By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
WOODINVILLE, Wash. – The 12th Blend, a new label by Eye of the Needle winery, has found strong support among the Seattle Seahawks’ so-called 12th Man, which is paying big dividends to Northwest Harvest, a statewide, nonprofit hunger relief agency.
“For every bottle we sell, we’re able to donate two meals,” said Lauren Bullock, co-owner of Eye of the Needle with her husband Bob Bullock. Lauren said their goal is to sell 4,000 cases of 12th Blend this year and thus fund nearly 100,000 meals. With more than 3,000 cases sold, they are on pace to reach the goal this holiday season.
Their eye-catching, blue and green 12th Blend label seems to be popping up on grocery shelves all over Washington.
“It’s gotten us additional exposure, and more people statewide are starting to realize just how good our wine is,” said Bob.
Marketing strategy to expand
What makes 12th Blend particularly exciting as a new label is that it highlights what Eye of the Needle is particularly good at: blending a combination of premium wines bought from other wineries into a finished product that is both extraordinary and affordable and is a contender at local and national competitions.
“We have been able to blend wines for every occasion,” Bob said, from weddings and once-in-a-lifetime celebrations to tailgate parties and everything in between.
Still, in their various advertising or marketing materials, they had never “owned” their role as master blenders. A few days before the 2014 Super Bowl they met with Steve Burke, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for a marketing strategy discussion.
The Washington SBDC (http://www.wsbdc.org/) provides one-to-one advising, training and market research to small business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business. The network’s two dozen advisors are supported by Washington State University and the U.S. Small Business Administration, with additional support from other higher education institutions and economic development agencies.
Burke’s office is located at the South Seattle/Tukwila SBDC office at 13925 Interurban Ave., South Seattle.
‘Owning’ master blender reputation
Eye of the Needle (http://eyeoftheneedlewinery.com/) had been earning critical acclaim and a loyal following in western Washington, but at the meeting with Burke, the Bullocks talked about their plan to cast a wider net.
“I was trying to come up with an idea that would give us more business throughout the state,” Bob said, “something everyone could relate to.” According to Lauren, Burke suggested that they brand themselves as “master blenders” and “own” the blended wine market.
As master blenders, the Bullocks bottled more than 4,000 cases of wine in 2013. While they do crush their own grapes, most of what they produce comes from buying premium wine from other wineries and then blending and finishing it to create high-quality, price-driven wines that range between $10 and $25.
Their wines are sold at a growing list of retail shops, including Albertsons, Safeway, Whole Foods, Central Markets, Esquin Wine Merchants, Total Wine, QFC, Wine World and Bartels.
12th Man, 12th Blend both team efforts
Two days after their meeting with Burke, Bob and Lauren were in front of their television screen when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll hoisted the Lombardi trophy in the air and said to the cheering crowd, “This is for you, 12!”
“I thought, that meant something,” Bob said. “We are the 12.”
The more he thought about it, the more he saw a connection between the 12th Man and the charitable work he and Lauren have long been involved in.
“The 12th Man isn’t just about a lone football team,” he said. “It’s about people who care, and people who take care of each other.”
“Giving back is part of what we do,” Lauren said.
Lauren loved the idea of creating a 12th Blend that they could use to further their charitable efforts. One night she literally dreamed the 12th Blend label into existence.
After that it took some time to get the various approvals they needed, including applying for a trademark on “12th Blend,” but they knew they were on a tight deadline. They wanted 12th Blend on the shelves by July.
Help continues as success grows
They came up with three wines: a chenin blanc, a red wine and 2013 Rose of Merlot.
They bottled 1,100 cases in June and were sold out in two weeks.
“We have been trying to catch up ever since,” Lauren said. They bottled again in August, September and October, and the cases again flew out of the warehouse.
The addition of 12th Blend has doubled their wine production for 2014, a transition that has been hectic, but not chaotic.
“It’s the perfect scenario of how a small business can develop and grow,” Bob said. “You’re not doing it all at the same time.”
And you don’t have to do it alone.
“Steve has been an invaluable team player in the development of our winery, helping us navigate through the twists and turns of the business,” Lauren said. “The SBDC has consistently been there with a consulting tool, a sounding board, a new resource and a solution for our steady growth.”
The Bullocks are hoping that fans who pick up a bottle of 12th Blend will expand their wine repertoire to include other Eye of the Needle wines. In February, Eye of the Needle Harvest White was named Best White at the Seattle Wine and Food Experience, topping all white wines from California and the Pacific Northwest. In June they were honored with a Double Gold for their popular Private Eye red blend.
In 2013, Little Italy Red won their highest award yet, Platinum-Best of the Best from the Wine Press Northwest. Five other Eye of the Needle Wines won awards from the Seattle Wine Awards and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, with the merlot taking a Gold.
In 2012, four wines – Harvest White, The Eye, Sangiovese and Syrah – won awards at the Seattle Wine Awards and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
The Bullocks have been SBDC clients since 2009 when they began meeting with Jennifer Shelton, a business advisor at the SBDC center on the campus of Western Washington University. In that first month they bottled 440 cases and sold them in 11 weeks, which was an accomplishment. (See earlier article at https://news.wsu.edu/2013/04/12/wines-delight-palate-and-pocketbook-too/#.VGpnBk10yfA)
That was then, this is now. In August, after bottling 1,600 cases of 12th Blend, they sold 800 cases in a week.
It’s a great challenge to have,” Bob said. “Believe me, we aren’t complaining about it.”