Wine with a cause
The owners of O Wines dedicate a portion of their profits to providing educational opportunities for young women.
Winery owners Stacy Lill (left) and Kathy Johanson provide mentoring and scholarships for young women.
The idea was hatched on Halloween night, 2006. Over dinner with their husbands, long-time pals Kathy Johanson and Stacy Lill decided to establish a winery for a good cause; specifically, to fund college scholarships for underprivileged girls in the state of Washington. Already, their objectives are being realized. So far, they've funded four scholarships, each one totaling $20,000.
Both women are passionate about education. Thus, founding O Wines as a vehicle to raise awareness about this cause seemed like a natural fit. The O stands for opportunity. "We both feel very strongly about education as the infrastructure every child needs, and deserves, in order to be successful," says Johanson.
Five percent of the sale price of every bottle of O Wines goes directly to the College Success Foundation. Through its partnership with the foundation, O Wines has established the Opportunity for Success Scholarship in support of educating disadvantaged girls. The foundation screens and interviews potential scholarship recipients, based on criteria provided by Johanson and Lill, and places the money with young women in need. The remainder of the winery's profit is funneled back into making wine.
And it's not just about money. In addition to receiving $20,000 towards her undergraduate degree, Angel Paullin, O Wines' first scholarship recipient, is also being mentored by the winery owners.
"Through the mentoring Stacy and I have done in the community we've seen firsthand the positive influence a mentor can make in a child's life," says Johanson. "Some kids don't listen to their parents or teachers, a mentor is different—influential yet not a disciplinarian. It's a great way to help guide children without telling them what to do."
Paullin, who attends Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, meets with Johanson and Lill at least once a month. She says she has benefited tremendously from the mentoring sessions and enjoys spending time with her benefactors.
"My relationship with them is awesome because it is like a friend/professor/ mom, but all in one," Paullin relates. "One of the ongoing projects they have me working on is a chart layout of my short-term/long-term goals, which really allows me to keep myself in check and helps me to keep things in perspective. I love that I can look at their lives and clearly see what hard work and perseverance produces."
Once she completes her undergraduate degree in premedicine/biology, Paullin plans to attend medical school and hopes eventually to set up a free clinic for children in Africa.
Having dreamed of going to college since she was seven years old, Paullin said the O Wines scholarship means the world to her. "Attending college gives me the opportunity to fulfill my dreams of becoming a doctor and to become successful. I've been given the opportunity to do something great with my life and future," she said.
Through mentoring and by proactively addressing students' goals in education, work, and community services, the hope is that scholarship recipients will not only have a greater chance of getting through school and ultimately becoming successful in their chosen field, but also will learn about the importance of contributing back to society.
Johanson and Lill, who were initially introduced through a mutual friend nearly 20 years ago, have served as mentors and volunteered extensively. Lill has been involved with the Junior League of Seattle for nearly two decades. Johanson has served as a mentor both at Boeing, where she's worked since 1986, and through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teachreach program, which stresses the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math to 11–13- year-old girls in the public school system.
The partnership between O Wines and College Success Foundation was formed as a result of exhaustive research on how to establish a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation. "When we realized how long it would take to establish our own foundation, we started looking for others to help," Johanson explained. "CSF was one of the foundations we reached out to—and thank God we did. They probably saved us two years worth of bureaucracy."
O Wine sells for between $10.99 and $13.99 a bottle and is available at over 250 wine retailers in the Northwest. A number of factors went into determining the wine's price point. "Our goal has always been to appeal to the broadest group possible while still enabling us to donate a portion of the proceeds to charity," Johanson said.
"The price point was a combination of research, help from our distributor and a realization of our economy."
The 100 percent Chardonnay is from the Horse Heaven Hills appellation, which was designated as its own American Viticultural Area in 2005, distinguishing it as distinct from the vast Columbia Valley appellation that surrounds it. Encompassing 570,000 acres, the Horse Heaven Hills appellation has elevations ranging from 1,800 feet at the ridges of the area's northern boundary to 200 feet at its southern boundary along the Columbia River. The land is dry, hotter, and windier than the Yakima Valley appellation situated to the north, but winters are milder due to the proximity of the nearby river.
The partners produced 5,000 cases of the first vintage which was released in March 2008. The second vintage, released earlier this year, was 7,600 cases, and the third release is set for 10,000 cases. Also, this fall, O Wines is planning a limited red blend release of Cabernet, Syrah, and Merlot.
O Wines' marketing and branding revolves around education. Even pouring provides an opportunity for the partners to discuss the virtues of education and how they plan to grow the program.
In the future, the goal is to establish scholarships at local colleges in every state where O Wines is sold. Recently, Johanson met with the director of scholarships at Oregon State University and learned about a program in place called SMILE (Science & Math Investigative Learning Experiences) which is geared toward establishing relationships with kids beginning at the age of 11 through mentorship.
"It's amazing what they are doing for kids. Most of their mentors are college students who want to give back to the community," Johanson said. "The children in the program are eligible for the scholarships through this program. We will be establishing similar relationships as we grow."