Jennifer Reichardt comes from a family of entrepreneurs. Her family has been in the food industry in California since 1901, instilling in her a passion for hard work, respect for agriculture, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Reichardt brings all those qualities to her own wine brand, Raft Wines, while continuing to work with her father at their family-owned Liberty Ducks, a purveyor of premium duck.
Raft Wines is based in Sonoma County, Calif., but Reichardt sources grapes for her wines from vineyards located all over California, including El Dorado, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Madera Counties. In an industry where quality is often believed to be synonymous with price, Reichardt has been thoughtful in creating wines that customers will enjoy, at price points that allow them to explore and enjoy wine on a regular basis.
VinePair talked with Reichardt about everything from how Raft Wines has fared during Covid-19, to how wine companies can appeal to millennials.
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[Editor’s note: The interview has been edited for clarity.]
1. What caused you to shift from focusing on your food-and-restaurant-focused family business to making your own wine?
After graduating from college, I knew I wanted to work in the food industry broadly, but I wasn’t sure what area I would focus on. I worked my first wine harvest internship in 2011 and really enjoyed the experience, but still wasn’t sold on whether wine was for me.
I worked my second wine harvest internship at Littorai Wines. I really enjoyed their winemaking process, philosophy, and their focus on agriculture and farming. It was similar to my background and how I grew up in the industry, and it helped me realize that I could make winemaking a career. So, I continued to learn and grow by working harvests in the United States and the Southern Hemisphere and passing my level two sommelier exam, all while working in the family business in between.
2. Did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
It evolved over time. Truthfully, when I went to college, I wanted to be a doctor and was a pre-med major for two years before switching majors. While I enjoyed medicine, I wasn’t sure that I was passionate about it and switched majors after my sophomore year.
Around that time, I joined my dad at Terra Madre, an international Slow Food conference. The focus of the conference that year was re-engaging youth in farming, agriculture, and food systems. Being around youth from 120 different countries who were passionate about farming and preserving their heritage and culture through food really planted the seeds for me of pursuing my passion in this industry.
3. What is the best part of making your own wine versus working in a larger operation?
The flexibility to experiment with different winemaking techniques and grape varieties instead of needing to continue to hold to a particular formula or focus. Fortunately, my customer base is willing to try new things as well, so it provides me with a lot of freedom. That flexibility has been crucial in dealing with the unexpected. Because of the company’s size, I am able to experiment with different grape varieties and winemaking techniques, and if it doesn’t work, I can sell off the wine and try something different the next year.
4. Historically, you’ve made wines from obscure grape varieties from a wide range of California AVAs. Why did you decide to do this?
I want my wines to be consumer-friendly — both with respect to the price point and alcohol levels — and easily paired with a variety of dishes. I make natural wines, and I don’t add anything to my wines other than a little sulfur when bottling. So I also want my fruit to be organically farmed at minimum or more if possible.
Many of the traditional California grape varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have not been viable options for me, either due to price point or due to farming standards. But it led me to these relatively obscure grape varieties in great vineyards such as Counoise, Viognier, and Picpoul. As a result, I can offer high-quality wines to my customers in the $23- to-$38 range.
5. Describe Raft’s style.
I want Raft wines to be inclusive. There is something for everybody. We have several different wines available, so If you don’t like Syrah, you can try the red blend, or if you don’t like Viognier, you can try the Picpoul Blanc. You can open my wines on a Wednesday night and not feel like you are breaking the bank. They are also food-friendly and low-alcohol, which appeals to my customers.
I also typically like to make vineyard-designated wines so I can honor the farmers and the vineyard growers. I only have the grapes for a short amount of time, and they are growing them for the bulk of the year. I want to honor the sense of place of the vineyards and all that the vineyard growers and farmers bring to the wines.
6. How have you been impacted by the fires and Covid-19 this year?
I thought my business would have been disaster-proof, since I source grapes from six different counties in California. But many of those vineyards were hit by fires at different times during harvest. For example, the Counoise was lost in the Creek Fire, so I won’t be making that varietal this year.
As a result of the various losses, my production was projected to be down almost one-third for this harvest. That would have been devastating for my business. Thankfully, I can be flexible, so I quickly pivoted and found some additional grapes to help fill those gaps. There were a lot of grapes available in the market, so for the first time, I’m making some traditional California varietals. The Cabernet Sauvignon came from Narrow Gate Vineyards, whom I was already working with, and the Merlot is from Cole Ranch, which is the smallest American Viticultural Area in the United States.
I’m thankful that I started ramping up my direct-to-consumer business last year, not knowing that this year was coming. Prior to Covid, I was 70 percent wholesale, mostly California Bay Area restaurants, and 30 percent direct-to-consumer. Since Covid hit, I have flipped to 70 percent direct-to-consumer and 30 percent restaurants. Direct-to-consumer shipping has saved my business.
7. What is the future of Raft Wines?
This year marks my fifth harvest, and I feel like I’m in an awkward phase of the business. Raft Wines is too large to be an ultra-boutique winery, but it’s not large enough to be considered a small winery. Because I’m only making around 1,000 cases per year, it’s hard to get distribution. But I’d like to grow to 3,000 cases a year in the next few years. I will continue to target the $20-to-$30 price point, which I believe is the growth area of the wine market.
8. There is a lot of discussion in the wine world about how to attract millennials to the wine world. As a millennial winemaker, what do you think your peers are interested in seeing in wine, and where do you see the wine business going in the future?
Funny, I was just talking with a friend and saying that if I see another headline or panel talking about millennial wine drinkers that doesn’t include millennial winemakers, I’m gonna scream. It’s been frustrating to see articles on this topic and they keep interviewing the same more established voices over and over but not including millennial winemakers in those discussions. I’m selling lots of wine to millennials, so I definitely have a point of view.
Ultimately, millennial wine drinkers want to have something fun, easy to drink, and convenient. Branding is important. Millennials have grown up with things being convenient, and so they are always looking for that convenience factor. For example, wine in a can is exploding because it is easy and convenient and can be taken on a hike, to the beach, or to a cookout.
Wineries need to realize that millennials are in their second recession in their short careers, so they are not in a position to buy $60, $70, $80, or $200 bottles of wine on a regular basis. Wineries should consider how they are meeting that reality with what they are producing. Also, brand loyalty is perhaps not as strong for millennials. There are so many brands in the marketplace, and people like to try new things, so all of us need to be prepared for that fact. Just because someone buys my wines in one year, they may not buy my wines again next year. So it is important to make sure that your brand is attracting new customers, while still engaging your existing customers.
9. How can wineries appeal to millennial customers?
Even if wineries choose not to change their price point or wines, there is a lot that wines can do to engage with millennial consumers. They can expand their social media presence. They can reach out and engage the younger market. They can create new video content and engage with influencers. It is a whole new world, but I think a little bit of effort will go a long way.