Next Round: Nomadica Wine Co-Founder Kristin Olszewski on Making Canned Wine Cool
words: VINEPAIR STAFF
Airing between regular episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at email@example.com.
In this “Next Round” episode, host Adam Teeter discusses the new canned wine brand Nomadica with one of its co-founders Kristin Olszewski. The two highlight Nomadica’s packaging and how the brand uses works of art as the “doorway” to excite its customers, welcoming them into what are often complicated conversations about wine. Olszewski emphasizes that while canned wine offers a particular convenience — for throwing a can in your purse or enjoying a sparkler on the beach — she always takes pride in the “juice” Nomadica uses.
Nomadica has paired with several small wineries to create limited-edition releases and sources all of its wines from producers Olszewski swears by. As a trained sommelier with over a decade of experience in the field, she proudly markets Nomadica as sommelier-curated canned wine, and hopes the brand can change consumers’ minds about the bottle-versus-can debate.
Nomadica’s current lineup includes two sparkling wines, a still rosé, and a red. Listen or read below as Olszewski discusses her initial skepticism of canned wine, how she built the brand, and her hopes for Nomadica’s future.
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Adam: From Brooklyn, New York I’m Adam Teeter. And this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. As you guys know, we’re bringing you these conversations between the regular podcast episodes in order to give everyone a better picture of what’s going on in the alcohol beverage industry. Today, I’m really lucky to be talking with Kristen Olszewski, the chief beverage officer and founder of Nomadica Wine. Kristen, what’s going on?
Kristen: Hi, Adam. I’m so excited to be here with you today.
A: Thank you so much for joining me. I hope I didn’t butcher your last name.
K: That was actually perfect pronunciation.
A: So you are based in L.A., right? And a former sommelier, who now has a canned wine business?
K: Yes, from Barolo to canned wine. I love it.
A: So can you tell me a little bit about Nomadica, and then we’ll get into your career and how you came to start it in the first place, but give me the “What is Nomadica wine” pitch.
K: OK, so Nomadica is sommelier-curated canned wine. Of course, I am the sommelier curating the wine. And then anyone who takes a look at our cans always remarks on how beautiful they are. We work with artists so that the art on the can works as the first tasting note for the wine inside.
A: Oh, interesting. So I got to tell you, literally I’m not kissing your a** here. I just saw your cans a few years ago and they were brought into my office and I was like, “Wow, this is the first canned wine brand that I thought was understanding what craft beer had gotten right,” if that makes sense. Craft beer’s branding has been so good, especially on the can and that’s what consumers love. And I saw a lot of canned wine brands coming out prior to meeting you that looked a lot like this could have been designed by Anheuser-Busch, right? It was very “Bud Light,” but it was a rosé. And so I was like, wow, how is this the brand? Because at the time, I didn’t know you, and we’re just meeting for the first time, to be fair to everyone listening. I’m just excited about it. I was like, how has it taken anyone else this long in wine to figure this shit out? Just because it’s in a can doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be beautifully designed and something that you want to pull out and people will ask you in the park, what are you drinking? That’s been what craft beer has gotten right for so many years now, whether it’s L.A. breweries that I am less familiar with than the New York City ones, the Other Halfs and the KCBCs. And if you listen to this podcast, you hear me talking about these breweries a lot whose labels just look dope. I was blown away that you were the first one I saw to do that. So this is a very roundabout way of me asking you about your wine brand and what your decision to create a wine brand was in the first place. Because prior to this, you were at a restaurant group, you were a working somm, so why a canned wine brand?
K: Well, it was a crazy journey. I got introduced to my co-founder through a mutual friend. He actually comes from the New York restaurant scene, and he was like, “Hey, I met this girl. She wants to start a wine company. You should speak with her.” As you know, I’ve spent my entire career working in Michelin and wine-focused restaurants and am literally obsessed with wine. So I go meet her after working on the floor at Mozza, I show up in my lady suit in my favorite natural wine bar in Los Angeles, shout out to Tabula Rasa. And Emma tells me that she’s been pouring nice wine into Pellegrino cans to take by the pool or on really long Uber rides in Los Angeles. And at first I was like, “Ugh, canned wine?” To be honest, I’d only had bad experiences with canned wine. It’s not something I thought of myself as ever drinking or ever having any interest in. But Emma is famously stubborn and stalked my Instagram, found a winemaker she knew I really liked on the Central Coast, Joshua Klapper from Timbre, who worked at Au Bon Climat for a while. She canned a small batch of his Pinot Noir and brought it back to me to taste. And I let it sit in my cabinet for two months. I’ll be honest, I opened it up one night when I didn’t feel like opening up a bottle. And I had this realization that canned wine wasn’t bad. People were just putting bad wine in cans. And of course, I think the market has changed now. There are some amazing players in the canned wine space, and I could not be more excited about sharing this space with some really great winemakers, but Nomadica was born. And so we decided to use artists as our labels because I’m sure anyone who works the floor will understand this. You spend all night talking to people, and probably 10 to 15 percent of the people you speak with actually have language to describe what they like in wine, right? They understand what body means, what tannin is, or how to talk about acid levels, what volatile acidity is, et cetera. But most people you have to use unconventional formats to describe flavor profiles and tastes. I remember one time describing Poggio di Sotto Brunello di Montalcino to a guest as God walking down your throat in velvet slippers. And he’s like “Yeah, I want that. I want that wine.” So we thought it would be really fun to be really playful with that and play on the idea of synesthesia here, and I think we do a great job and we’ve actually just hired a creative director the last couple of months who is immensely talented. And I can’t wait to reveal our new lineup of can art coming out next year.
A: That’s super cool. So when Emma brought you this idea, you were like “OK, let me figure this out. I’ll think about it.” How long did it take you from thinking about it, to saying, “OK, screw it. I’m quitting my job. I’m doing this full-time?” What was the process? What did you go through to do this?
K: Well, I worked two jobs for a very long time. I’m sure anyone who started their own business knows the hustle is real. So I would spend all day working on Nomadica and then I’d spend all night at Osteria Mozza, slinging Barolo and Brunello and all the fun Italian wines. And we were able to raise a little bit of money last year, and I was able to go full-time, and I can’t even tell you how exciting it was — and still is — to work for myself. It’s crazy.
A: Awesome. Yeah. It’s totally great, right? It’s this thing that you just finally take the leap and you do it, and it’s nuts. So you have this canned wine brand. You finally got it on your own. What is your goal for this brand? Or obviously you said that it’s about putting good wine in cans, but what does that actually mean to you? And could you put Barolo in a can? Do you know what I’m saying? I’ve heard some people be like, “Oh, there’s only certain kinds of wine that you’d put in cans.” So what does it mean for you in terms of the wine you put into a can?
K: Well, we source wine specifically for the can, and I do think this is where my decade-plus in wine really does come in handy. We don’t just put any juice in the can. I will probably never put Barolo in a can. I do think it needs to age in a bottle, but certain varietals like our current red, a Sangiovese blend with a little bit of old vines and vanilla and Grenache. It’s poppy. It’s bright. It doesn’t have tannin, it’s high-acid. It’s crushable. So that’s kind of where we’re heading here. And then we have a core lineup of wines. Two sparklings (a white and a rosé), a still rosé, and a red. We’re adding a still white to that lineup next year. And then we’re also doing some really fun limited editions that we’re just going to drop online, small boutique things. We’re doing a collab with Stolpman Vineyards. We’re doing a carbonic Syrah with them. And then Mike from Rootdown and Cole Ranch, and SLK wines made an amazing Piquette with some 70-year-old Riesling from his single vineyard.
A: OK. I get it, though, I get it. So basically the whole idea is it’s wines that are drinkable now, right? We’re not aging anything in this. Are you the person that’s drinking from the can, or do you expect the consumer to pour into the glass?
K: So I always say wine tastes better from a glass, and no one will ever get me to change my mind on that. There are some circumstances where you’re on a hike, you’re at the beach, you’re sneaking a can into your purse to have with an In-N-Out burger. I don’t know for a fact, I’ve never done this myself, of course — I would never — but sometimes you just drink out of the can for convenience. Another thing I really like about the cans, and I think one of the special things about what we do at Nomadica is we have nothing to hide. I encourage everyone to drink it out of a glass. And because of that, we’ve noticed — we’ve done a lot of surveys with our customers, and they’re wine drinkers. They’re a little older, they’re in their 30s typically, and they’re choosing us because they don’t want to open an entire bottle.
A: Oh, interesting. So, here’s what I’m curious about. I was going to ask this question, you sort of answered it for me, but it’s who does dump it into a glass? Because we started, and in all fairness, we’ve never had your wine submitted for the tasting, we started two years ago a big open call for canned wines. Because there’s so many now, right? Canned wines were submitted to us and actually our tastings director basically the first year was like, we have to stop pouring the wines into a glass. And so we don’t, if anyone else who listens has submitted to us before, you’re now learning, it’s the only tasting where we do not pour the wines into the glass, because when we surveyed our staff and then readership, most said they drank it from the can. And so we were like, well, because a lot of times when you pour it into the glass, especially with some of these canned wines, you get that weird sulfur smell initially. And so we were like well, no one is actually going to get that because they’re drinking it from the can. They’re consuming it in the way they would consume a seltzer or the way they would consume White Claws, but yeah, the way they would consume a seltzer or a beer, that’s that format we’ve been conditioned. We drink from it. We don’t pour into a glass. So I, that’s why I was curious to ask you, just because I wonder, then, if you think about what kind of wine goes into the can, knowing that it’s not going to be examined or it won’t aerate?
K: Yes, absolutely. So when I’m selecting wines, I always have several cans, and I taste it out of the can and because I don’t want to control how anyone drinks it. I want it to be amazing in every single scenario.
A: It’s funny, there’s a restaurant near me in Brooklyn that sells Nomadica, but how have you expanded? What has that been like? So you obviously quit your job. You’ve raised a little bit of money. You’re now out in the world. What has your growth trajectory looked like? Or what are your plans for growth? How is that working?
K: So we’ve actually been really lucky in a pretty awful year — let’s be honest — to really hang on, and over half of our business is in on-premise, which people are always surprised by. I mean, I was surprised by that. I think when we first started Nomadica, I was like, “Oh, this is just gonna be retail. This is just going to be retail,” but we’ve seen a massive uptick from luxury hotels and grab-and-go programs. I’m sure that restaurant in Brooklyn is one of those.
A: It’s like a little falafel shop.
K: Oh, Holy Pita! I love that place.
A: That’s so funny that you know which one it is!
K: Of course I do. Of course I do. I have a very hands-on approach with our national sales office, and I think because the wine world and the beverage world is really small and I have to just really shout out our partners. At the beginning of this, we went to people and we’re like, “OK, this sucks for everyone.” I have worked in restaurants basically my entire life. And I’m worried about the future of restaurants. I think we all are. And so we went to a lot of our partners and just asked how we can help them, how we can be there for them. So we’ve done a bunch of Zoom tastings, virtual staff trainings. We’ve done a lot of charitable partnerships. And I think our relationship with our partners is better than ever. And thankfully, the industry is so small, we’ve also felt that love back towards us in a lot of ways.
A: Right. So is part of the plan for this to be a DTC brand? So obviously, on the site, right, you can order, you have the wine shop. Was that part of the business plan to begin with where you would be able to send people the wines they love on a subscription basis or is that since Covid?
K: Well, that’s definitely a re-pivot since Covid. We had always planned on launching some e-comm business as wholesale. We love our wholesale partners. We’re never going to take our foot off the gas of that, but e-commerce allows us to do these limited-edition collaborations and allows us the opportunity to talk to our customers, which I love. I miss the floor so much. I can’t even tell you. I just love talking to people about wine. It’s a sick obsession. I’m sure you understand. And so we actually just expanded, we’re going to be able to ship to 48 states in January, we’re launching a subscription service called “Club Nomadica.” You can either order monthly or subscribe quarterly, and we’re doing some really fun, exciting things next year.
A: So can you tell us any of those things?
K: So I’m so excited about this. We’re offering this up to all of our Club Nomadica customers, they get 24-7 access to me for all of their wine questions. It’s called “Text a Somm.” And so we’ve been beta testing it. And this came about because I get probably at least 10 texts a week from friends or family. Either it’s a photo of a wine list, “What’s the cheapest, best wine I can drink?” Or “I’m at the grocery store. What do I get?” And so we were like, wouldn’t this be great if we offered this up to our customers and our early adopters. And we’ve been beta testing it. People love it.
A: Yeah. I will say just full disclosure, no relation to the VinePair Text a Somm program. Totally different.
K: Totally different things.
A: But yeah, no, I think that’s super cool. I mean, obviously, yeah. I’m joking, but we did do “Text a Somm” this summer to give working somms a shift, basically. And we saw how many people texted in who have just random questions for wine professionals and they really want to know stuff. So obviously we’re never going to make this full-time. I think it’s super cool that you’re doing it like this. I think you’re also insane to be available 24-7. But I mean, it is still a young company, so I feel that’s when you have the energy be like “Yeah, s***. I’ll do it. 3:00 a.m. I don’t care.” So I dig that. So I have to ask you a question that is not about the wine. Then we’ll get back to the wine, but we’re going to be going all over the place here. I did check out your LinkedIn and it looks like you thought about going to medical school.
K: Yes. Oh my goodness.
A: So, where did that change for you? Obviously you went back, you had done undergrad, then you went back to that post-bacc to go to medical school. Where did you fall in love with wine in that journey and say, “You know what, screw being a surgeon, I’m gonna ultimately own a canned wine brand.”
K: So I majored in sustainable agriculture, moved to San Francisco, cooked for a little bit, worked at some really amazing restaurants, front of house, met Carlin Carr, who’s now the wine director for the Frasca group. She was so generous with pours. I cannot even tell you, and I kind of started to get the bug for wine there, but for a slew of reasons decided that “No, I should be a doctor. I should go prove to people that I’m really smart.” And so I went and did my pre-med post-bacc at Harvard. I’m originally from Massachusetts, so it was just moving back home for me, essentially. And throughout this time I was spending my summers working on Nantucket at Straight Wharf Restaurant, which actually has an incredible Bordeaux and Burgundy cellar. The restaurant has been around since the ’70s. Julia Child was actually the opening chef there. I know, so, so cool. And my last year, and here’s when I really started to get exposed to great wine. And there’s very generous guests. I had the opportunity to taste things that I could never in a million years afford to buy. And then in my last year of school, I’m taking my MCAT, applying for med school, I get in and that’s that, I’m going to med school. I’m going to be a doctor. And I meet this woman, Felicia Foster, who was running the small wine bar in Somerville, which is right outside of Boston, called Spoke Wine Bar. And she just mentored me, invited me to taste with her, you know when you first start out in wine and you’re tasting things and just don’t have the confidence to name flavors, to talk about the wine. She just encouraged me, and exposed me to Piedmont and Austria and Germany and all these wines that I just had no idea about, and she just really encouraged me to leave school because I was pretty miserable. I’ll be honest. And I love wine and I just took the leap and never looked back.
A: That’s great. That’s awesome. So back to the wine. So obviously the company is only a few years old. What are your goals for Nomadica? Would you like to ultimately grow it to a level where it is bought by a larger wine company? Would you like to own it forever? Would you like to ultimately use the label to expand into bottles or other things? I’m curious, what is your vision for the brand? As of right now as we’re closing out 2020 moving into 2021.
K: I really do want Nomadica to be everywhere. I think we’ve all had the experience in our life, whether it’s we go to a sports game or a movie theater and you drink beer because there’s not a wine that you would drink. And I really do think Nomadica solves that problem. And to be quite honest, we’re just so focused on building this thing and making it as great as it possibly can be that if we potentially get bought out, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. We’re just trying to make our product as great as can be and do some really fun things while we’re at it.
A: So you bring up a really great question and probably something that some people who listen to the VinePair podcasts always have, which is how do you get into those kinds of places? How do you get into the sports arenas or the movie theaters or the Holy Pitas of the world? And what I mean by that is I think that your value proposition is really great. I love the cans. I think the juice inside the can is absolutely stellar. And I get the marketing positioning of sommelier-curated wines. But the places that I think where you find the initial customers is where you’re talking about, right? The places where I wish there was a good glass of wine, but I don’t have it. And for the most part at those places, the person doing the buying may not know the difference between Nomadica or be able to appreciate the differences between Nomadica and that canned wine brand from Oregon or that canned wine brand from — not to pick on them — that canned wine brand from Northern California or something else from even New York state, right? How do you explain to them that this is the canned wine brand they should have for all of the reasons that I understand they should have it, the quality, the better design, all that stuff. Is it just that they see the package and they get it? What is your strategy there?
K: The packaging definitely is the door opener, but our strategy is really just, I can’t even tell you how great I’ve gotten at rejection the last few years. I remember starting this journey and thinking I’m great at sales. I sell wine on the floor every night, I can sell so much wine, and I really didn’t realize how you just have to constantly take it on the chin and keep going. And that’s basically my strategy. So I never really take no for an answer because I do think that there’s always an opportunity to revisit. And that our sales have definitely shown that to be true. And maybe it’s not always a “no,” maybe it’s a “not now.” And you just relentlessly follow up. You leverage your network. I stalk buyers, I’ve realized how creepy I am. And we’ve also been really lucky. I recently brought on Terra Hannaford as my COO, and she was the VP of sales from Casamigos and just what a difference she’s made in the company. And she has taught me so much about how to leverage and manage our distribution network, which was not formerly a skill of mine coming from the fine-dining wine world, and how to talk to retailers, how to use everything from your friend that you knew in seventh grade who maybe has a cousin that owns a wine shop. You got to really connect with people. And so I think it’s been working pretty well.
A: That’s awesome. So I feel like at this point I have a really good picture of the business. Do you plan to raise more money? What are your goals? Because like I said, the cool programs you have coming are “Text a Somm” et cetera. What are your goals when you think about where you’d like to be at the end of 2021?
K: Yeah, well we’ll raise some more money. We’ve got some exciting innovations on the way that you will be one of the first people to know about, I promise. I’m so excited about that for 2021. And just a lot of really innovative programming, and you know things take money, unfortunately. And I want to be everywhere in the U.S.
A: Kristen, this was really awesome to talk to you and get to know the business, where you’re headed. Like I said, I really think that the product is awesome. When I came in contact with it two years ago, I thought it was great. And then to be fair, I see so much stuff that it passed my mind. And when I got emailed about it again a few weeks ago, I was like, “Oh man, yes, I absolutely want to have this conversation” because I think you really seem to get it in a way that I think a lot of other people who are trying to do the canned wine thing just are missing, right? I’m not telling you to make, as I said earlier, the next “Bud Light.” I’m telling you to make the thing that I also would love to have out on my table or to be seen with in the park. That’s what I want. And I feel you’re delivering that, and it’s just awesome.
K: Thank you, Adam. That’s so nice.
A: So anyways, all the best in 2021 and with Nomadica. I’ll definitely keep watching, and I’ll definitely drink it when I go to Holy Pita.
K: Shout Out to Holy Pita!
A: Shout out to Holy Pita. Talk to you soon.
K: Bye, Adam. Thanks.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe and me, Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again right here next week.