Clay Mauritson of Mauritson Winery wins Wine, Beer & Spirits Industry Award
The winner of the Sonoma County winery owner category in North Bay Business Journal’s beverage alcohol industry awards says the human toll on the industry from the pandemic has been the hardest to deal with.
How did you get into the industry? And what has been your career track since?
My family has been farming wine grapes in Dry Creek Valley for six generations, so it was a somewhat natural transition for me to the winery side of the industry. I have been fortunate to work at some great wineries where I learned a tremendous amount about winemaking and the industry in general.
My career started at Kenwood Vineyards and I also had the opportunity to work harvests at Taft Street Winery and Dry Creek Vineyard. We started our family winery, Mauritson Wines, in 1998 in response to the consolidation in the industry and the incredible vineyards we were farming, and we’ve have never looked back.
How have you or your company influenced the industry in the last five years? What are key accomplishments?
I hope that our biggest influence over the last five years has been our focus on our community by getting involved in trade organizations and serving local nonprofits.
It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and complain. It is something altogether different to really try to affect change.
This past year I co-chaired the Sonoma Wine Auction with two other incredible wineries!
The Sonoma Wine Auction is the largest charitable event in Sonoma County and has put more than $40 million dollars back into our community since its inception. I serve on the board of directors of the Sonoma County Vintners organization and I’m currently the president of the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation.
I am a founding board member of the Down Syndrome Association, North Bay and my wife serves on the board of Becoming Independent. We continue to host Project Zin with chef Charlie Palmer and have raised over $1 million to date for the Down Syndrome Association North Bay.
What changes have you noticed in your industry in the last five years, and how have you and/or your company moved to capitalize on or adjust to those changes?
The sales channels for small wineries continue to evolve. Direct to Consumer (DTC) sales has been the focus of boutique wineries for a while now, but the way in which we reach DTC customers has changed rapidly.
Technology has been, and continues to be, a driving force behind change. Whether we are talking about data analytics, social media, or virtual tastings/events, these are sales channels and tools that were not top of mind five years ago.
How have you responded to growing competition from craft spirits and alternatives such as hard seltzer?
Hard seltzers have exposed a missed opportunity in wine marketing. They have positioned themselves as a low calorie and healthy alternative to wine, when the truth is, wine is about as natural and healthy of an alcoholic product as there is.
Our response has been even greater transparency to our customers about our vineyard practices and winemaking protocols. We have a truly unique, consumable product that is not only an encapsulation of place and time but has just one ingredient: grapes!
How has the pandemic affected your business? What has been the impact of restrictions on visitors, closure of restaurants and bars, surge in online shopping, and rise in digital consumer experiences and marketing?
The pandemic has been tough for our industry. For me, the hardest part is the human toll. While our business has been able to pivot to new sales channels and our year over year sales are comparable to last year, we have had to let go of employees due to the closure and limitations in hospitality. My heart goes out to our hotel and restaurant partners who have been devastated by the COVID-19 restrictions.
How have you responded to the challenges and opportunities of the virus-influenced economic downturn? How much are these measures making up the difference in sales?
We have reacted to the changing consumption patterns brought on by the pandemic by changing how we interact with our customers.
Dining out, expense accounts, and travel have all been dramatically affected, but people still want to enjoy great wine.
We just need to reach them where they are at, and for the time being that is home. Augmenting our DTC strategy to reflect the above changes has helped bridge the gap between our traditional sales channels, but we are still off more than 10% in case volume.
Which of your adjustments and initiatives do you think you’ll continue past the pandemic, and why?
The utilization of ZOOM and other virtual platforms is here to stay! While I hope that the hospitality industry in Sonoma County has a swift rebound, we will continue to use the virtual platform to support our three tier sales channels. It makes a tremendous amount of sense with or without a global pandemic.
How are the North Bay wildfires and power shutoffs affecting the outlook for your business?
We remain bullish on Sonoma County, and especially Healdsburg, as a premier wine hospitality destination. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend that we haven’t been affected by fires, but we also shouldn’t dismiss what an amazing tourist destination Sonoma County is and the potential it represents.
At the winery, we have made infrastructure changes to help mitigate the effects of power shut offs, but we, as a community, need to demand better from our state and local government to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.
We need to manage our forests and rural lands better and we need to give municipalities and property owners the tools to do that. As the adage goes, think globally but act locally.