This Online Wine Club Gives You Access to the Next Great American Winemakers

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In the small town where I live, there is a guy who sells bagels—good bagels—on Instagram. He boils and bakes them at home and sorts them on his kitchen table. He takes his orders through DMs and jots them down by hand. It is not, and may never be, a full time job, but it’s just one example of the many delicious side hustles that inspire me these days.

I would have assumed that winemaking, on the other hand, was a business with barriers of entry too high for the side hustle model to work. But a recent tasting with the Ownroot Collective proved me wrong. In California wine country, lots of young, talented assistant winemakers, cellar masters, and the like are buying grapes and producing wine under their own labels. But their output is so small and the selling of anything alcoholic is so arduous, it’s hard for that wine to see the light of day beyond local potlucks and barbecues. Ownroot, launched in 2020 by Terra Jane Albee, whose long career in Napa includes marketing work with a number of the larger wineries in the region, is a platform that effectively gives newer, younger, and less-resourced winemakers an opportunity to hit a wider audience.

Every side hustle project is not a good one, and the involved process of producing wine makes it particularly susceptible to bad outcomes, so Albee is careful about who she features. The first requirement is that ever potential winemaker must work in the wine industry in one way or another. This is not, she explained to me, the place for some rich lawyer or dentist with a vanity project. That often means that an Ownroot winemaker has formally studied the science of winemaking, and has years of experience in production for someone else’s label. After that requirement is met, it’s on to the tasting panel. “The panel has to find the wine delicious,” says Albee. “But we also want wines that over deliver for the price,” which is typically $25-$45. She’s nabbed a number of winemakers who, even as they work to build up their own brands, come quite pedigreed with experience at wineries like Scribe, Tate, Clos du Val, and Bravante.

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The tasting I attended over Zoom featured Belong Wine Company, which is headed up by Alli and Bertus van Zyl. Bertus is currently the winemaker at James Cole and Calistoga’s Tank Garage, and has experience at other big name Napa County stalwarts like Hess and Chappellet. Their crisp, refreshing 2019 Mourvedre was in some ways a perfect reflection of Ownroot’s focus: while a 2019 survey counted 94,000 acres of cabernet sauvignon planted in California, there were about 1,100 acres growing mourvedre at the time. The van Zyls get their grapes from El Dorado county, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a region that has been producing wine grapes since the mid-19th century, but today has only about five percent of the production of Napa. These fabulously tasty, but less common California varieties—like carignan, verdelho, and albariño—are a big part of the Ownroot MO.


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Photo by Joseph De Leo” src=”” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/6Rk5NEcyG42GnFZYuMUrqQ–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTEyMDA-/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/B1AVBRJuGCny2rAvVZJA5Q–~B/aD00MDAwO3c9MzIwMDthcHBpZD15dGFjaHlvbg–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/epicurious_289/635794cabec2e356bc2cac2a0204d6b7″/>

Photo by Joseph De Leo

For wine drinkers, Ownroot is a chance to be in a wine club without the headaches that typically come with belonging to a single-winery club. I’ve been in a few, and the issues were always the same: mandatory purchases whether or not I wanted the wine they were offering, a requirement I pick up wine at the winery or gargantuan shipping costs, and “perks” that weren’t really so perky (complimentary tastings are fine if you live near a winery; I did not). Ownroot solves those first two problems by letting members, who pay $9 a month or $90 for the year, to buy what they want when they want, and offering shipping that’s less than $2 a bottle. Albee’s approach to the third problem embraces the fact that none of these winemakers have much in the way of an official home base that they could welcome visitors to, even if they wanted to. Instead, every month Ownroot features two different winemakers who members can meet and do tastings with online (none have been repeated so far and Albee seems to think she can keep that streak going). The club gives members a chance to have facetime with the winemakers themselves, and in some cases create IRL relationships. Albee told me one winemaker even invited a member to come and stay at her house on a future trip to California.

More than anything, though, Ownroot is a chance to drink wine you’d never know existed if you weren’t hanging out regularly with the latest generation of American winemakers. And who knows, if you strike up a good connection with someone over Zoom, maybe you can just slide into their DMs for future orders.

Ownroot Collective Monthly Membership

$9.00, Ownroot Collective

Originally Appeared on Epicurious

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