Region is celebrating its third birthday this month with a party from 2-4pm on Saturday July 22nd in their space at the Barlow.
Region represents an innovative approach to wine tasting that promotes the best small, independent wineries in Sonoma County. They also now have three businesses: the shop in the Barlow, another space in San Luis Obispo and Sampl, a new wine-tasting product that can be shipped to those who can’t make it to wine country.
Kerry Thedorf is a co-founder of Region and serves as the head of marketing, branding and winery relations. Her co-founder, Johan Eide, an engineer and patent lawyer, came up with the original idea for Region using automated machines for wine tasting. Kerry helped organize partnerships with small, independent wineries in our region, and they've done really well, helping to put Sebastopol on the map as a wine destination. Kerry joins me on the podcast.
Full disclosure, my family winery, DRNK, run by Ryan and Katie Kunde, is a winery partner with Region. Region also kindly hosted our subscriber benefit for Sebastopol Times last fall, which you know, we should do again.
Kerry refers to AVA, which stands for American Viticultural Area and that refers to the specific geographic area that identifies the appellation of origin where grapes are grown. You can find a map of AVAs in Sonoma County, here. Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast are two of the AVAs in the region.
I have never heard of Albariño but I googled it — it’s a white wine grape from Spain.
More info: drinkregion.com
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Dale: As a co-founder, how does it feel to reach three years with Region? It's like a toddler, right?
Kerry: It feels like a little kid. It feels like we're beyond toddler stage. At the same time, it does. Yeah, I feel like it was yesterday. Now, it's 3 years. It's crazy. I will say the partnership with the Barlow has been amazing and just the location that we're in.
We were supposed to open in March of 2020. That did not obviously happen. And every month after we were like, oh, my gosh, we have to open. We have to open. And then in July, we finally did open. I'm happy to say we did not lose any one of our winery partners. We were able to keep the doors open because the way the Barlow is set up and having the food options in the COVID time, we were categorized as a restaurant.
When all the other wineries had to shut down and weren't serving their on-premise accounts either, because all the other restaurants were shut down, we were able to stay open. So at the very low part of it, we were a drive-by bottle shop, and Johan and I were delivering wine to doorsteps.
It was one thing that lasted through the pandemic was alcohol, in many forms. So we quickly got past that, super excited. And once we got on the other side of that we were approached to open our second location in San Luis Obispo, which was not planned.
I remember we (Johan and I) were installing the vinyl AVA custom map that we have in the tasting room and Circe from Piazza Hospitality came up to us and said, "you guys are doing an amazing thing here. The collaborative environment that you're providing for the wine industry and the approachability to the consumer that you're bringing to this wine growing region is phenomenal. I want to duplicate this, and I want you guys down in San Luis Obispo, and we have a space for you. Do you want to come look at it?"
Johan and I were like sure. So we went down Thanksgiving weekend, and we did the same thing there (that we have in Sebastopol). So when we started up here, it was invitation only, it was the best of the best, small independently owned wineries in Sonoma County. Those that needed the outlet to shine, that needed a bigger voice to be heard in the wine growing region. And it really works in a collaborative effort. It's not competitive. When people hear, and I think it's changed now, but when you hear of collective tasting rooms, it's hard, right?
As a consumer, you walk in and there's five people pulling at you. Try my wines, join my wine club, do this, 20% off of complimentary pours. It's very different in a collaborative setting because we focus on the AVA. That is our number one goal and all of the sub AVAs that are within Sonoma County.
So when the wineries come in, their story can really shine because we're highlighting the terroir and the ground and where we live, and then their winemaking style can really shine. Sometimes we have 14 pinots on the wall, but you line them all up from Ryan at DRNK to Tim at Young Hagen who's 350 cases to Amy Chenoweth who does 150 cases to Mike Kobler and his single vineyard pinot right here in the Russian River. They're all so different. Customers can come in and they can explore that or, and we can teach them or they can just come in and try some wines and hang out.
The Founding of Region.
Dale: Where did the original concept come from?
Kerry: So originally this was Johan's brainchild. He started out...
Dale: Tell us about Johan.
Kerry: So he's the original. He's the one that came to me with the idea and said, what do you think? And I said, yes. And he originally had a patent firm and went to school for engineering at Cal Poly. Hence why he lives down in SLO again. And he was actually going to put his business, his law firm in the Barlow and he wanted to subside some of the expenses.
So he was looking at putting a retail shop in the front or whatever. He makes Pinot Noir with his dad right here in Sebastopol. Then his little engineer brain got ahold of these machines. Together we looked at the Silicon Valley Bank reports and tasting-room-visit decline but looking also at the collective tasting rooms and how those aren't working and just looking at the space that was available in the Barlow and what if we put 12 of the machines in 50 slots and we looked at all the data and he gave me the final pitch and I said, yes. The wine industry needs this and how can I be involved? I ended up being the first investor as well.
So it was his brainchild. He thought of the machines. Then I tied in the space with the featured wineries and the rotation of it and how we still get the connection to the wineries because what had happened.
Twelve years ago now when the machines had their heyday, the beer industry was really (on top of it). It was the wristbands; it was like little cords on the wristband that you tap on the machines to order beer. Some wine bars in the city were putting these in but they were also thinking it was a “set it and forget it.”
Dale: So the machine is to automate the dispensing of the wine basically with a card or something like that.
Kerry: You still had the three different types, so the taste, the half glass and the full glass. But where we found that they weren't being successful in these wine bars, they weren't a “set it and forget it.” Then also they were on preloaded cards. When a consumer comes in, they don't know how much they're going to spend on a wine. Like you can actually taste a good amount of wine for 20 bucks. But if you really get going and you get excited and you throw in a couple of half glasses and full glasses. That adds up pretty quick to $40 to $50. And so having an open line of credit was really a game changer for us.
So one, having the open line of credit; two, approaching the wineries, having the partnership with the wineries that we do and knowing the owners and the winemakers on a first name basis really just makes the whole space and the energy much more approachable when customers come in. We have some customers come in that don't know what an appellation is. They have never heard of Albariño. They maybe only like red wine, but, mostly cab. They are all over the board. They've never heard of, what is Syrah? That's a grape.
Then other people come in wanting to know the cooperage. They want to know the oak process. They want to know the fermentation. They want to know if it's an older vintage; they want library wines; organic wines. We get the gamut. So the space is really conducive to that.
And again, it's not a competitive setting. It's really collaborative because we have such a wide range of all different types of wines, all different types of wineries and owners and winemakers.
Dale: It does allow side by side comparisons of the nuances of different wines and all that. You can't really do that at a winery within their set of wines, but comparing one winery to another or see what profiles that you like. I think it's a unique offering for that.
Looking Back on Covid
Dale: So when you got started during COVID, you're delayed opening for about five months. It's three years ago, but it seems a little bit like a fog; we were all in a fog. It took longer to get over that. It seems to me that only this summer are people really coming out in the way that they have previously.
Kerry: And that's true. That's very true. I keep reminding our staff about that too, with sales and things like that because now there's more competition, like the competition's back, right?
The concerts are in place and the Apple Blossom Fair happened and the big Napa concert happened and country in the summer and all these things. So people are back to the way it was. Now, there’s that's the hustle and bustle and we're seeing that. Where we were so fortunate, I will say that through the pandemic, the Barlow had the best foot traffic through the entire pandemic, just because of the way it's set up and what it offers here and our space. Health inspectors came out and inspected and we had the rollup doors completely open and a dedicated person at the machines wiping down the machines all the time.
Everybody still wore their masks. So we were really fortunate in the location that we were in. We would have figured it out because we're that type, but had we been located anywhere else, it would have been — it would have been more challenging. But we set up the drive by deliveries and the pickup stations and the delivering six packs and three box bottles of wine with my mask on to doorsteps in Sonoma County for months.
Tourism is back
Dale: I think you've also helped Sebastopol become a wine destination. It's not well known for that. It's known for its apples. But there are a lot of wineries in the area.
Kerry: Oh, there's so many
Dale: But sometimes the focus is a little bit north of us in Healdsburg and and or south of us in Sonoma.
Kerry: Yeah, no, absolutely. It's been a great this is the first; the location just right off Highway 12 and it's funny what we've seen recent really recently is a lot of people are staying in Airbnbs and VRBOs from in town, all the way out to Bodega. And even if they're out in Bodega, they're still coming back to Sebastopol. They're still coming back and they're hanging out in the Barlow. They're going downtown. They're going to Ramen Gaijien. It's been interesting. You have the Sonoma County people that come out west and they hang out here, but there's the visitors that are coming into town; they're not going farther into Sonoma County. They're just hanging out in Sebastopol. And we've seen that a lot. It's been great. It's been fun.
Dale: So what's new? What are you working on?
Kerry: Oh, gosh. We've been working on-- it's an e commerce product actually. And it's called Sampl. We're trying to take the experience that you get at Region and take it home with you and have people be able to experience maybe a part of it before they even come to Region, but a sample is essentially seven tastes of wine in a cylinder. We called it "Sampl." Without the E and it's still got the period just like Region does.
And we focus on AVAs. So we can, in one package with seven different wines, we can take you to that wine growing region. We did two tests for Sonoma last year just to get packaging and shipping and compliance and all of the things to get it to be able to do it. And now we just officially launched nationwide June 1st with a Paso Robles kit. And the next one will be September 1st.
Dale: So the idea is someone in the middle of the country who doesn't get to wine country can order a sample of wines from here and have something like a tasting experience where someone tells them about the wine.
Kerry: So within the cylinder and we have a patent on the packaging and the tap on the top is a coaster with an NFC chip in it.
So similar to an Apple Pay, you just tap your phone and it brings up the website. So again, we like to be casually educational at Region and in Sampl. So you can do it at your own pace. And there's no login. You completely do it on your own. It's very seamless. You tap the top of the coaster and it walks you through the set of wines that are in the kit.
It gives you winemaker notes. It gives you video. It gives you recipes and then the chance to bottle upgrade purchases through the winery directly, or you can get more of the actual tubes and vials, which are a hundred milliliters. You can order more of those. So we just launched June 1st and we have about 1,000 subscriptions.
It also is a quarterly subscription so it's like a Region, our Region club but it's all different AVAs. Like the next one we'll do Sonoma again because we can ship nationwide. And then we're going to do a small little really fun batch with Santa Barbara. And then we're going to do a fun holiday collection, which will be all of the AVAs that we've worked with. So San Luis Obispo County, Sonoma and Santa Barbara.
Dale: What's happening Saturday?
Kerry: Saturday is our three-year celebration. So we've done barbecued oysters on our anniversary every year. It is the wonderful Nelly's barbecued oysters. She was at my wedding. She catered for my wedding. I found her five years ago at Hannah winery and I was tasting with my dad and he's those are the best goddamn oysters I've ever had. And I tracked her down and I found her. She's at all the farmer's markets. She does a lot of the wineries. I found her and she's just this amazing, delightful woman, her and her husband.
So we're doing barbecued oysters and street tacos. And some really fun raffles: some wine country experiences, the Boho tours with Osmosis Day Spa donated; Retrograde coffee donated. So we're going to have some fun raffles and packages and just invite people to come and visit the space.
Dale: What's the time on that?
Kerry: 2 to 4pm. Just to keep it a little bit manageable and have a good time.
Dale: Thanks for letting me know about this and explaining what you're doing and good luck to your next year and I hope you have a good celebration on Saturday.
Kerry: Awesome. Thank you for reaching out, Dale. I really appreciate it. It was good to talk to you.
Photos provided by Region