The COVID-19 pandemic is upending most industries, including the wine industry. While grocery stores and delivery services are helping to keep wine flowing to consumers, other outlets such as restaurants, wine shops, and winery tasting rooms are essentially offline, especially in major wine producing states, including California.
“Like a lot of people in the wine business, we’re trying to be as agile as possible, but we’re in new territory,” says Kenny Rochford, who together with Matt Allan are the founders of wine brand West + Wilder.
The business partners launched West + Wilder almost two years, focusing on quality wine that was more approachable for consumers, both in terms of the actual wine as well as the packaging.
Rochford and Allan share a background working with traditional fine wine brands. As Rochford explains it, the goal back then was to “make wine more expensive and more exclusive—and frankly, more scarce—which was the metric for success.”
Over time, wine became unnecessarily complicated, says Rochford. This inspired inspired the pair to launch West + Wilder, a brand that aimed to position wine as “more of a beverage” and less of a confusing enigma for consumers.
While fine wine generally comes with plenty of storytelling pertaining to the winery, the winemakers, the varietal and the appellation, today’s consumers are ultimately searching for “something dry, refreshing and bright, that’s also easy to get, and priced right,” Rochford explains.
Not surprisingly, West + Wilder tends to align well with younger consumers, who also use social media to connect and interact with the brand. However, the brand also resonates with older consumers too, remarks Allan.
Convenience, quality and price are among the selling points for the brand’s diversified consumer demographic.
Packaging is another attractive feature, which likewise offers several advantages from a logistics standpoint.
The canned wine is sold in a 3-pack, which holds roughly the same volume of wine as one 750 ml bottle. A case of West + Wilder’s canned wine is about half the size and weight of a regular 12-bottle case of wine.
This worked in the company’s favor when they were bidding against “bigger brands with bigger dollars” to have West + Wilder carried on airlines and cruise lines, explains Allan.
“We knew that the simple weight and logistical efficiency of our product was an advantage,” he said. “This was especially apparent in the cruise line industry,” where ships that are transporting thousands of people are particularly concerned about efficient use of space.
For instance, “We can get 90 cases of our wine on a standard pallet, compared to 56 cases of bottled wine,” says Allan.
Aside from the density and weight advantages of canned wine, the aluminum is more sustainable than glass, adds Rochford.
“Cans are good not only from a logistics standpoint, but also from a sustainability aspect, because it’s so much easier to recycle and reuse aluminum as opposed to glass. Aluminum is cradle-to-cradle and you can keep on reusing it if you recycle it properly. But, glass degrades and you have to use less of it each time you make a new glass container,” he says.
Most of the fruit used to produce West + Wilder wine is sourced from Sonoma County (California), with Oregon and Washington also providing some of the wine used in the winemaking process.
Tanker trucks transport the bulk wine to production facilities for the canning process. However, during peak season, finding capacity is sometimes difficult.
“It can also get very expensive moving wine around,” says Rochford, who says the goal is to find the “right sized” truck for each haul.
The perishable nature of wine adds to the logistics complexity.
For example, it’s best to avoid underutilization of the tanker truck. “If you put 3,000 gallons of wine in a 6,000 gallon tanker truck, you’re leaving 3,000 gallons of headspace and air in the tank, and that’s not good for wine” because it promotes oxidation, explains Rochford.
The wine must also remain in a temperature-controlled environment. “The requirements for canned wine are the same as bottled wine,” Rochford emphasizes. “Temperature is always the best way to go.”
Meanwhile, the impact of COVID-19 is being felt all along the wine supply chain, not just at the retail level.
“One of the unique challenges right now is getting labor for the bottling lines,” says Rochford.
“The bottling lines are available, but you can’t find 8 to 10 people to help you operate the line. There’s also the responsibility aspect: do you really want to be responsible for having people work in close proximity to one another?”
Although California’s winemakers are generally allowed to continue operating because they qualify as an essential agricultural industry, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find labor to work the bottling lines. People are increasingly hesitant to work closely to one another, while others left to find work elsewhere.
“Because of the fires in California over the past few years, we’ve lost a lot of workers to the construction industry,” says Rochford. On a positive note, instead of relying on migrant crews that were hired seasonally, the industry has begun hiring more full-time workers and raising the pay scale, he says.
Nonetheless, bottling lines require maintenance and repair. “We haven’t seen it yet, but what if a line needs a part or something needs fixed, but the company you depend on doesn’t have the team in place? Those kinds of things can potentially slow the business down,” says Rochford.
The wine distribution side of the business also has to adapt. “The challenge is to stay agile and nimble, and refocus the sales teams to work differently,” says Rochford.
Wine reps are no longer making in-person visits to retail shops and other outlets. “They’re going to be forced to be better communicators, and to get better at matching wine to the buyers’ requirements.”
Rochford acknowledges that, “We’ve also had to think about how to maintain the same level of customer service, and introducing and presenting our wine without being in front of the customer.”
However, “The people who can rise to the current challenge are going to do very well,” he says, “and those who decide to just write off the year, may end up disappearing.”