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Small Business Interview: Barrel Wine Tours

Entrepreneur Cindy Egan Lawson had a vision for her wine tour company. Certainly, she was motivated to sell high-quality, educational wine tours and encourage wine sales, but her intentions extended far beyond her own interests. For Cindy, launching Barrel Wine Tours was a labor of love for her community.

Small Business Interview: Barrel Wine Tours

In the 1990s, Cindy and her husband David started making wine in their garage in Covington, Washington. In 2005 they moved their winery, Covington Cellars, to the small town of Woodinville, becoming the nineteenth winery to open in the Pacific Northwest’s hotspot of wineries and tasting rooms featuring Washington wine.

Discovering an Opportunity

Washington State is the second largest premium wine producer in the U.S., and boasts an extremely high number of 90+ scoring wines, attesting to the exceptional quality of the wines produced there. Woodinville sits in the picturesque Sammamish River Valley, about a half-hour’s drive from Seattle, and is home to more than 100 wineries and tasting rooms ranging from a grand chateau to numerous tiny, boutique wineries peppered throughout the area. Cindy set out to create a greater awareness, locally and beyond, of the quality and diversity of Washington’s wine.

“After the economy hit a snag in 2008, I noticed that the traffic in the tasting rooms had dropped significantly,” she said. “Earlier that year, I was asked to do a corporate wine tour and I thought, why don’t I start a wine tour company to help bring people back in?”

So, Cindy founded Barrel Wine Tours in 2009 not only to bring more consumers to the area wineries, but also to bond and unite the wine community she was a part of. She drew on her background as a marketer, professionally-trained chef, winery owner and business woman to launch the company.

Defining a Small Business’ Goals

She describes Barrel Wine Tours as not just a tourism enterprise, but as a true co-op of more than 30 Washington wineries working together to offer guests all-inclusive tours that are designed to be educational and entertaining. Barrel Wine Tours’ professional tour guides share the history of the wine and its production, then provide a glimpse behind the winemaker’s curtain with cellar tours, introducing guests to the winemakers themselves who offer tastings of their latest releases.

She said it’s rewarding and exciting for her to bring people together. “Winemakers in general are a very warm and friendly group, but it’s been surprising, even to me, to see what great partners they are with Barrel Wine Tours. We all have a common goal: to create the very best experience for our guests.”  And indeed they should.  Barrel Wine Tours’ guests have purchased nearly 1,500 cases of Woodinville wine since its inception.

“We all share in marketing quite often, and it’s not uncommon for several wineries to do events together,” she said. “I consider it a co-op because we get the buy-in from the winery owners themselves, and we’re able to market and raise awareness of Woodinville and Washington State as a whole.”

Starting a Small Business

In the early days of the tour company, she used promotional programs such as Groupon to get the word out. “We reached a lot of people and it was a great way to get started, but we barely covered our costs.” Marketing each other and spreading the word were powerful grassroots efforts that ultimately helped grow the young tour company and increase awareness for other wineries.

“Any time you can market more than one winery at a time, it’s good for everyone, because we’re only as strong as our weakest link,” Cindy said. “It may be that there’s a new startup winery in the area and we’ll want to showcase them on a tour, or we’ll show off those of us who’ve been around for a while. We want to help grow the region.”

For example, Patterson Cellars is a fan-favorite on Barrel Wine Tours. Stephanie Stewart, business development and marketing manager for the winery, said Cindy’s tour company has supported Patterson Cellars and many other small wineries throughout the years.

“Barrel Wine Tours has helped put Woodinville on the map, showcasing small-batch wineries and educating guests on Washington wines in the process,” Stephanie said. “We have been fortunate to partner with BWT for more than six years. Cindy’s vision was to bring awareness to Woodinville Wine Country and offer an experience beyond wine tasting – guests get the chance to meet the winemakers, which creates a memorable experience.”

Growing a Small Business

Education is important to Cindy, as well as giving credit where credit is due. “There is quite a bit that goes into making wine; we want the consumers to understand that wine is made in the vineyard. The farmers who grow the grapes deserve as much credit as the winemaker, so we like to talk about the farms. It’s not like Napa Valley, where the grapes are grown right there; we need to give our guests more info so they understand and appreciate our process,” she said. “But it’s not all about the geeky wine stuff, we pride ourselves on reading our groups, determining what they want and then having fun on our tours.”

Another motivating factor for Cindy is the “buy local” concept. “We are cheerleaders for the “buy local” movement,” she said. “A lot of people still don’t understand the difference between going to the big-box store in the area and going to the local hardware store – we advocate buying direct and buying locally.”

Barrel Wine Tours prides itself on taking care of the wineries that participate. “For example, we pay tasting fees to the wineries we visit in order to support them,” she said, which is in contrast to other wine regions where tour companies often charge the winery owners a fee to bring their tour guests to their wineries. And Cindy’s “buy local” ideals spread far beyond just the wineries themselves.

“In addition to the farmers whom we buy grapes from, we also support businesses like the local cafés where we take our tour groups to lunch and the transportation companies we use. We’re helping to provide jobs and build the local economy.”

Making a Lasting Impact

Cindy said Barrel Wine Tours has been a very personal investment. “I’ve spent 14 years in the wine business, and it’s time-consuming – I work with the winemakers, take a lot of time talking with client groups so I know what they want and create all the itineraries. It’s a lot of work.”

But the effort and time she’s dedicated to this popular, professional tour company have paid off, not only in the enjoyment she brings her clients with every tour, but also in the combined marketing efforts she undertakes with her community and her colleagues, bonding business people who might otherwise be competitors and supporting local businesses for the greater good.

 

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Kabbage Team

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