I remember the first time the idea of making a gaming themed wine label came into my head. I was sitting in a wheat truck with 10,000 pounds (4500kg) of Hard Red Winter in the bed.
My wife and I had just moved to Walla Walla, Washington, after we got married earlier in the year. It was going to be a fresh start. A new chance to do something I loved. How many people do you know that can say that?
We knew no one and it was OK. We had each other. We had moved into a beautiful Victorian home built in the 1800s that had been hastily converted to apartment units and we had all of 500 sq to call home. Plenty of room for my 32-inch LCD and PS2.
My enology and viticulture classes at the local college began in a month. I needed a job for the short term until I could find something in the wine industry. My professor, whom we had met just once on a trial visit, got me a job with a local wheat farmer. My job was to transport fresh cut wheat to the various silos throughout the Walla Walla Valley. Easy money right? Wrong. Imagine driving old three-ton dump trucks up and down abnormally shaped hills with grades that make you want to piss your pants.
When I wasn't hauling the wheat and trying not to die (and I almost did twice), I would get a few seldom and very peaceful moments up on those hills. A chance to think about what I was going to do while in Walla Walla and how I would make a name for myself in the wine industry.
It was during one of these moments that I realised that the only way I was going to truly stand out was to create something that was not only unique, but niche.
The one thing the wine industry is not lacking is wine. So how do you standout? Sure, you could make great wine (subjective) and hope to get a great score (A concept our favourite gaming blogs are all too familiar with). You could be a famous person with a recognisable name and put anything in the bottle and fans will buy it. You could put a cute animal or some arbitrary environmental object on the label and hope people relate. Guess what, all of these things have worked and worked well. So after realizing these things, I decided that I needed to focus on something I knew and knew well. Something a specific group of people could connect with. I also knew that nostalgia was important to me and to many others like me. Lastly, I loved video games and I wasn't alone. It was at that moment 8-Bit Vintners was born.
I started classes that fall and soaked up everything I could. I loved my classes, but my favourite moments were spent in the vineyard tending the vines. Learning the intricacies of establishing, growing, and maintaining a vineyard. It was awesome.
When we were not in the vineyard, we were working the lab or studying the intricate science of making wine. This was a huge challenge for me because my first degree was in business, so I really had to stretch myself.
My classmates were a wide variety of characters. Some were not even drinking age, sons and daughters of wine lovers or farmers. Others were former professionals like lawyers and doctors looking to do something they'd always dreamed of.
Lets be clear, I had no money and no delusions of grandeur. The first thing they tell you when you get into the wine industry is "I hope your not in this to make money", and "In order to make a small fortune in the wine industry, you need a large fortune." Very encouraging stuff. Regardless, I was here to learn and let the rest take care of itself.
I soon got myself a job with a great local winery called Seven Hills, with which I stayed employed up until last year. This is where I not only learned to make wine, but what it takes to run a winery. I have so much respect for Seven Hills and it was a privilege to work for them.
I began researching what it takes to start a business in the state of Washington, how to trademark a name, and all the various legalities of making and selling alcohol. It was overwhelming. There were times where I almost gave it up. Numerous times. The one thing I kept telling myself was that I didn't want to look back, successful or not, and know I didn't try.
So after much paper work, some family loans, a great young graphic designer, and an old friend who saved my arse by building my website. I was ready to put some wine in some bottles.
My relationship with Seven Hills Winery afforded me the opportunity to use not only their facility and equipment, but access to fruit that I may otherwise not have had. People wonder why my first and only wine, the '07 Player 1 Red Blend, had five varietals in it. Well its for two reasons. First, I only had the resources to work with those grapes, and second I actually really liked the blend I came up with. Doing blending trials and tasting the wine every week as it slowly came together in barrel was unreal.
After letting the wine age in barrel for about six months, we were ready to bottle. Bottling day for a winery is a huge ordeal. It takes a lot of planning and equipment. Depending on the size of your winery, most dont actually have a bottling line on site. This was the case at Seven Hills. So in order to barrel you have to rent a mobile bottling line that comes in the form of a semi truck. We had spent the day before racking (or transferring) and filtering the wine from barrel into large stainless steel tanks so that when the bottling truck arrived the next day, we could hook up a hose to the truck from the tanks and start filling. This process like most in the wine industry are tedious and tiring. Winemaking is a lot less glamourous than its made out to be. Its about 90 per cent cleaning. Its a funny thing though, I loved every minute of it.
I had only seen my label design on the computer before bottling day. My designer and I spent months trying to find the right picture for the front and back label. I wanted to evoke the memories of playing games in the 80's and what those moments mean to so many of us. I struggled with making the label too busy, and one of the hardest decisions was leaving the tv on the front. I ultimately decided to leave it and Im glad I did. (Fun fact: The TV on the front label is an actual tv we photographed that I found in the local recycling plant. you should have seen the look on the plant managers face when I asked if I could take it.) Seeing the label on spools for the first time was a moment I wont forget. It was an incredible experience and actually quite emotional. It had hit me that I was actually doing it. And then it hit me that I was actually doing it. When that first case came off the line, I dont think i can describe the feeling. I knew I had a lot of work to still do, but I held that case over my head like I was Rocky holding the belt.
Then it hit me. How was I going to sell 244 cases (12 bottles/case) of this stuff? That was a question that would plague me until the writing of this very story.
It's one thing to make it, it's a whole other thing to sell it. I had a great concept, great wine, and community of gamers all to myself. So what happened? Well, for one thing, I was doing all this right in the middle of the worst recession in years. This led to the second problem. I overestimated the demand for gaming themed wine. Not necessarily by gamers ( although I probably over estimated that too), but by distributors who would have to sell it to retailers. But what about the internet? Couldn't I just sell it all online. Sounds like a great idea. Except that shipping wines is not only expensive and cuts into profits, but also requires a separate expensive licence for each state you want to ship in to.
It wasn't all bad though. The first few months were stressful, but exciting and fun. I was building a brand and a business. I took my wine in a backpack to the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle and gave samples to all my favourite developers and journalists hoping for some support. I got some, but I also got some strange looks. I got some nice press, which was not only cool, but surreal. Case in point. Like many of you, I grew up reading GamePro. So when new Editor in Chief John Davison emailed me about being featured in the relaunch of the magazine, I almost lost it.
I was also fortunate enough to donate some of the wine to the Child's Play charity dinner as well as two of three hand etched three liter bottles, which were auctioned off. One of those three liter bottles is actually sitting in the offices of Pop Cap games. It was an honour to be a part of something like that and Ill never forget it.
I took the wine to "Taste Washington", a huge event in downtown Seattle for Washington wineries and restaurants to expose myself to the industry. I had my own booth and a chance to connect with new potential customers and hopefully someone with cash who could help move 8-Bit forward. I actually brought an old TV with a Nintendo Entertainment System and a copy of Super Mario Bros. to the event. You should have seen some of those winos faces. Classic. The younger ones got it. The older ones scoffed. All in all it was a great experience, but ultimately futile.
I had thought that I put myself out there enough to make it happen and that maybe sales would pick up. They didn't. A few bottles here and a few bottles there would sell, but it quickly became apparent that my business model was not going to work. A majority of my customers came from social media. However, leveraging social media is meant to engage the customers you have, not create new ones (for the most part). Twitter and Facebook were great tools, but ultimately not enough.
At this point I had run out of money and my search for investors had run virtually dry. It was the beginning of the end.
As I sit here writing this, I am about to press the button to shut down the online store page. I'm sad and wish things had worked out differently. I tried doing something different in an industry that so often feels the same. I have no regrets about starting 8-Bit and am so grateful to those who helped me along the way. You know who you are.
I am a man of faith and I do believe that everything happens for a reason. Maybe the timing was wrong and maybe I was just in over my head. Regardless, I did it.
I love wine and I love games. That hasn't changed and I don't think it ever will. Who knows, maybe the Princess was simply in another castle.