Working in wine

Women bridging the gap in the wine industry
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Photos by Greg Hollar

Before the pandemic upended the hospitality industry, most modern wine bars were straightforward affairs. They would offer thirty or so wines by the glass, several types of stemware, a few esoteric bottles, and perhaps some educational classes and tastings.

Due to rapidly changing health and safety protocols, wine bars must now redefine themselves. Across the country, vinological hosts have transformed white tablecloth restaurants and brick-and mortar bars into seasonal pop-ups. These mobile wine bar ventures represent a new breed of hospitality. Wine programs are abbreviated at some, while others reimagine their target audience and what they want out of their business.

I spoke with two wonderful women based in Rochester who have extensive experience in the hospitality industry and also happen to frequently collaborate. Colleen Hardy is the co-owner of Living Roots Winery in Rochester, and Maiah Johnson Dunn is the creator of Chasing Grapeness, a wine pairing dinner series.

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Colleen Hardy

Colleen Hardy spent many years in Australia with her husband, Seb, each of them working in different aspects of the wine industry. Seb’s background is in viticulture and winemaking, while Colleen’s is in marketing. In those early years they also made a bit of their own wine on the side. Seb was always keen on branching out and experimenting with his own winemaking. When the time came to explore that more seriously, they decided it was a venture they wanted to enter into together. As a result, Living Roots, Rochester’s first urban winery, was born in 2017. Living Roots is a unique operation that makes wines from grapes grown in two different terroirs: the nearby Finger Lakes region and South Australia.

Recently, Colleen debuted a casual wine bar pop-up at her family’s Keuka Lake property. She wanted to make it approachable by swapping fine dining formality with a welcoming guest experience. “It’s more about the feeling than anything,” she says, noting that the pandemic has “pushed things into new test models.”

Pop-ups are all the rage, and the pandemic has driven everyone to be creative. Since Living Roots started to do these, will you do them more often?

CH: Even pre-COVID, we enjoyed participating in wine dinners, festivals, and the occasional pop-ups at local businesses. But we hadn’t done anything quite like our FLX Pop-Up until this summer. We saw a need for outdoor experiences, something we can’t really offer at our Rochester location, and we’d already been planning on building a tasting room on my family’s Keuka Lake property. COVID made that concept a little more urgent, so we adapted the plans to more of a simple pop-up style operation. It all happened quite quickly, and we were limited on what types of permits we could use on such short notice. It was a great first run, and we look forward to doing it even bigger and better for the full season next year.

Did the pop-ups change your business model at all since COVID seems to be changing the landscape of hospitality?

CH: They certainly lend flexibility, which has proven to be key in a year like 2020. Pop-ups won’t replace our core business, where the tasting room and distribution are crucial, but there’s no denying that pop-ups can expand our reach and offer another stream of revenue that is so badly needed in times like these.

What are you most excited about in 2021?

CH: We plan to open our FLX Pop-Up for the full season, and we’ll expand both the set-up and the offerings. While that is a great short-term option, we’re also working on plans for a proper tasting room on the property. Ideally, we’ll start building in fall 2021 for a spring 2022 opening. We’re also working on plans for a small tasting room in South Australia and are seeking distribution in both the US and Australia. I’m hopeful and excited to see our wines reaching people outside the Rochester area.

On the production side, we’re increasingly experimenting with low-impact winemaking techniques and different varieties best suited to the climates we’re working in. That would make them more sustainable in both the vineyard and the winery. This includes southern Mediterranean varieties in South Australia like Teroldego, Nero D’Avola, and Montepulciano, and high-quality French-American hybrid varieties in New York like Traminette, Cayuga White, and Aromella.

We’re really excited about our new and upcoming releases, along with the release of a new label for our more emerging varieties and alternative styles. We’ve also started kegging some of our wines this year and will expand our refillable bottle program as we start to roll out those newer vintages.

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Maiah Johnson Dunn

Pop-upss are very en vogue at the moment, but I like them. The reason? It allows passionate people with good ideas and plenty of talent the ability to try to create a business and develop a following from a safe start, without needing to risk large amounts of up-front capital. A perfect example of this is Maiah Johnson Dunn, an experiential marketer and the creator of Chasing Grapeness, a charitable wine pairing dinner series that grew its roots as an FLX-wine focused Instagram account.

Tell us about the pop-ups you’ve done with Avvino and the Historic German House.

MJD: I call Chasing Grapeness my accidental activism, and I’m just so proud of it. Toward the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote an Instagram post detailing why I shut down my wine-focused account, and it went a bit viral. Of the people who reached out, one came to me with an actionable plan to help amplify the message further: Chris Grocki. Chris has been a fantastic ally and partner in the dinners, facilitating the initial partnership with Avvino, and orchestrating a second dinner at his own venue, the Historic German House.

Each dinner is typically a five-course meal with wine pairings from FLX winemaker allies and Black-owned wines from across the US. Proceeds from the dinner have been donated to charities focused on the wellness and betterment of the Rochester BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] community.

What is your overarching goal for these pop-ups?

MJD: Outside of the charitable contributions, my pop-up dinners have one main goal: to start the conversation about a lack of racial diversity in the wine community of the Finger Lakes, and overall. The format of dinners seems to work well for this goal, with wine and food pairings providing a soft landing for the hard truths. My hope is to inspire attendees into actionable (not performative) allyship. The pop-up nature only adds to the impact of being able to have these conversations with a broader audience across our city, with interest in expanding them across the state and maybe beyond.

Are pop-ups likely going to be the way of the future?

MJD: Absolutely. They already are, in my opinion. I was lucky enough to work for a pop-up pioneer at the start of my career, where I had the honor of building experiences for clients like Delta Air Lines, Google, L’Oreal, and Sports Illustrated. Pop-up experiences have only continued to grow in popularity over the years, but especially now as we’re living in a post-COVID world where outdoor activities are preferred. I think a brand would be remiss not to capitalize on seasonal open-air opportunities, especially now when customers are essentially begging for them.

The beauty and the opportunity of a pop-up is that it is built to be transient. Pop-up businesses are generally more affordable than permanent venues, which makes them attractive to proprietors who need agility. By focusing on appealing to wider audiences, these temporary venues also capture the sincerest essence of hospitality and provide the comfort many will be seeking in a post-coronavirus world.

Words and styling by Tanvi Asher

Photography by Greg Hollar

Makeup by Lamany Chanthavong 

Categories: Current Issue – Dialed In, Dialed in Teaser, Style, Tanvi Asher