L’uva Bella Winery is leaning even harder into off-premise sales with a refined suite of offerings and scaling up production capabilities as part of $1 million to $1.5 million in upgrades underway at its facility outside Youngstown.
Owners Marisa Sergi and Evan Schumann — who last year acquired the business that includes a commercial winemaking operation and bistro from Sergi’s parents — said they are in-process with installing additional tanks and a new filtration system that will enable about a doubling of output to 100,000 cases of wine annually. They anticipate running at that new pace by June. They’ll follow that up with some additions to their warehouse.
“When we acquired this business, we wanted to take these brands national,” Schumann said, noting one of their brands, Purple Rain, which is a line of sweet wines made with juice from Welch’s Foods, was available only in the Youngstown and Cleveland areas as of last year. “Over the last 10 months, we have taken that from a regional brand to distribution in five states and Washington, D.C., and we plan to enter the Carolinas by end of year.”
Since the new ownership, the winery has cut product SKUs by 85% in order to focus on three core brands: Purple Rain; Red, which is the rebranded version of RedHead Wines Sergi started pre-L’uva Bella; and Passion, which includes fruit wine varieties such as blackberry.
L’uva Bella’s bistro in Lowellville once was a source for about half of the company’s total wine sales. But with that being closed through a large portion of the pandemic, off-premise sales became even more important.
About 80% of wine-related revenue came through off-premise channels like grocery stores, Schumann said. Their products were previously available in some Walmart and Giant Eagle stores, but their grocery resellers have since grown to also include brands such as Meijer, Kroger and Discount Drug Mart. While the restaurant was affected by the pandemic, the wine and juice side of the business was up by 30% at year-end.
“Our core strategy it to build a national brand. It’s not necessarily operating a bistro, so that is not a core piece of the business,” Schumann said.
Efficiencies put in place, such as reducing the number of wines L’uva Bella is selling, helped free up cash flow early on that enabled these upgrades.
Scaling up production now is critical, as Sergi said she’s securing pre-orders in new markets, including North and South Carolina. She said she’s also talking to retailers in Florida and Georgia. Markets the wines are currently sold in are Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and D.C.
L’uva Bella has roughly 30 full- and part-time employees between its restaurant and commercial wine and juice operations. The business anticipates hiring for another five to seven positions as production scales up over the coming years.
In the future, Sergi said she plans to add a regional sales office in Cleveland.
L’uva Bella’s plans for off-premise sales make a lot of sense considering the state of an already-competitive wine business dominated by California brands.
According to Silicon Valley Bank’s State of the Wine Industry Report 2021 — a prominent resource in the industry — although there was a pop in U.S. wine sales in spring 2020 as the pandemic forced people into lockdowns, off-premise sales trends leveled out throughout the year and looked more comparable at year-end to 2019. Wine sales in March spiked more than 60% over the prior year before slowly falling back to normal volumes in the following months.
One of the challenges for winemakers is appealing to younger imbibers, who are increasingly health conscious and tend to choose hard seltzers, craft beer or spirits over wine when they do drink. A major opportunity for winemakers will be direct-to-consumer sales, which are expected to be more popular with the younger crowd.