Lessons in agility

Lessons in agility

L'Ecole No. 41 Winery in Washington celebrates 17th international award
L’Ecole No. 41 Winery in Washington has been an international leader in winemaking for decades. The Walla Walla Valley winery recently took home its 17th international award for its winemaking.

A leader in Washington state’s $9 billion wine industry, L’Ecole No. 41 Winery recently won its 17th international award for excellence.

Named by Wine and Spirits Magazine as one of the world’s top 100 wineries for 17 years, the 30-year-old historic winery in Walla Walla Valley continues to differentiate itself in the most competitive packaged consumer goods space there is.

“At the height of pandemic L’Ecole was a different winery,:” says COO Ryan Pennington. “E commerce in the wine industry exploded so significantly that I’d estimate the pandemic accelerated e-commerce adoption by customers in the wine industry by a decade.”

Massive shifts in distribution methods and customer behavior were felt across the entire sector, and from its home base in an 1800s schoolhouse building in Washington state, L’Ecole joined roughly 1,000 state-based wineries in an all-out effort to innovate in its approach to consumers.

In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Ryan Pennington discusses the lessons learned in this newest chapter of L’Ecole’s playbook.

Boxerbrand: Please tell me more about customer changes.

Pennington: During Covid we saw a dramatic shift to online purchasing. Before Covid, our younger customers were more comfortable in the digital sphere, but during the pandemic we found e-commerce became much more reflective of our customer base in general.

Older customers began ordering online for the first time, and we also saw that more people began buying wine with their groceries. This was a time when I started thinking about the wine consumer differently, and began to think about the how important the human connection and old-school methods of staying in touch, like picking up the phone and calling people.

Boxerbrand: Could you give me an example of how your thinking changed about customers?

Pennington: Yes! Prior to my arrival at L’Ecole, I worked for another company in the industry, and we started thinking about the experience our customers were having with the closures and quarantine.

And this led us to decide to pick up the phone to check in on our wine-club customers, to ask how they were doing and we found that the human connection gave them, and us, a new appreciation for each other. We all realized that during the months we were hunkering down we were all missing that connection. And this gave our customers even more reason to think of us in a positive light.

Boxerbrand: How does L’Ecole attract and retain its customers?

Pennington: Because we’re a historic winery in Walla Walla Valley, we are a destination for a lot of tourists. We have a high brand recognition, and generally, we’re one of the first stops people make when they visit the region.

Another boon is that Wine and Spirits Magazine has continued to name L’Ecole to their annual top 100 worldwide wineries. We’re one of a small number of wineries who’ve received this recognition 17 times.

Boxerbrand: What wine is L’Ecole best known for?

Pennington: We’re typically known for our single vineyard Bordeaux blends of the five traditional grape varietals, including Merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Our pinnacle wine is the Ferguson Vineyard Bordeaux blend, which is from an estate vineyard of ours. We own this vineyard, and all the fruit flows through to our wines. Another well known wine sour Perigee from Seven Hills Vineyard, an estate we co-own.

Boxerbrand: What’s the competition like in wine?

Pennington: Wine is probably the most competitive consumer packaged good category out there. There’s so much consumer choice that building a brand and attracting customers through all the clutter is a major feat. If you picture an aisle in a supermarket or liquor store and think about those labels, you have a sea of choices. Finding ways to stand out is like solving an impossible Rubik’s cube.

Boxerbrand: How does wine fit Washington’s economy?

Pennington: The Washington wine industry is second in the nation, coming in behind California. We have about 60,000 acres of planted vineyards that keep1,000 wineries in production of wine. This makes wine one of the leaders in our agricultural sector.

The total economic impact is about $9 billion annually in the state of Washington, which creates either directly or indirectly about 25,000 jobs. And L’Ecole has been a major player in this industry for 30 years.

Wine is a discretionary purchase that you don’t need to survive like you need food and water. But it’s a luxury that adds to the enjoyment of life. And we’re thrilled we’ve been part of the history of winemaking in this country for so many years.

Boxerbrand: What lessons did you learn in the past years?

Pennington: The experience of the pandemic was an exercise in agility from a sales perspective.

There was a channel shifting that caused all wineries to think about where the demand had shifted, and how to shift distribution from in-person to online.”

The name L’Ecole translates into the word school in French. When the winery was founded over 30 years ago in this historic 1800s school house I’m sitting in right now, the name was chosen to pay homage to the history. And during the past years, we’ve realized that the wine industry always has a lesson to teach! — L’Ecole No. 41 Winery of Washington uses Boxerbrand’s Corks menu cover line in their table presentation. Thank you!

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