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Building Wine Brands People Love: Spotlight on Andrew Nelson, President of WarRoom Cellars

Known for its fun and engaging labels and displays, WarRoom Cellars focuses on delighting customers through creating inspirational moments around each of their wines.

“Evoking emotion is key for a brand,” says Andrew Nelson, WarRoom Cellars’ president.

Andrew harnessed his entrepreneurial spirit in the alcohol and beverage industry from a young age. He went from making bootleg beer with his brother – and getting into trouble for it – to now owning and crafting multiple wine brands on the Central Coast.

Andrew exudes infectious positivity in all aspects of his business. He creates a positive environment for his team that encourages continuous improvement, and isn’t afraid of making mistakes.

“I focus on supporting all facets of the team, from production to sales and anything in between. I work closely with each department head to help them get around roadblocks by giving my opinions on how to get through issues,” he says.

WarRoom Cellars now sells to 90+ different midsize distributors and produces wines for licensed brands including The Hallmark Channel. Andrew’s company upholds its tagline, “All For Wine. Wine For All,” having acquired and repositioned six different wine brands that encompass distinct styles for very different consumers. Each brand and label tells an uplifting story to inspire wine drinkers in all facets of life.

To learn more about building wine brands that evoke emotion and perform well in the market, we sat down with Andrew to talk about his background and approach.

What did your journey into the wine industry look like?

I’ve always loved wine and alcohol in general. I started brewing beer at a young age. My brother and I even created a beer label called R&C Burger Brew for a wedding. Over the years, I got into quite a bit of trouble making and selling alcohol, beer mostly. Originally I was really into fermentation science, where I was more interested in reaching a higher ABV than creating a better flavor.

My passion for the alcohol industry led to me studying Agricultural Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I attended Cal Poly before there was a wine undergrad program, but I was able to minor in wine and viticulture. One of my professors in particular, Professor Keith Patterson, was all about the business side of wine and sending students into the wine industry to represent Cal Poly. I did a couple of internships on the Central Coast and then I got my first big wine job up in Napa at Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines as a Grower Relations Representative.

As a new grad, I was in way over my head. I needed a lot of support to take on this role, so I would drive from Napa to Santa Margarita to meet with Professor Patterson for advice. He was my biggest advocate, and he always encouraged me by saying things like “You’re representing Cal Poly! You can do this! I’m backing you the whole way!” Keith would help me figure out sourcing strategies and spray program recommendations, and I will always be grateful for his support.

I focused on production for about the first 10 years of my career, either making wine, buying grapes, or growing grapes. Then, I moved over onto the sales side in 2012 as my first entrepreneurial venture with a new winery in Paso Robles. I focused on building distribution, telling brand stories, and selling wine. I learned that sometimes it’s easier to make wine than it is to sell it.

What is the hardest thing about your role?

Managing relationships. Sometimes I can become very focused on execution, whether it’s contract, negotiation, or selling, but doing these things successfully usually all comes down to having well managed relationships. Through all functions, it is important not to lose sight of your relationships.

Clear communication is also important. Sometimes it’s easy to imagine that everyone is aware of what’s happening, but it is important to focus on clear communication to make sure the team is aligned. We have a weekly meeting where we try to give everyone visibility into what people are doing and why they are doing it. This clear communication helps everyone work towards the same goal instead of in different directions.

Keeping a culture of continuous improvement and growth mindset is something that we focus on. Having visibility through data creates clear metrics to evaluate what’s working and what’s not. Data also helps us with our company culture of continuous improvement. Things we try don’t always work, and by focusing on how we can improve from a learning experience instead of how we failed, we can turn something that seemed to be a painful failure into a successful learning experience that facilitates growth.

What tools do you use to ensure continuous improvement inside of WarRoom Cellars?

Particularly with our flagship Lapis Luna Cabernet Sauvignon, we have performed targeted blending with Tastry. We evaluated several vintages of our Lapis Luna Cab against a competitive set of the top 5 sellers in its same category. The Tastry analysis gave us quantitative data to discuss in combination with our sensory analysis. We’re now applying what we learned to our large ‘21 vintage blend. Thanks to Bruce Leighton (Tastry’s Director of Winery Relations), we are bottling almost 40,000 cases of Cabernet next month based on the data and sensory analysis provided by Tastry.

We’ve also adjusted our oak and tannin based on Tastry data. In the Tastry dashboard, we focused on analyzing the impact of oak to get our wines in the top 10% of wines enjoyed by consumers. Another factor we focused on was tannin. Based on the data provided by Tastry, we found that customers prefer slightly more tannins than our wine previously had.

Besides this, we’ve done a couple more projects with Tastry. We’ve analyzed our Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. We have really honed in on our Cabernet because it is our best seller, but we did a larger exercise evaluating some of our other wines across the board.

Beginning our relationship with Tastry was interesting because originally our views were kind of divided as a team. Part of our team felt that we could taste what we’re looking for, but having real data points was really helpful because it has given us a communal language to speak.

What is the most rewarding part of your career?

The people for sure. Working with people you enjoy spending time with makes your life much better, but that doesn’t mean everything business wise is fun. There are plenty of difficult, painful learning experiences that we have gone through, but taking on these experiences with people you enjoy working with makes them much more bearable. When you enjoy spending time with the people you work with, the work you do is more fulfilling.

I have to say that profitability is very fulfilling as well. Of course making money feels much better than losing money. This goes hand in hand with working with a great team, because making a profit with a team you love is all the more rewarding.

Delighting customers by creating different wine styles for different customer bases is also very rewarding. We have 6 different brands that encompass very different styles for very different consumers. For example, we make the Bonny Doon Vineyard orange wine, fermented on skins for 12 days, for a very specific consumer and then we make wines for The Hallmark Channel which is a different consumer palate. Having these varying wine styles gives us a wide range of customers that we are able to satisfy.

What sets your winery apart from other wineries?

We are not a traditional winery in that we don’t own any vineyards or have a processing facility. We buy grapes throughout California and crush 1500 to 2000 tons of grapes per year at a variety of facilities. Brands are our primary focus. Our strategy is to acquire wine brands and do a deep dive on the brand to understand what customers really love about it. Then we focus on and develop what customers really love about the brand. Sometimes that’s a wine style, founder story, growing region, or winemaking methodology.

We try to evoke positive emotion with each brand. With Lapis Luna we are trying to inspire people to reach for the moon. Skyfall, our Washington brand, is all about resilience and overcoming the harsh growing conditions in Washington. The Big Red Monster has the slogan of “slay it”. Our organic sangria, Eppa, is all about celebration. Bonny Doon Vineyard stands for wine exploration! What we really focus on with each brand is evoking positive emotion and inspiring consumers.

How has your winemaking process changed over the years?

Since we don’t own a facility, we focus on working with world class custom crush facilities. In the beginning we really didn’t have much of a process, and, if we did, it wasn’t strategic. I’d say that 5 years later, we have a process with systems in place for quality control that we have implemented through painful learning processes. Our planning has also improved. Now, we focus on being plan oriented and deliberate instead of reactionary.

What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from your career?

One of the biggest lessons that I have learned is that pipeline fill is not necessarily an indication of velocity. When you first launch a wine brand, sometimes you quickly fill the pipeline with retailers and distributors purchasing inventory, but this does not indicate how quickly your wine will sell through. So, upping production just because the pipeline is filled can lead to excess product. Very often, the velocity of people buying, drinking, and repurchasing your wine is slower than the pipeline fill. Inventory management is extremely important. No one ever went out of business because they sold all their wine, but they did if they didn’t sell it all.

Mentorship and taking advice from people who have more experience than you is very important as well. I am frequently wrong! Being able to bounce ideas off of people and get their feedback on what is a good idea and what is not is very valuable.

Do you have any advice that you would like to give to new wine producers entering the field?

Always keep a good sense of humor.

What’s the difference between Syphilis and Syrah?

You can get rid of a case of Syphilis 🙂

In the WarRoom, we say this Winston Churchill quote, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Also, to prioritize people, products, and profits, in that order. Sometimes it’s easy to focus on one and leave the others behind.

Focus on consistency. As you’re growing, if you turn customers on to your wine brand because they love a certain vintage and then the next year the vintage is different and they don’t like it, then you’re losing a whole customer base.

What is a question you have about today’s wine consumer that you haven’t answered yet?

I would like to know what the next hot grape is. Is it Chenin Blanc? I’m always curious about what’s coming next. We are also interested in what the future of the “better for you” category will look like. In particular, where the intersection between a wine being “better for you” and a wine being delicious will be. We really focus on deliciousness, but sometimes we find that in the “better for you” category flavor is lapsing.

You can contact Andrew with questions, acquisition opportunities, and wine jokes at andrew@WarRoomCellars.com

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