Canned wine might have been primed for socializing in the era of social distancing
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with startup founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Kristin Olszewski got her start in the hospitality industry while working in restaurants in the Bay Area and became enamored with wine while working at Michelin-starred Saison. After pursuing a postbaccalaureate in medicine at Harvard, she realized she’d fallen in love with the wine and restaurant industries and instead went on to get her sommelier certification. From there, she furthered her depth of knowledge as a sommelier at Straight Wharf Restaurant in Nantucket and the award-winning Husk Nashville before moving back out West to head the wine program for F10 Creative in Palm Springs.
In 2017, while on the sommelier team at Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles, Olszewski founded canned wine brand Nomadica with Emma Toshack to change the way that people consume and think about wine. Nomadica sources its wines from boutique winemakers, packaging them in chic cans with limited-edition art from independent illustrators, painters, sculptors, photographers, and street artists. Additionally, because glass bottles are 400 times as heavy as cans, the Nomadica brand reduces emissions from shipping by up to 80%, making it a more sustainable wine-drinking choice, according to the cofounders. Olszewski is also the wine director of Gigi’s, a new French bistro opening in Hollywood this fall.
Fortune recently spoke with Olszewski, as well as Tara Hannaford, Nomadica’s new chief operating officer, about how the first year has been and what the company plans to do next.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Could you tell me a bit about your backgrounds? What were you doing professionally prior to launching Nomadica?
Olszewski: I majored in sustainable farming and gender studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and ended up moving to San Francisco after graduating to work in a revolving door of Michelin-starred restaurants. While working for the Sons & Daughters Group, [sommelier and wine director] Carlin Karr really introduced me to the world of wine, and it was all downhill from there. I remember being amazed that you could find incredible wine at affordable prices; before tasting with Carlin, I always felt like wine was so inaccessible.
I did a brief detour back to the East Coast on the med school track at Harvard and ended up working at this incredible wine bar, Spoke Wine Bar, in Boston. Flea Foster, the owner, took time to taste with me, develop my confidence in my own ability, and gave me the courage I needed to leave school and pursue wine. Since then, I’ve been a sommelier and wine director at Straight Wharf Restaurant, F10 Group, Husk, Osteria Mozza, and Gigi’s. I’m completely obsessed with wine; passionate about the “new” California, France, and Italy. I love that wine gives an opportunity to support farmers who are truly stewards of the land.
Hannaford: I’ve been working in wine and spirits on the brand side for 12 years. I grew up in the hospitality business so landing in the space professionally isn’t a surprise; this business is very familial and tends to be in your blood. My career has been spent working with startups, from the ground floor up to acquisition. I’ve led sales at three tequila companies: Peligroso, DeLeón, Casamigos—all acquired by Diageo. Creating products, building teams, and national strategy are all aspects of the brand-building business that I love. It’s wildly challenging, requires a daily sense of urgency, but the reward is incredibly fulfilling.
Less interesting, but to answer the question: I have a background in performance art and worked as a professional dancer for many years. When I went back to college at Loyola Marymount, I studied political science and was on my way to law school in D.C. when I deferred and jumped into the beverage industry in 2008.
What inspired the launch of Nomadica? Who is your target audience?
Olszewski: We were inspired to launch Nomadica because cans make sense in so many ways; they’re much more sustainable than glass, a great way to preserve freshness in a wine, and an amazing way to just have a single serving without having to open an entire bottle.
Our target audience is anyone who loves wine. I know that in my house, if I open up a bottle it’s not going back in the fridge; Nomadica makes it easy for wine drinkers to consume a single serving of wine or consume multiple styles of wine without having to open up multiple bottles. Just as I’ve done for over a decade on the floor of restaurants, I take so much joy in sourcing universally loved, high-quality flavor profiles that suit all occasions.
What were some of the biggest hurdles of your first year in business? What surprised you the most?
Olszewski: Our biggest hurdle was certainly the fact that we are really doing something unique in the canned wine space. Thankfully, in recent years, there have been several amazing producers also putting great juice into cans. But it can still be an uphill battle with buyers. My favorite thing in the world is to sit down and taste our wines with wine professionals and see the look of shock and surprise on their faces. As quality canned wine becomes more popular and understood, we’ve seen our business grow with it.
One of the most pleasant surprises was how many female entrepreneurs went out of their way to support us. Whether it was mentorship, collaborations, or connections, there was truly an overabundance of women supporting us.
While it has been a rough year for the wine industry, from uneven domestic sales over the past few years to wildfires raging up and down the West Coast, delivery and direct-to-consumer sales for wine have shot upward during the pandemic. Presumably, it would seem canned wine would also be an ideal choice for customers looking to socialize outdoors. How have the past several months gone for your company? What has it been like to work with supply chain partners and shipping services?
Hannaford: We had planned to launch our e-commerce model in 2020 but not at the speed COVID-19 threw us into. Because of our long-standing industry relationships, we built the business strategically through our wholesale channels and heavily on-premise. As a small and nimble team, we were able to pivot quickly, but to do it on-brand and at an elevated level required all hands on deck—and hiring a badass creative director to bring our vision to life.
The upside has been a much quicker conversion to our new format: cans. People love the uncontaminated, single-serving feature naturally provided in our form factor, and with many of us drinking more, the responsible consumption control it helps provide. We’ve seen a huge interest uptake in our product from both accounts offering to-go and customers wanting to share it at home during their socially distanced hangouts.
That said, what has it been like to secure funding for Nomadica? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-backed, or some mixture of both?
Hannaford: We’re funded by a mix of venture capital and wine-loving angel investors. We have been thoughtful and strategic because we want more than just a capital injection from our funding partners; they shape our culture just as much as our full-time team.
Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see Nomadica in the market?
Hannaford: Canned wine is not a fad; the category has seen high double-digit sustained growth over the past three years with no signs of slowing down. Early entrants were familiar 750-milliliter companies simply launching a can option to less–wine focused, heavy marketing campaigned companies.
Nomadica saw an opportunity in the space for sustainability as a moral imperative, while working with respected winemakers to can product that speaks to existing wine drinkers and anyone with a refined and curious palate. We’re leading the charge in the premium segment and see more people looking for high-quality offerings in the space everyday.