When JW Ray, owner and winemaker of JOLO Vineyards, exchanged a corporate software technology life in Ft. Lauderdale FL, for a wine life in North Carolina, he knew the business he was entering was not for the faint-hearted.
Words & Photographs by Colleen Thompson
Ray understood that winemaking was more than romance, artistry, and history. Still donning his Gucci loafers, he understood he would have to be part mechanic, part plumber, and big part farmer. That he would wear many designer hats: chemist, microbiologist, botanist, geologist, meteorologist, and entomologist. And that he would make 500 + decisions about each of his award-winning wines, even before the corks were stuck into the neck of the bottle. A misstep in any one decision, no matter how small, could create problems down the line. Fortunes lost on small errors.
So, when the North Carolina wine industry got an unimaginable hit due to COVID-19, affecting the wine business at every level of sales, marketing, and production, I wanted to hear how JW Ray was navigating the situation. There is no playbook, no studies at business school, or wine school that can prepare you for a pandemic.
Springtime in the Vineyards Still Arrives
Spring is a busy time in the vineyards and the work continues regardless of a pandemic. Buds are bursting and the vines are showing-off their new leaves. Bees are busy collecting pollen from the cover crop beneath the vines. The birds have returned and life forges forwards despite a virus.
“Our business is not for the faint of heart,” says Ray.
“Spring is when many of the winery's expenses accelerate, particularly if you are planting new vines. JOLO is adding 5 more acres of vines or 4,000 new vines which requires installation of infrastructure and land prep before planting 4,000 vines one-by-one. We’re also purchasing bottles, corks, foils and labels to bottle prior vintages and making room in the winery for a new vintage. In addition, we’re pruning older vines, knocking down weeds, and amending soil if needed. Spring is the second busiest time after harvest for most wineries,” says Ray.
Winemaking is an industry and art form that measures itself in years and decades, not days. Yet in the first few weeks of government measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, it has impacted everyone. With tasting rooms closed, there are layoffs. The closure of most restaurants has meant that key sales channels have diminished substantially. All winemakers and wineries are trying to adapt by increasing online sales; and it remains to be seen if it will make up enough.
“The pandemic doesn’t affect the winemaking, that still goes on. Wine is a time capsule. Each bottle represents that vintage year’s weather, winemaking personality, local challenges, growing challenges as well as state of mind. The show must go on, my grandkids will want to try the 2020 vintage for sure to see how JOLO was able to overcome the challenges.”
Wineries Were Not Built For Virtual Experiences
Part of the challenge was the closure of JOLO’s End Posts Restaurant, along with the patio and popular outdoor event venue. All of these businesses are predicated on a walk-in and mingle basis. Wine tastings, the purchase of the wines inspired by overlooking the bucolic beauty of the vineyards, wine and food pairings and wine tours have all come to a screeching halt.
“Having 150 acres, mountains, winery buildings, barrels and tanks, and food wasn’t built for an online shopping experience. Our online sales have exploded, but at the same time our in-house sales have imploded. Overall, we are down over 70% in sales. We are doing all that we can to keep employees working. Our waiters and waitresses are now labeling bottles of wine every day. This was not our business model. That said we have adapted and are taking the doors that are open versus knocking on the closed ones,” says Ray.
The Show Goes On With the Release of Carolus XII
Making sure the show does go on is the release of Carolus XII. The name and the wine pay homage to North Carolina. The Carolinas were named to honor King Charles IX of France, King Charles I & King Charles II of England. The Latin name for Charles is Carolus and the name given to the Carolinas. The XII signifies North Carolina joining as the 12th colony, out of the original 13 colonies. A big, bold, dark fruit beauty made up of 25% Petit Verdot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Zinfandel, and 10% Merlot.
“I’ve wanted for many years to make a premium wine that highlights what is possible in North Carolina and how we can compete on the world stage of wine,” explains Ray.
“It has taken 7 vintages for me to have the availability of the highest quality fruit to be able to add this wine to our line-up. 2019 was a remarkable growing year punctuated by an extremely dry pre-harvest month with dry, slightly breezy weather which concentrated the fruit and varietal characteristics. We sold out of our pre-release allocation of 1,000 bottles in just 4 days.”
The pre-release popularity of the Carolus XII allocation was thanks to a loyal and dedicated wine club membership. An important part of JOLOs business model from the beginning was to build this strong base of loyal members.
“In my opinion, we have one of the most sophisticated groups of palates anywhere with our JOLO Wine Club members. They have very discerning palates and are big fans of our wines. They’re super supportive of JOLO and we are uber fortunate to have every one of them. With almost 1,700 members, we still ship quarterly shipments. Most have also ordered extra on-line for shipping, appended their quarterly orders for an extra stay at home treat and many others took advantage of free shipping specials that we ran.”
The New Normal for JOLO
As for the long term effects of the pandemic and its impact on the buying habits of wine lovers, JW is optimistic. “Americans are resilient, and dislike being told to stay anywhere, for any reason. We all did what was required to get this over quickly. I also know we have short memories, which is our strength during traumatic times. We won't dwell in the past and cry over spilled milk but get back on the horse for another ride. I expect the first 90 days of being fully open to be similar to prior normal months, and thereafter for things to open up full throttle.”
The immediate challenges, however, are staying creative and finding ways to do business, continuing to grow the business, reach and plan for what you can’t plan for.
“Right now, we need to keep as many teammates employed and productive as possible and keep our most valued and cherished wine club members engaged,” explains Ray. “Every day is a box of chocolates!”
The greatest challenge has been modifying the business every 2-4 weeks to maximize what has been allowed by the Governors Executive orders while keeping guests and employees safe. Finding new ways to generate revenue and to stay relevant. "Things like sending free rolls of toilet paper with every online wine order and partnering with local to go restaurants to park our JOLO wine trailer out front to pair bottles of wine with their to go meals," adds Ray.
Dancing With Mother Nature
Winemakers, everywhere will tell you: Every time you think the worst is over, just wait. Mother Nature will throw you a curve.
“On- April 11th we were hit with a surprise frost that killed off 30% of our new shoots! Then Again on April 18th and lost another 30%! So already in 2020, our harvest will be off by 50-60%. Now we have to stave off hail, torrential rains, possible hurricanes, deer, birds, raccoons, possums, and groundhogs and collect every berry in great shape,” says Ray.
Even during this global pandemic, the show must go on.
“We are planting grapes today, spending tens of thousands of dollars and will invest hundreds of thousands of dollars caring for those vines over the next 4 years. We’ll spend money to process and turn them into wine, and then spend tens of thousands of dollars more to age it in barrels AND THEN, we get to sell it glass by glass for $10.00.”
So, any words of wisdom left?
“Buckle up, have fun, drink more wine,” advises Ray.
JOLO WINERY & VINEYARDS recently purchased Hutton Vineyards, comprised of 45 acres of vitas vinifra grapes along with a large winery building. The name has been changed to Rayson (named after the Ray's sons) Winery And Vineyards. A tasting room is being added and is scheduled to open for visitors in spring of 2023.