Fireside Winery Engages Volunteers
Winery workers are accustomed to customers who say how much they would like to work at a winery. Brad Johnson, external relations manager at Fireside Winery in Marengo, Iowa, is now making his customer’s wishes come true through two carefully monitored volunteer programs at Fireside. (One of the 10 largest wineries in Iowa, Fireside, after only 5 years in business, has an annual production around 15,000 gallons.)
The first program, called “Volunteer Wine Ambassador” (VWA), utilizes trained volunteers to work at off-site tastings and events where wine is served. The second program, trademarked “ipick istomp idrink,” recruits and trains a larger number of volunteers to harvest grapes. “Some of our customers are as passionate about Fireside as those of us who work here, so I thought why not put all that enthusiasm and energy to work?” he said.
Johnson, who spoke about volunteer programs at the Wisconsin Fruit and Vegetable Conference this January, cautioned that managing an extensive volunteer effort requires 16-24 hours per month, primarily spent communicating with volunteers and maintaining schedules. He’s now doing 50-60 offsite tastings per month with volunteers. However, he advises that most wineries will need to work up to this level gradually.
To reduce the complexity of the VWA program, he limits the number of participants to a dozen. Since these volunteers are interacting with both retail and wholesale customers, Johnson is selective about volunteers. “All VWA’s are required to complete a training program on the winery and its wines,” he said. Many VWA volunteers also have also completed “Today’s Wine Professional” training with Paul Gospodarczyk. “We want our Wine Ambassadors to be the face of the winery when I’m not there, so they must be well-trained, informed and always interested,” Johnson said.
Hy-Vee, an Iowa based regional food retailer with annual sales of $6.9 billion, offers evidence of how VWA’s have helped increase Fireside’s sales. After VWA’s conducted multiple in store tastings, Fireside was given more prominent shelf space in a local HyVee’s newly expanded wine section. “The manager of the store was very happy with the tastings. Customers left Hy-Vee excited about Fireside and we sold wine by the case,” Johnson said.
Johnson is also meticulous about the equipment and wines volunteers take to tastings. Each VWA receives a large plastic container that holds items including a bottle display, dump container, tasting cups, winery brochures and descriptive tasting sheets. Johnson said that it’s best to limit tastings to a maximum of six bottles. He also said that he personally inspects the site of each tasting to make sure there’s enough space and speaks with the manager in advance to confirm details.
Fireside’s other volunteer effort, the “ipick istomp idrink” harvesting program, successfully harvested a 13 acre vineyard in under five hours during September, thanks to the efforts of 114 volunteer pickers. Since grape picking is hard physical labor, Johnson is careful to manage volunteer expectations while maintaining a fun, but safe, environment. “Each volunteer must sign an indemnity agreement,” he added. “People have this image of Lucille Ball stomping grapes in “I Love Lucy,’ but we’re careful to make sure that volunteers can handle the task and still enjoy it.”
Since the harvest date is not known, Johnson signs up volunteers for four potential harvest dates. Social media – Facebook and Twitter – are the primary forms of communication with harvest volunteers, but volunteer attrition for the harvest is still around 10% according to Johnson.
The logistics and management of the volunteer harvest are demanding. Each volunteer needs to be supplied with buckets, picking tools, and water. Fireside also pays to have portable toilets. Experience has taught Johnson to keep bins close to the pickers and to carefully mark the vineyard with color coded flags so volunteers know what area they are responsible for.
When the harvest is complete, volunteers go to a large shed to stomp grapes in oak barrels that have been cut in half. The “stomp” part of the volunteer harvest has turned out to be a public relations bonanza for Fireside, with prominent local TV and newspaper coverage. After the harvest, volunteers also receive lunch and a white “i pick istomp i drink” t-shirt which many imprint with a purple image of their own grape juice soaked feet. “We like to think that happy pickers help make great wine,” Johnson said.
Editors note: Please consult state, local and federal laws before proceeding with any volunteer winery programs.