In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what’s your business?
I’m Patt Egan, one of the co-founders of Commonwealth Crush. We are a winery operation for winemakers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley — a custom crush meets incubator meets think tank cooperative. We offer a range of winemaking and related support services tailored to anyone from independent winemakers who need a production facility to brand owners who need full-service support.
What made you want to do this?
My co-founders Ben and Tim Jordan had the initial kernel of the idea after their experience of getting their own small family brand up and running. We realized that our state didn’t have a facility that was really geared toward the individual winemaker. A place where they could come in, utilize our tanks, equipment and expertise, and also call their own shots. We developed the idea while I was getting my MBA at UVA, and we opened shortly after I graduated. For me, it was a perfect mix of having a passion for wine and also wanting to be part of building a business from the ground up.
Credit: Commonwealth Crush
Can you talk about balancing the “new and innovative” aspects of your business with the history of the industry?
We set up in the historic Virginia Metalcrafters building, which is an important part of Waynesboro and Virginia manufacturing history. In fact, it’s on the US National Register of Historic Places. We appreciate being part of a long line of Virginia craftspeople who have occupied this space. It just feels right. And our overall business model took inspiration from Carlton Winemakers Studio in Oregon, Punchdown Cellars and Grand Cru Custom Crush in California. We’re proud to be part of a long tradition of community-focused facilities around the globe that have proven invaluable to the survival and growth of small producers. We were proud to receive Waynesboro’s first Agriculture & Forestry Industries Development Fund grant award.
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How many wine brands are you working with now?
Right now we have eight companies and as we look to expand, we’re striving to be a force for supporting more diverse representation within the wine industry. We’re launching a winemaker incubator program this coming harvest, designed to foster and support communities that lack representation in Virginia wine. To help jump-start these projects, we’re waiving the typical winemaking fees associated with the first year of production in our facility.
What are some of the biggest challenges you and winemakers face?
So principally I would say that the financial aspect of the wine industry is really difficult. It’s a tough slope to climb. It is a huge financial burden for small producers to build their own facilities. It’s a big hurdle to clear and what our model is actively trying to address. We take on those fixed costs and clients are then paying us based on the tons of fruit processed and things like that. The other big hurdle is the complexity of regulation within the industry, permitting, the nuances of marketing, the three-tier system with distribution versus direct sales, and so many other things.
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What do you advise people looking to get into the wine industry?
It is funny, there’s this juxtaposition of the relaxed romance of the industry versus when you pop the hood and look inside at the complexity you have to navigate. I think that’s the reason that winemaking attracts people from so many different backgrounds — it’s like this Rubik’s Cube that you can’t help but enjoy solving.
Credit: Commonwealth Crush