Picking and crushing grapes, blending wines, and labeling bottles are not tasks usually performed by retail store employees. But they’re becoming increasingly common for the staff of Di Bruno Bros. Bottle Shop in Philadelphia.
Since taking part in their first harvest in 2019, the gourmet grocery shop has partnered with a number of domestic wineries to make collaboration cuvées sold exclusively in their stores. Di Bruno’s beverage buyer Sande Friedman remembers the idea for such collaborations coming up organically. “Because Di Bruno’s is a company that does private-label imports, it’s a pretty standard conversation for our type of business to think about,” she says. Di Bruno’s had done collaborations with charcuterie and cheese producers before; why not try it with wine?
Di Bruno’s has a reputation for being a prime source for small-production, indie bottles that can otherwise be hard to find in Pennsylvania, a government-run wine and liquor monopoly state. The collaboration series has been a great way to put their “money where our mouth is,” says Friedman.
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning newsletters and get insider intel, resources, and trends delivered to your inbox every week.
Retailers in other parts of the country are also discovering newfound benefits from such collaborations. Many see them as a way to showcase a store’s ethos while also supporting the small producers whose wines they love to carry. And based on how quickly they sell out, customers see their merit, too.
How Collaborations Benefit Wine Shops
Unlike most private-label wines, which are created by wineries and custom crush facilities for companies like Costco and Whole Foods in addition to restaurant groups, Di Bruno’s involves the bottle shop team as much as possible in the winemaking process. “It becomes a sort of team empowerment thing,” says Friedman. “We make multiple trips. We go pick, we go taste everything, we do the blending, we’ve gotten to be hands on with every part.”
For the first collaboration, Friedman flew out to La Clarine Farm in Somerset, California, where she handpicked and foot-stomped the very Barbera and Zinfandel grapes that would become Di Bruno’s inaugural collaboration wine. Six months later, she tasted samples of the wines, conducting blending trials until she nailed the right ratio. The 50 cases they made sold out quickly—so quickly, in fact, that Friedman upped each subsequent iteration to 100 cases.
This spring, the shop debuted the seventh wine in their DB & Friends Wine Series, a Chambourcin rosé produced in partnership with Galen Glen Winery in Andreas, Pennsylvania, with grapes the bottle shop team picked last fall. Since that first harvest in 2019, Friedman has harnessed the relationships she’s developed with producers and distributors to arrange collaborations with Wayvine Winery, also in Pennsylvania, Red Newt Cellars in the Finger Lakes, and the Oregon wineries Pray Tell Wines in McMinnville, Maloof Wines in Forest Grove, and Portland’s Division Wine Co.
For some retailers, pursuing unique collaborations with wineries is a way to introduce their customers to wines that might otherwise be unavailable in their state. “Some producers make so much stuff and only a portion of it comes into Georgia,” says Jesse Kirkpatrick, the director of customer experience at Elemental Spirits Co., a boutique bottle shop in Atlanta. “We’re able to add a draw to the producer to send something to Georgia that they might not have considered, or maybe had only sent a case or two of in the past.”
Elemental Spirits has worked with Division Wine Co., Field Recordings in Paso Robles, and Sonoma County’s Iconic Wines for its Periodic collaboration series, something that has helped draw in consumers. “It gives us a way to set our wine program apart from others in the city,” says Kirkpatrick.
What Do Producers Get Out of It?
Being able to say they worked directly with a winery to make a custom cuvée is an enticing story retailers get to tell when selling these wines. But producers stand to win from this unique relationship, too.
Retailers investing in collaboration wines is a way to support small producers working with lower margins. Instead of buying one or two cases of wine, they buy one or two pallets. And for a lot of producers, the assured income opens a window for creativity. “It’s a way for us to work with producers that we really love and respect. And to give them a little bit of adventure and a little bit of license to do something that they might not normally do,” says Eric Moorer, the director of sales at Domestique Wine in Washington, D.C. “For us, it’s actually about access and putting out something that you’re extremely proud of.”
Thomas Monroe, the co-owner and co-winemaker of Division Wine Co., has done collaborations with all three aforementioned wine shops. “There is excitement built around these collabs that exposes us both to new customers and helps create long lasting bonds between us and our retail partners,” he says. The retailers that the winery partners with are “pretty involved in both formulation of the idea and wine to be made, of course the branding, and helping choose the final blends,” he says. “We do handle the winemaking for the most part, and we make suggestions based on the goals of the project and our experiences, but it is a true collaboration.”
At the end of the day, the retailers behind these collaborations all agree on one thing: They want the wineries they partner with to succeed. “Everyone talks about paying homage to producers they love, and collaborations are the way to actually bring that to life,” says Friedman. “I wish more people would do it.”
Sign up for our award-winning newsletter
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.
Shelby Vittek has written for Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, the Washington Post, Modern Farmer, National Geographic, Liquor.com, and Plate Magazine, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @bigboldreds.