Was there a moment that you remember when you knew that you wanted to start a wine brand? What piqued your interest and made you know that this was the industry for you?
Sarah: I had an “ah-ha” moment when Kendra and I spent several weeks visiting small wine producers across California. We tried incredible wines from amazing winemakers, but we couldn’t find their wines on store shelves. When I learned that the vast majority of wines available at retail and large chains were from mega-wineries and small producers were getting squeezed out of traditional distribution, I knew that I wanted to be part of helping these winemakers get their wines to more people.
But it “got real” after finding our first winemaker partners. After meeting characters like Chris Christensen at Bodkin wines and Alice Sutro at Sutro Wine Co., I knew we had to give it a go and put this out into the world.
Kendra: I was born and raised in Chicago in a family that loved wine but didn’t know much about it. It wasn’t until I moved out to California in my twenties that I discovered the vibrant, diverse world that is small production wine, and I was hooked. Sarah and I really connected over a shared passion for these producers, and became obsessed with the idea of starting a business that existed to lift up these winemakers we loved. We started by trekking all across California meeting with hundreds of people in the industry, and have never looked back.
Prior to Maker Wines, what other winery jobs have you had (if any)? If you don’t have prior Winery experience, what other jobs do you think equipped you with the skills and the confidence to start your own brand, Maker Wines.
Sarah: We had zip, zero, nada wine industry experience. But I think that’s been one of our greatest assets in building a company that makes wine approachable to everyone.
My background is in digital marketing and acquiring customers online, exactly the skillset that the industry needs as the wine world increasingly shifts to e-commerce. I also used to run a craft beer blog and an underground supper club in SF that highlighted food and booze from local makers. That experience really taught me that beyond a high-quality product, storytelling is key to providing an excellent experience.
I loved helping people feel “in-the-know” and connected to their meal with a quirky story about the maker of a dish or a behind-the-scenes look at how something was made. Highlighting the “why” behind who we choose to feature and shining a light on small makers is core to what we do today.
Kendra: My background is also pretty atypical – I had a career in healthcare and consulting before making the move into wine. I’ve always been passionate about creating meaningful change in established industries, and have seen so many similarities between healthcare and wine – think heavy regulation, old tech. But the wine industry has been such a warm and welcoming industry to move into, and we’ve developed such great relationships as we’ve been working in wine the past few years. It’s really the people that make the industry so great.
For those not familiar with Maker Wines, can you share a brief history and the concept behind this chic, delicious and fresh canned wine brand?
Sarah: Kendra and I met in grad school and became fast friends and wine-drinking buddies. We loved visiting small producers and taking road trips on weekends to local wine regions.
But we found the voice in high-end wine to be unapproachable and learned that it was really tough for small wineries to get great distribution. We wanted to build a company centered on shining a light on these hidden-gem small producers and making high quality wine accessible to everyone. And we loved the idea of cans, because we felt they could bring more people to wine, they’re super convenient to take on-the-go, and they’re eco-friendly and cost-effective to ship to your door.
Kendra: Today we partner with a rotating portfolio of best-in-class small producers with diverse backgrounds and great stories. Each of our 250 ml cans (equivalent to 1.7 glasses) has the signature of the winemaker on the front, the story of the producer on the back, and a design that reflects that story. We prioritize winemakers with organic and sustainable farming practices, and select primarily vintage, varietal, and vineyard-designate wines that reflect a time and place.
High-quality wines and a focus on small producers is what differentiates Maker from other canned wines. We’ve been excited by the reception so far, we now have the highest-rated white wine (our viognier – 96 points, North Coast Wine Challenge) and red wine (our cabernet – 95 points, NY Int’l Wine Competition) on the market today.
Can you also explain how you source existing wineries to partner with and how you spotlight their winemakers and brands within the Maker Canned wine brand? This is a very unique and smart strategy. How did you decide to go with this approach vs. hire a winemaker and make all of your own wines?
Sarah: There are definitely companies that want to slap a slick brand on sub-par juice, or white label the work of talented winemakers — that’s not us.
The people, stories, and small producers are what’s special about wine. We aren’t Somms or winemakers – we want to let the winemakers do what they do best — which is making fab wines, and we’ll handle the pieces that we’re great at; curating great stories, marketing, and distribution. We want to build a brand in wine that people trust to source great wine from even better people.
Kendra: As to the sourcing piece, we are constantly meeting winemakers and sampling wines (tough job, I know). These wine leads can come from our customers, through referrals from our current portfolio of winemakers, our wino friends, or from our own research. As Sarah said, we aren’t Somms, so when we try a wine we’re excited about from a producer with a great story we put the wines through two panels – a customer panel made up of our “Can Club” members, and an industry expert panel, made up of wine critics, buyers, and sommeliers with palates that we trust. If a wine “passes” both these panels we know it’s a technically great wine and something our customers will love and we get excited about moving forward.
Since you launched in 2019, you have released multiple varietals such as Pinot Noir, Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and others. Which was the hardest varietal to source and find a partner to create the wine for?
Sarah: I would say the Pinot or Rosé. When we’ve picked more esoteric wines like our Sparkling Sauv Blanc or soon-to-be-released Cabernet Pfeffer, we typically start by finding the maker and there are a smaller universe of makers that specialize in these wines. Choosing one Pinot to highlight is a tall order, there are thousands and thousands of options and the choice can be paralyzing!
Kendra: Definitely the Pinot Noir collaboration with Handley Cellars. We tried Pinot samples from over 30 producers until we found the perfect Pinot and the perfect partner in the team at Handley. The Handley family has been crafting Anderson Valley Pinot for decades, and it’s an honor to feature their iconic wine in the Maker cans.
As a wine writer, I’ve been thrilled to see some of your winery partners (brands that I was already a big fan of). Can you share more about your collaboration with Handley Cellars and Sutro Wines (both brands I adore). How do you approach a brand and invite them to come on board? Share more about that process.
Sarah: Alice was one of the first people I interviewed when trying to learn more about the wine industry. I didn’t actually consider a collab at first because Alice makes ultra-premium Cab and Merlot, which weren’t wines we were considering for cans at the time!
Alice remained a big supporter of Maker, and even introduced us to Chris at Bodkin wines who we’ve now produced several wines with.
We visited Alice shortly after our first release and hatched up a crazy idea to put Alexander Valley ultra-premium Cabernet in a can. This experiment was a huge hit; we tapped into this need to be able to have one gorgeous glass of red wine on a weeknight, bring it with you camping, etc. We’re doing another collab this year with Alice and have three more premium red wines planned.
We actually met Lulu Handley at the Slow Wine Tour, which Alice had invited us to (the wine world is so small!). From there we had several conversations with the team at Handley and ended up running three different Pinot Noir blends through our sampling panels. It was the quickest that we’ve gotten to “yes” – our panels unanimously loved this playful, yet premium Pinot. It sold out in just a few months and we are excited to bring the 2020 vintage back this year.
In general, the process is a bit like dating! We have a series of interviews to get to know their story, we collaborate on the can design, and we work side-by-side with them on the canning line. The partnership is like a marriage – the winemakers entrust us to be stewards of their brands and tell their stories for years to come.
As a Winery Founder, you taste (and spit) lots of wine, what wine do you feel bad about spitting because you love it so much?
Sarah: We do a lot of tasting, a little less spitting. As Kendra said we are completely sold out of the Handley Pinot Noir, and I have about 5 cans left that I guard with my life. Really, everything from Handley is exceptional – their Alsatian white wines are fantastic, from their Riesling to Pinot Gris. We’ll have another white wine collab with Handley coming in the next few months, I’m super pumped about it.
I also recently am loving single-vineyard Syrah I picked up from a fab wife and wife winemaking team at Camins 2 Dreams in Lompoc and a Cabernet Pfeffer vertical from Nicole Walsh at Ser Winery.
Kendra: The Sutro Cab because it’s so special I want to savor every drop (and it’s also a very limited release with only 177 cases produced).
What is one of the biggest mistakes you have made in your career?
Sarah: Not moving on quickly enough when you are no longer learning or growing.
Kendra: Not taking the plunge to pursue my own path and venture sooner. Since Sarah and I started working on the foundation of what would become Maker three years ago now, I’ve never been more fulfilled or engaged in my work.
Who has been the most influential mentor in your career?
Jaleh Bisharat – she is one of the most accomplished business leaders I know – she led marketing teams at Amazon, Opentable, Upwork, and Eventbrite. She’s now the founder and CEO at NakedPoppy, a fabulous clean beauty company. I got a taste of early-stage start-up life by working for her at NakedPoppy and I loved it – it helped me build the confidence to start my own business.
Above all, what I’ve learned from her is that being trusting, transparent, and generous with employees is good business and that you’ll never regret doing the right thing. It’s also fun to have a mentor that’s a role model and founder friend; I’m constantly learning from her.
Kendra: My old mentor and manager Chris Drummond. He showed me that I could be a sales leader and gave me the opportunity to lead deals early on in my career. He taught me a lot about building strong, authentic partnerships, which is something we’ve tried to instill into Maker today.
What is your favorite after-work drink?
Sarah: At the moment, the Maker Sparkling Rosé by Chris Christensen. Delicate and aromatic, but vibrant, with that razzle-dazzle berry magic. I’m also a sucker for an egg white cocktail and think it’s tough to beat a well-made, classic Negroni.
Kendra: The Maker Chenin Blanc by Colleen Clothier. It’s a refreshing mix of fruity and floral, and makes for a great pairing wine.
What is your favorite local spot in San Francisco?
Sarah: I love the Lost Resort in the Outer Mission – think oysters, crab rolls, tasty cocktails and pile ‘em high fancy Nachos. It’s an outdoor bar with a cozy, kitschy, tropical vibe. I hope to get Maker on the menu there someday!
Kendra: Sandrino in Sausalito. It’s a tiny, off-the-beaten-path place run by a darling couple from Northern Italy, Alessandro and Monica. Plus, they dish up the best pizza on the coast.
Tell us something that would surprise people about you?
Let’s see here are a few: I’m a homebrewer, I love food but can’t cook, I was a full-time Lyft driver in the very early days, and I answer every IG message, support email, and text for Maker personally.
Oh, and I’ve made a list of the top 100 cocktails to drink in SF before you die (ok, I guess that’s not that surprising). Message me @makerwine and I’m happy to share it.
I was really passionate about gymnastics growing up, and you’ll sometimes find me walking on my hands or practicing old tricks outside.
What do you think?