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Naked Winery employees buy Oregon company
HOOD RIVER, Ore. — Peter Steinfeld couldn’t pull it off by himself, so “Team Naked” stepped up and has him covered as the new president and primary owner of Oregon-based Naked Winery.
Great Northwest Wine has learned that co-founders David and Jody Barringer and Dave Michalec will formally announce today they have sold their 45,000-case company and four Oregon tasting rooms to their German-born winemaker and a group of employee and family investors that includes Hood River tasting room manager Lindsey Ewald and her fiancé, James Nygren, a former employee.
“David and Jody said from the beginning that they were building this not just for themselves but for the team, what we call ‘Team Naked.’ It was always the plan that the employees take it over,” Steinfeld told Great Northwest Wine. “It just so happens that I was involved in all the intricacies of the business, not just the winery side of things. I would take over as the CEO, and they would step aside and semi-retire. Last summer, they said, ‘Peter, why do you go ahead and buy it?’ ”
Steinfeld, 52, takes over as president and remains head winemaker. Terms of sale, celebrated earlier this month by employees, were not available beyond announcing that the Barringers and Michalec have earned lifetime club membership and employee pricing.
“I couldn’t see that I would have the funds to pull it off, but really, with the whole team on my side and committed to stick around me, I gained a lot of self-confidence, and in the end we pulled it together financially,” Steinfeld said. “I’m the majority owner, but there are a couple of investors and family members involved. I’m committed to the team, and we’ve got great, great people in the central office and all the tasting rooms.”
Next year, Naked Winery and their tasting rooms in Hood River, McMinnville, Bend and Seaside will celebrate the 20th anniversary of a company that offers clean wines branded with double entendres and served within a fun, provocative and unpretentious atmosphere.
“Jody, Dave and I founded Naked Winery with a shared vision of cutting America’s divorce rate in half by encouraging people to slow down, enjoy a glass of wine and whatever happens next,” David Barringer said in a statement. “One of our early goals was developing a team of dedicated employees who would want to take over ownership and operations once we decided to retire. Peter is the perfect person to take the helm, given his demonstrated experience growing our production and keen understanding of our customers and the experience they expect.”
From Mount Hood skier to Hood River vintner
Steinfeld said it’s easy for him to look back and remember how he landed at Naked Winery and what’s led him to stay.
“It was an accidental thing,” he said. “I came here for the skiing initially, and I ended up meeting David Barringer on the mountain and started at Naked in 2009. They had a consulting winemaker at that time, and they were expanding their winemaking in Hood River.”
Steinfeld’s work ethic, customer service talents and communication skills made a lasting impression. In some ways, he was destined to take over the winery, too.
“I always said that I knew just enough about winemaking to be dangerous,” he said.
Steinfeld, who grew up near the Rhine River between Cologne and Dortmund, speaks with just a whisper of a German accent. An uncle in the German wine trade did small-production winemaking and shared some insights with Steinfeld. School led him to the Silicon Valley’s Menlo College, where he graduated with a degree in international business. He traveled between Italy, Puerto Rico and back home before that fateful trip up Mount Hood.
“Naked Winery started fairly small, around 4,000 cases,” Steinfeld said.
He and his group now own tasting rooms in four cities in Oregon and five brands. They range from the entry level “We Aim to Tease” line with provocative labels, Outdoor Vino in BPA-free plastic bottles; Oh! Orgasmic “Tonight’s the Night” reserve wines; the NKD “Live NKD. Be NKD. Drink NKD” created for millennial appeal and the new Naked Cowboy Wines. Yep, it’s a partnership with the nearly naked Times Square figure.
Standing out from the crowd
There’s no doubt the Barringers and Michalec broke with tradition when they created and developed Naked Winery, and their downtown Hood River tasting room presence offers adventurous consumers a striking contrast to any of the 30 wineries and tasting rooms throughout the Columbia Gorge.
“We want to be sexy, not pornographic, and we want to help people start a conversation with wine,” Steinfeld said. “Say you bring a bottle home — and it could be great wine — but the label talks about the soil or maybe the winemaker. Now if you bring out at home or at a dinner party a bottle of Climax Red, Penetration Cab or Foreplay Chardonnay, the conversation goes in a different direction. It gets fun. It gets lively.
“People need to talk to each other,” Steinfeld continued. “We need to get them to turn off their phones and tune out their devices. The wines will get you to interact in any way you want to.”
He’s quick to point out there nothing pretentious about his wines or the tasting rooms.
“We have a lot of wine club members who are new to wine and don’t necessarily want to be overpowered, so they feel at ease with us,” he said. “Their response is usually, ‘Oh my god, I actually do like wine!’ We start them out on sweet wine and maybe at some point we’ll get them to try a red. We let them ask us. They learn to be comfortable with us, and they know they won’t get hurt or too embarrassed about trying a new wine.
“It will never be about me or the winemaking, it’s about Team Naked,” Steinfeld added. “We will always listen to our fans and our club members and do everything we can to make them happy.”
And they couldn’t care less what anyone else says about their unique business approach.
“I really don’t worry or look around at the other wineries. We’re so focused on being different,” Steinfeld said. “For us, it’s all about our fans, friends, wine club members and customers. All of what we do is only about that. We think of the other wineries as our friends and that we all have a role to play and that we all can contribute, and we all have the chance to help put the Columbia Gorge on the wine map more and more. We’re focused on our niche, making our customers happy, providing a good experience for them and making the best wine possible.”
Trained winemaking with local fruit
Earlier this month at the Oregon Tempranillo Celebration in Portland, assistant winemaker Alaina Waller presented Naked Winery’s Orgasmic Tempranillo. Both the grapes and the winemaker were local productions.
Waller grew up in her family’s Hood River Valley vineyard and matriculated to Oregon State University, switching from engineering to enology and viticulture along the way. Positions with Constellation-owned Hogue Cellars in Prosser, Wash., and E. & J. Gallo allowed her to return home as a trained winemaker in 2014, and she now heads up Steinfeld’s white wine program. Tracy Thomsen’s path to Hood River was a bit similar to that of Steinfeld, driven by snow sports. In 2010, Thomsen decided to give up a career as a diesel mechanic to serve as Naked’s cellarmaster.
“They both are eager to make things better,” Steinfeld said. “Alaina is a little shy sometimes, but she’s very smart and very intuitive, which already shows in our wines.”
Consumer acceptance drives Naked Winery away from making any drastic changes to their core programs other than shuffling a few vineyard sources and tweaking their approach with oak. Tannat is a variety that Team Naked is looking to hook up with, and they plan to roll out a standalone bottling of that hard-bodied wine in July to their club. Tempranillo is another big red they are bullish on.
“Our reserves, our Orgasmic wines, are all very local,” Steinfeld said. “We get our Tempranillo on Underwood Mountain from Nathan Ziegler, and our Pinot Gris is from Lamonti across the river. There’s Gunkel Farms right down the Gorge, and then there’s Echo West (near Hermiston).
“We’re super happy with our wine program, and one of the good things about the Gorge is that you are on the cusp between cooler and warmer climates,” he added. “It just depends upon how far east you go, and we have up to four different sources for some of our Orgasmic wines, all have slightly different nuances. It’s what the Gorge offers you. You might grow the same variety 60 to 90 miles apart and get totally different expressions of that grape.”
Those who drive along Interstate 84 through the Columbia Gorge can’t help but notice the coquettish nature of advertisements for Naked Winery’s tasting room in Hood River, but don’t expect to read about the wines in magazines, see scores on grocery shelves or hear of medals in blind competitions.
“We’ve never looked to see how other wines do with reviewers, and we don’t enter competitions,” Steinfeld said. “Our point system is with our customers. We always tell them, ‘We’re not going to tell what you should you like. It’s ‘What do you like?’ We’ve lived by that forever, and we’d developed unique taste profiles for most of those wines. We strive to stay true to the customers’ expectations each year and try to make small changes to improve some of those.”
Naked Winery looks to grow beyond Oregon
The funds and the ownership of Naked Winery changed hands just after Christmas, and Team Naked celebrated in style on Jan. 6-7, renting out Doug Fir Lounge in downtown Portland for their annual company appreciation party.
“It took six months to do it, and it was on the 28th of December when this finally closed,” Steinfeld said. “We were all pretty numb by that point. That next week, we brought in all the employees and had rooms for them. I took the stage for the first time after the handover, and it was very fun for all of us.”
By no means is Naked Winery a mom-and-pop operation.
“We are different, and people look at us differently,” Steinfeld said. “It was not easy to establish this brand and make it successful, but we did. We have a 401(k) plan with employer matching. We have health insurance for full-time people, and everyone who works for us is in the wine club. It’s all important.
“Naked Winery has been run as very sales-driven and growth-driven,” Steinfeld said. “We’re really growing the business and growing our fan bases. We’ve done a better job with our employees, tried to be a more efficient management team, and we’ve done better on the execution side of the winemaking. I believe in all of us, and not just myself.”
For the short term, the Barringers, particularly Jody, and Michalec will remain involved as part of the transition. Expect to find David on the slopes of Crystal Mountain near Mount Rainier.
“David is consulting on legal issues, but he’s a ski instructor through and through, and he’s going to spend the rest of the winter teaching,” Steinfield said. “He’s a district leader and a Boy Scout leader, and they hike and bike and want to be more active people, so this is the right time for them. One of the things we love to instill with our brand is to ‘take it outside with the outdoors,’ and they will get to live that lifestyle now.”
Steinfeld seems nicely positioned and well-rooted in the Columbia Gorge, too.
“I’m not giving up anything because I haven’t been doing anything but working 24/7 for the last few years,” he said. “My wife and I live near the old highway, so we like to go biking. I kiteboard in the summer. A lot of our employees are on paddleboards, and it seems that those who don’t are kayakers. There are plenty of opportunities here. You pick your sport and just do it.
“Once in a while I wish Hood River was just a bit bigger and we had a few more restaurants to choose from,” Steinfeld added, “but we’re only an hour from Portland and an hour to the airport, so the rest of world is not really that far away.”
There are two tasting rooms in South Dakota that use the Naked Winery brand akin to franchises, and Steinfeld said his ownership will make sure they remain in the distribution channel.
“There is definitely the possibility of having more tasting rooms elsewhere, and they would most definitely be Naked Winery and directly controlled,” he said. “Expansion is something we do look at, and while there’s nothing concrete in the works, we are aware of our brand. We have some big plans, and they could very well materialize. It’s really exciting where we are.
“In the end, it’s somewhat about the money, but not all of it,” he continued. “We have 50 to 60 employees depending upon the time of year, and they are all happy. We’ve got a strong core of people in place that is highly committed. As far as the future, there are things that we’re thinking about that I can’t talk about that are really big, but we’ll see where that takes us. I believe that Naked Winery will be going places.”
And Steinfeld repeated throughout the interview that he could not — and would not — have dreamed of taking control of Naked Winery without the emotional and monetary encouragement of his co-workers.
“The value of our employees is what got me to this point,” he said. “My love for everyone who works for Naked gave me the strength to power through getting this deal done. We have just an ultimate team, and that’s why I’m doing this. This is for all of Naked. I just want to cheerlead or be the coach of a good team. And thanks goes to David and Jody for building Naked because it wasn’t easy work.”