William Chris Vineyards has been among the local small businesses to take a huge financial hit with the closure of its tasting room because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But co-owner Chris Brundrett isn’t sitting at home feeling sorry for himself. He has taken measures to keep all 64 employees on staff. Additionally, he has teamed up with a local wine professional to release a new William Chris wine that benefits the struggling hospitality industry — donating all profits to the Southern Smoke Foundation. The Wanderer Series Relief Project, a red blend, is on sale now through the winery’s website and at Texas retailers including H-E-B.
He and Craig Collins, a master sommelier and former beverage director for the Austin-based ELM Restaurant Group, had talked about collaborating on a wine project before the virus hit. Now with a national wine importing company that doesn’t yet represent Texas wine, Collins had missed "having that connection with a state I’m very proud of," he said. He realized in mid-March the collaboration could be a way to give back and not to feel so useless watching the industry he belonged to fall apart.
"There's little we can do to support our restaurants right now, but if we can raise some money and awareness about their struggles, that would be some form of help," he said.
So he emailed Brundrett about his idea, who had also been feeling helpless as William Chris’s revenue plummeted on the eve of its 10th anniversary. (It would have been celebrated at the tasting room last weekend with a big anniversary dinner.) Immediately, the Hill Country winery co-owner agreed they would bottle a wine that would benefit others.
From that point, things happened fast, in the course of 3 to 4 weeks, Brundrett said. Collins and the winemakers came up with the branding and the blend of red wine grapes in that time and bottled it on Friday. They also found everyone wanted to help — suppliers gave them a lot of the materials, such as the corks and the bottles, for free, and the distributor Victory Wine Group quickly found retailers to carry the wine.
Priced at $20, the Wanderer Series Relief Project is 95% cinsault and 5% mourvedre. Collins was able to be part of the blending process and enjoyed every step, he said. It turned out to be fortuitous that he had already been to the winery a couple of months ago and had tasted through many William Chris wines over the course of two hours.
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"There were a couple specific (varietals) that stood out to me, cinsault and mourvedre, so as we talked about this project, it just made sense to me to feature them," Collins said. William Chris is one of the top producers of mourvedre, and "there’s amazing potential for cinsault in Texas. The blending trials we did resulted in the current blend using mostly cinsault. It's crisp, fresh and alive, with a nice tart fruit characteristic to it. It’s really perfect this time of year."
Brundrett also had fun getting to blend with someone new. Typically, it’s just him and winemaker Tony Offill working behind the scenes to figure out the right amount of grapes, among other variables, to add to a vintage. But he said with the excitement came a certain amount of pressure to make this one in particular extra good.
"When Tony and I got done with the final blending session, we were grinning ear to ear. Usually it's just him and I blending, and it was super fun to blend with Craig," he said. "What we're doing isn't life or death, but I felt the tension when we were blending because it was important to get it right. All our feelings were going into blending this wine because it was going toward such an important cause."
The wine is part of the Wanderer Series of wines, a side project of sorts that allows William Chris to "wander" off the beaten path of expected vintages and experiment. In this case, having the wine under the Wanderer label also meant Brundrett wouldn’t have to trademark or copyright a new sub-brand name for the project — and given its time-sensitivity, he and Collins thought it was the best move.
Proceeds from the wine go toward the Houston-based Southern Smoke Foundation because of how effective it has proven to be at giving funding to hurting service industry workers, Collins said. Roughly 90% of donations "go directly into the pockets of restaurant employees who need it," he said Southern Smoke founder and James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd told him.
Although William Chris has lost a majority of its revenue because of the closed tasting room, Brundrett is confident the Hye-located winery isn’t going anywhere. It has been able to offset the lost tasting room dollars in part through virtual tastings and the support of fans who continue to buy wine via the website. (Delivery is available, as is curbside pick-up.)
"Our fans have brought me to tears multiple times because of their support," Brundrett said.