Novato’s Maker Wine shakes up wine industry one can at a time

“When we were getting started what we heard a lot was that people would walk into a store and look at a shelf of wines and have no idea how to make a decision that was right for them,” says Kendra Kawala, one of the three founders of Novato’s Maker Wines.

“As a proxy for quality people often go back to things that they have tried before, or they pick the coolest shiniest label, and that is kind of their journey to choosing wine.”

Maker Wines was founded in 2020 by three young Bay Area women, two in Marin and one in San Francisco, who were finishing up their MBAs at Stanford: Zoe Victor, Sarah Hoffman, and Kawala, all in their early 30’s.

“We initially had the idea of creating a business, and then used school classes, projects, and programs to help test out our ideas and bring them to life,” says Kawala.

The original plan was to make fine wines more approachable, easier to navigate, easier to ship, and easier to sample. The three women had a novel approach. They were going to put their products in cans.

 “We didn’t want to dumb it down, but we wanted to make it a little lighter and fun, and easier to understand. And make it easier to get to these wines,” says Kawala. “As millennial wine lovers ourselves we were looking for something different out of the actual product experience. How could we use it and interact with it? And we wanted to share that.”

“Sarah (a beer blogger) saw how at first craft brewers had said, ‘I will never put my finest IPA into a can, it deserves a glass.’ Once they saw consumer resonance, especially in packageding and transport, then canned beer really started to take off,” says Kawala.

So why not wine? Hoffman and Kawala had originally started to visit wineries together in graduate school. As they learned about the wine industry the two of them became increasingly impassioned by the idea that small producers in particular, needed some help.

“We heard a lot of the same things,” says Kawala. “We are struggling with distribution. We are passionate about making wine but don’t like the sales part. And, we are having a hard time with digital and social media.”

Which played directly into the three women’s wheelhouse. Hoffman’s background in digital media, Kawala’s background in business and sales, and Victor’s expertise in navigating vagaries gleaned from her years in healthcare, all coalesced.

“We were kind of the creepy can ladies at first,” laughs Kawala.

Canned wine isn’t a novelty to Maker Wines. Light, air, and cork taint afflict many bottled wines (and beers). Canning wine creates an anaerobic environment preserving the quality at the point of canning. The problem before was the quality of the wines being put into the can, not the can itself. The women decided to up their game and put better quality wines into the can in the first place.

“We have a really high quality bar,” says Kawala. “Our wines are all on varietal, regionally interesting or specific, and are all true to that winemaker’s and that vineyard’s style.”

Many of Maker Wines are organic certified, sustainably certified, or come from female owned wineries.

“In addition to being in cans we also partner for each of our wines with a different established winery, from Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, Santa Barbara. We feature their flagship wine, their flagship varietal, from their estate, how they finish it, with their name and story and custom design on the can. These are not bulk market wines, this is Handley Estate Pinot Noir: Blocks 5a and 5c, Sutro’s Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from Warnecke Ranch (on Chalk Hill Road), 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 hit, it was two and a half of us, Zoe wasn’t yet fulltime. So it was me and Sarah and kind of Zoe and about 40,000 cans, and we had to figure out a way to sell them. We had concert venues and restaurant kitchens lined up, and it all disappeared overnight. We had to get really crafty really quickly.”

With direct to consumer sales allowed for the first time since Prohibition (initiated by the California ABC just days into the lockdown) things suddenly changed again.

“Consumer behavior changed overnight and we ended up selling out of wine,” says Kawala. “Once it got going it grew beyond our wildest dreams. What I was dreaming about six months before, the idea of selling out of wine, all of sudden was our biggest problem,” she says.

In 2021 Maker Wine tripled their production. With 80 to 85 percent of their sales online, and all sales based in California, Maker Wines became the exact opposite of the traditional winery sales model. In November of 2021, Maker Wines began nationwide shipping to 45 states. They now have twelve different wines on their website and have over 70 wineries interested in creating new products, their plan is to triple production again for 2022. Cans are 250ml and prices vary according to varietal from $48 up to $90 for six cans (two bottles worth). There are mix and match options available as well.

“Our business is kind of a hybrid of Silicon Valley/San Francisco meets traditional authentic wine country. Our warehouse is in Novato and our winemakers are largely throughout the North Bay, so Marin really was the ideal place for our business to be rooted,” says Kawala. “We are so fortunate to have a business that has a place in this world, especially during Covid. It definitely feels like we are on to something special.”

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