ONEHOPE wine funds causes from cancer research to Northern California fire relief. See how this groundbreaking company is shaking up the industry.
By Heather Wood Rudulph
ONEHOPE is one of the fastest-growing wine companies to come out of the Napa Valley since, well, ever. And it’s succeeding with a model that defies everything the wine industry was built upon. Winemaking is a slow-build business—one that takes years to grow not only the product, but also relationships that sustain it. Wine brands gain in popularity and prestige by gradually exposing their products to buyers, critics and consumers. Marquee brands like Beringer, Mondavi and Chandon cultivated their success over generations.
ONEHOPE is smashing that template, bringing the rapid growth and progressive ambitions of a startup to the stoic wine business, and creating a philanthropic mission that’s, quite literally, changing the world.
CEO Jake Kloberdanz recalls the moment lightning struck. He was a rising star in sales at E. & J. Gallo, a cushy gig that entailed selling wine to businesses up and down coastal Southern California. “I was in the back of grocery stores in Newport Beach, getting to know the liquor manager, the butcher and bakery managers,” he says. “These are the people who make the decisions on what products get prominent placement in the store.”
To build these relationships, Kloberdanz would help out by unloading pallets of products from soup to yogurt. It was October 2006, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time when yogurt lids and soup cans, among thousands of other products, turn pink to raise money for breast cancer research. “I started to notice these big brands had a social impact piece, which I came to learn was called cause marketing,” Kloberdanz muses. “As I learned more about it, I felt really connected to the idea of taking a business approach to a charitable cause. I wanted to build something like that into a business model, make it sustainable, and do it year-round.”
Kloberdanz worked on his idea to create a cause-based wine business—where every product sold would benefit a range of charities—slowly and silently for months. Then, one of his childhood best friends called to tell him she had cancer, and he found a new sense of urgency.
“That was the turning point,” he recalls. “I was reminded that life is short, and you need to do something that’s impactful. It scared the heck out of me, but it also scared me to not do something.”
In a move 1996 Tom Cruise would appreciate, Kloberdanz quit his job to start ONEHOPE, bringing seven of his colleagues with him.
“It wasn’t as cool or dramatic as Jerry Maguire,” admits Kloberdanz, who wears the relaxed uniform of a tech boss: jeans, a fleece vest with the company logo emblazoned on one side, and work boots. We’re having coffee at Oakville Grocery, just down the road from ONEHOPE’s newest property, an exclusive vineyard and members-only estate. “Everyone in this group just seemed to fit. We were all recent graduates, recruited into the same national program at Gallo. We studied business ethics and we were hungry for something to call our own. When I left, I shared what I was doing with this group, and over a three-month period, they joined me.”
ONEHOPE found its first success by accident. Kloberdanz and chief brand officer Brandon Hall were discussing the business and looking over prototypes while having lunch at a tony Newport Beach restaurant. “All of a sudden, the restaurant owner walks over and says, ‘I heard what you guys were talking about. I’ll take three cases,’” recalls Kloberdanz. “This was one of the best restaurants in Newport Beach. At that point we knew we had something.”
They funded the company with a $10,000 loan from Kloberdanz’s mother, and about $150,000 of credit card debt. They worked out of each other’s apartments, and sold the wine door to restaurant door, hauling it around in their cars. To find a winemaker, Kloberdanz used the best tool modern technology has offered us. He Googled “winemaker and charitable,” picked the name that showed up most in search results and drove from Southern California up to Sonoma to give his pitch. Soon thereafter, ONEHOPE became the first private-label brand to partner with Sonoma Wine Company, which already had established vineyards, winemakers and products on hand. He was paired up with veteran winemaker David Elliott. At his first trade show, Kloberdanz met Michael Mondavi Jr., who has been the brand’s consulting winemaker ever since.
The business grew quickly, from 168 cases to 5,000 within the first year, which meant a lot of growing pains. “All of the founders were trained in sales,” Kloberdanz says. “We didn’t have a marketing department, so somebody had to fake that. We didn’t have an operations department, so somebody had to pretend to do that. We didn’t have a tech team, so we were very clunky.”
ONEHOPE was a virtual winery for the first eight years until it secured its first property in Rutherford. Today, the wine is sold through its partnerships with restaurants, hotels and retailers across the nation, and via the internet on their own e-commerce site as well as Amazon. They’ve traded car trunks for sprawling distribution warehouses in California and Kentucky. ONEHOPE also has a team of 3,000 brand ambassadors who Kloberdanz dubs “cause entrepreneurs.” They act as independent contractors, selling the wine at private parties and gatherings, efforts that total about 50 percent of the brand’s sales today.
A philanthropic mission is built into every product, benefiting charities that range from cancer research and autism to child hunger and literacy. To date, ONEHOPE has made more than $2.8 million in donations, resulting in 15,000 clinical trials for cancer patients, 44,000 homes for shelter animals, 1.7 million meals for children, 47,000 lifesaving vaccines and more.
To find the right charity partners, Kloberdanz looks for the organizations that devote the most cents on every dollar directly to the beneficiaries, and sources the personal lives of his employees and customers to find the causes that will reach the most people.
“We would love to help everyone, but we’re looking for ways to make the greatest impact with causes that we and our customers care about,” Kloberdanz says. “If someone is discovering ONEHOPE in a grocery store, will they connect to the cause on the bottle and feel compelled to buy a product because of it?”
Kloberdanz also spends time talking to customers at trade shows, and reading hundreds of letters that pour in—stories about children with autism, parents with Alzheimer’s and veterans with PTSD.
“I try to take time to see the impact of what we’re doing,” Kloberdanz says. “I’ve seen kids at school who have a chance to eat breakfast because of the meal plans we’ve funded. I’ve been to the animal shelters, which are able to keep up with incoming and outgoing animals because of our help. I’ve seen [veterans serving with charity partner] Team Rubicon finding a new sense of purpose, while also helping hurricane victims rebuild their lives.”
As ONEHOPE continues to grow, Kloberdanz hopes its success will be a motivator for other companies to adopt a cause-based business model. “We’re hoping to be not only a leader in the wine industry, but a leader in helping more businesses create measurable impact in a sustainable way.”