INTRO TO UNION WINE CO.
Union Wine Co. perfectly captures the essence of Portland and they’ve stolen our hearts with one simple can… can of wine that is. From their clever and eye-catching branding elements, to their love of Oregon, and mission of bringing people together; all at a price point that affords everyone the opportunity to enjoy a beautifully blended pinot noir. We recently had the chance to visit their industrial production site and sit down with Owner/Winemaker Ryan Harms, and Heather Wallberg, Marketing and Finance Manager. They graciously gave us a behind the scenes look at what it takes to run three different labels under the Union Wine Co. umbrella, and how their #pinkiesdown campaign is changing the way people view, taste, and experience wine.
WHAT IS YOUR ORIGIN STORY?
RYAN HARMS (RH): This year we celebrated our tenth anniversary at Union Wine Company. We launched in 2005 as a “virtual business” and at the time, I was still a winemaker at Rex Hill Vineyards. There was some extra space to make wine there, and I recognized the opportunity to purchase the King’s Ridge brand as well – in short, that’s how we started Union Wine Co. For the next four years I made wine, and was able to scale production. By 2009 we had grown to the point where we needed to have our own space – it was a logical investment for us – and that’s when we leased our current property. We’ve been fortunate to expand and grow since then, and it’s proven to be a good home for us.
We debuted with King’s Ridge, and then we added the Underwood brand and label, which began as a private label. We were able to grow the vineyard portfolio and gained access to more fruit, which gave us the opportunity to expand the brand even further. Debuting with the 2009 vintage, we made Underwood available to the national market which really opened new doors for us. About that same time, we released our first Alchemist Bottling offering, which is the third brand under the Union Wine Co. umbrella. Alchemist was a way for me to celebrate and show the craft of my winemaking skills – high touch winemaking where the details are important, is an important creative outlet for me.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR REBRANDING PROCESS.
RH: At a certain point we realized that Union Wine Co. had become a house of brands, that didn’t necessarily relate to one another. We started thinking about what does Union Wine Co. mean? How do these brands relate to each other? This became a critical stage in growing our brand. We started with the King’s Ridge brand, then Underwood, and lastly Alchemist. Union Wine Co. finally found it’s voice – and the best part, we’d always been Union Wine Co., we now had the ability to tell our story and how it relates to each brand.
Our new look and feel was the result of the collaborative and creative work that our branding team delivered. And let’s just say it was radical – there were individuals who thought the redesign was too much of a departure, and that it was a risk, given the brand had been doing pretty well. Yet, everyone really loved the new design! Looking back we are all obviously very glad we went that direction as it has been very well received by consumers.
HEATHER WALLBERG (HW): If you glance at a wall of wine at retail, Underwood really stands out, and it catches your eye with its distinctive lettering and boldness. With this aesthetic differentiation, we’ve also noticed our demographic’s mindset has changed. We now know that Underwood has such potential to appeal to a much broader cross-section of people who are just now starting to buy wine on the regular.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR #PINKIESDOWN CAMPAIGN.
HW: It comes with the can, but it also speaks to who we are as a company, and the people who make up Union Wine Co. #pinkiesdown showcases the values we have, the lifestyles we lead, and what’s important to us. You’ll go into any one of our houses and are we drinking out of stemmed wine glasses? No, we are drinking out of jelly jars, out of tumblers, out of enamel mugs. Ultimately that speaks to who we are. In the end, we love wine – it doesn’t matter what vessel it goes in.
#pinkiesdown is not the snobbery of the swirl and twirl, it’s the lifestyles we at Union Wine Co. lead. Though it still has a lot of craft and meaning behind it. #pinkiesdown helps take wine down a notch and encourages people to share with other people. You don’t have to be worried about smelling the notes, swirling, and what you look like doing it. The can was the vessel to deliver this new mentality, and we’ve seen a few other wine in a can brands use it on social media – we’re happy our mentality it’s trickling down.
FAVORITE FOOD / WINE PAIRING?
HW: Wine to me isn’t what food I had with it, but rather, what I associate it with, and the memories of what I was doing at the time. Anytime I think about a pairing it’s more about the memories.
RH: I agree, it’s about experiences. Was it that the food was exceptional? Or was it the fact you were with people you enjoy and had great conversations while doing it? It’s the overall experience that matters.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART ABOUT WINEMAKING?
RH: Ultimately Union Wine Co. brings together all the things I love, whether it’s the science of wine, the farming of grapes, marketing the business, sales, or interacting with people. This business is dynamic in that way. It stimulates all of those things I want and enjoy. I have more of a science background and I worked my way up from a winemaking and farming standpoint, so these elements remain part of my DNA.
I had no formal background in either of those fields, but I do have a strong academic background in science. I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur and a business owner and this was my opportunity. That side has come hard at times, but there are things about it that I love, as we take the next step in thinking about who we are and thinking about how we are received, relative to consumers.
That’s where the can really came from. We wanted to have wine as part of what we were doing. There’s places, like when you’re going up to Mt. Hood for example, that I’m not going to lug a bottle along. I’m in the business and I’m not willing to do that. Canned wine seemed like such a good idea. We talked about bladders and different kinds of packaging and ultimately the can won out. That speaks so much to what we do, it was something that we all wanted that didn’t exist, and we brought it to life.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
RH: On one hand continuing to grow the business and having success inspires me. When I started in this business the only negative comments were that I didn’t come from a winemaking family. There’s this adage: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? You start with a large one.
I didn’t come from that circumstance. I knew that this is a tough business to be able to have a “real” business that affords me the opportunity to make money to support other families. To have that success along with doing something what I love, it brings the best of all worlds together. I want to continue to grow, I am motivated by this idea that Oregon wines are typically thought to be expensive and unattainable for a lot of folks. I believe it doesn’t have to be that way. We’re just scratching at the surface.
WHAT DIFFERENTIATES YOUR BRAND?
RH: #pinkiesdown sums it up. One of the things that is a barrier is what the wine industry has done. We did it to ourselves, all of the tools, the pretense, the knowledge that you have to have to engage in wine. At the end of the day, it’s a beverage that you simply sit and enjoy.
We are presenting a brand and attitude that is authentically who we are. You look at the craft beer category and there’s people spending good money. They don’t have that concern of, “Am I holding this can of beer correctly?” Am I holding the bottle right… do I know how to open it?” You’re not sticking your nose in it. I have a little jealously of the craft beer side of things because people don’t seem to be self conscious about it – if they are sophisticated enough or knowledgeable enough to enjoy it. If we can get a little bit of that mentality going for the wine business it would be great.
HW: Putting effort and time behind marketing, trying to stand out and pursuing outlets that feel like us – not following the trends. At Feast Portland for example (when we launched the can), so many people came to us asking where our tasting room is, and how they can come. We told them we don’t have a tasting room, instead we have a tasting truck – which feels more authentic to our brand. It isn’t a vineyard with a tasting room in wine country. That’s not our home, but the tasting truck is.
ANY NOTEWORTHY STORIES FROM THIS YEARS GRAPE HARVEST?
HW: We celebrated with Brass Monkey’s. We had three different crews running eight hour shifts and every day everybody came in with an awesome attitude. Not one day was there someone who was tired or cranky. It was a really great crew on top of a really good harvest year. Big fruits, tasting great – overall a magic vintage. This was my fourth year, but it was the best I’ve seen in terms of a really good crew. The memories and the bonds that everyone has are incredible.
ARE YOU DOING ANY SPECIAL COLLABS FOR THE HOLIDAYS?
HW: We want to have fun and do something different, we love to experiment and play. This is how the holiday mulled spiced wine came about. We thought what could we put together quickly with somebody here locally that could speak to this craft, the makers, the people who love what they’re doing and do it for the holiday season?
Marshall’s Haute Sauce (a local Portland sauce company) came to mind, and we brought an idea to them. We asked how we could use their sauce or elements of their sauce. They choose the cranberry red jalapeño that they make seasonally. The result is King Ridge Pinot blended with 100% cranberry juice, steeped with the cinnamon, cloves, anise, and little bit of agave – we couldn’t have asked for a better recipe.
From there we worked together on the label, so the brands combined in the right way. King’s Ridge Pinot was the natural choice. We’re still trying to figure how to make a big batch for the holidays. It will be around online and locally in a couple of stores. We will also be at the Portland Bazaar, if locals are interested. It takes the convenience factor out of making mulled wine. It’s great hot or cold. It speaks to the friendships that we’ve built in the community but also brings more possibility to what you can do.
WHAT WINE GOES BEST WITH THANKSGIVING DINNER?
HW: Kings Ridge Red Haute Pinot. It has a touch of sweetness, it reminds you of the holidays, it works really well with the sauce itself. And there are elements that pair well with salty or sweet.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR UNION WINE CO.?
HW: This past year at Chefsweek we made a wine cooler with Gregory Gourdet. Mei Lin (season 12 TopChef winner) loved it! It’s the beerification of wine that’s been talked about since we pout wine in a can, the ability to release seasonal products. We are working with her to make this wine cooler in a can, and it’s hopefully launching later this spring.
We’ve also got a sparkling white that will be coming out in can and bottle under the Underwood label. That’s our biggest focus, as we are pushing next as the “Year of the Underwood.” Where can we take it? There are so many untapped markets. Also, we really want to test out the On the Road campaign with our Tasting Truck. Going to see different places and taking Union Wine Co. across the States – we’re working on narrowing down a couple different locations.
TO SEE MORE:
Catch Union Wine Co. and their tasting truck at the Portland Bazaar December 12th-13th at Jacobsen Salt Co. between 10am-4pm. Follow them on Instagram @unionwinecompany and be sure to snag a bottle of the King’s Ridge Red Haute Pinot for your holiday gatherings.
Brand Design and Strategy: The Story Manufacturing Co.