And make it easier to access these wines,” says Kawala. “As wine lovers from the millennials, we were looking for something different from the actual experience of the product. How could we use it and interact with it? And we wanted to share that. Sarah (a beer blogger) saw how in the beginning brewers craftsmen had said, “I’ll never put my best IPA in a can, it deserves a drink.” Once they saw the consumer resonance, especially in packaging and transportation, canned beer really took hold. started to take off.”
So why not wine? Hoffman and Kawala had originally started visiting wineries together in graduate school. As they learned more about the wine industry, the two grew more passionate about the idea that small producers in particular needed help.
“We heard a lot of the same things,” Kawala says. “’We’re struggling with distribution.’ “We are passionate about making wine, but we don’t like the commercial part. “We struggle with digital and social media. “
This played straight into the women’s wheelhouses. Hoffman’s background in digital media, Kawala’s background in business and sales, and Victor’s expertise in navigating the vagaries gleaned from his years in healthcare all coalesced.
“At first, we were kind of the scary ladies,” Kawala laughs.
Canned wine is not new to Maker Wine. Light, air and corked taint plague many bottled wines (and beers). Canning wine creates an anaerobic environment, preserving quality at the time of canning. Before, the problem was the quality of the boxed wines, not the box itself. The women decided to up their game and put better quality wines in the box in the first place.
“We have a very high quality bar,” says Kawala. “Our wines are all varietal, interesting or region-specific, and are all true to the style of this winemaker and vineyard.”
Many Maker Wine products are certified organic, certified sustainable, or sourced from women-owned vineyards.
“In addition to being in cans, we also partner for each of our wines with a different established winery in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and Santa Barbara. We feature their flagship wine, their flagship varietal, from their estate, how they finish it, with their name and history and a custom design on the can. It’s not bulk market wines, it’s Handley Estate Pinot Noir: Blocks 5a and 5c, Sutro’s Cabernet Sauvignon from Warnecke Ranch, where she lives with her family. The only grapes she grows. The only wine she makes.
In January 2020, the women finally launched their school/real world project. And then things changed.
“When COVID happened there were two and a half of us, Zoe wasn’t full time yet. So it was me and Sarah and some kind of Zoe and about 40,000 cans, and we had to find a way to sell them. We had concert halls and restaurant kitchens lined up, and it all disappeared overnight. We had to get very cunning very quickly.
With direct-to-consumer sales allowed for the first time since Prohibition (initiated by California’s ABC just days after lockdown), things have suddenly changed again.
“Consumer behavior changed overnight and we ended up selling wine,” says Kawala. “Once launched, it exceeded our wildest dreams. What I had been dreaming about six months before, the idea of selling wine, was suddenly our biggest problem.
In 2021, Maker Wine tripled its production. With 80% to 85% of their sales online, and all in California, Maker Wine has become the exact opposite of the traditional winery sales model. In November 2021, Maker Wine began shipping nationwide to 45 states. They now have 12 different wines on their website and over 70 wineries interested in creating new products. Their plan is to triple production again for 2022. Cans are 250 milliliters and prices vary by varietal, from $48 to $90 for six cans (two bottles’ worth). There are also mix-and-match options.
“Our company is kind of a hybrid between Silicon Valley and San Francisco and an authentic, traditional wine region. Our warehouse is in Novato and our grape growers are largely located throughout North Bay, so Marin was really the perfect place for our business to be rooted,” says Kawala. “We’re so lucky to have a company that belongs in this world, especially during COVID. It really feels like we’re onto something special.
For more information or to order wines, go to makerwine.com.
Jeff Burkhart is the author of “Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender, Vol. I and II“, the host of the Barfly Podcast on iTunes and an award-winning bartender at a local restaurant. Follow him on jeffburkhart.net and contact him at [email protected]