Retail 101: Sip & Share Wines

Photography by Leo Soyfer

Nicole Kearney is on a mission to create a community with wine—and it’s working. Her boutique vegan winery, Sip & Share Wines, was conceived from an affinity for wine tasting and has since launched into a favorite brand of her ‘Sipporters.’ You can find Kearney across Indy at bridal showers and business events, and far-away fans can join wine-tasting “SipSperiences’ on Zoom. Kearney’s influence isn’t confined to Indiana, either. She’s had her wine featured in Forbes and delivers to almost every state. We had to know what the hype was about, so PATTERN sat down with Kearney to learn from a pro on what it takes to run a successful winery. #CheersToTheCulture!

Photo of Nicole Kearney, owner of Sip and Share Wines, poses while someone pours red wine into her glass.

Owner Name: Nicole Kearney 
Store Name: Sip & Share Wines
Store Instagram: @SipAndShareWines
Store Facebook: Sip & Share Wines
Store Opening: October 2016
No. of employees: 4

What do you sell in your store?
We offer everything from sweet to dry. We have a Conjure Zinfandel, which is an oak-aged dry red. It was featured in Forbes. It’s our fan-favorite; we love it! We have a Manifest Chardonnay, which is an unoaked chardonnay. We have an Intention Riesling, which is an off-dry riesling, so it’s semi-sweet. We do a Gratitude red blend which is a cabernet sauvignon and a merlot. We have three sweet wines: Awaken is the sweet white, Abundance is the sweet red, and then we have Love which is a white zinfandel, so it tastes like a watermelon Jolly Rancher. It’s amazing. Those are the seven we always have, and then we do Culture Cans. We have four canned wines and a dessert wine that we make.

Previous jobs/ventures?
I am a writer and college professor and I did a lot of community development work. The last position I had was doing community development and I also have a play production company. Before I started Sip and Share Wines, I was doing a season of theater. When I got into this business in October 2016, I had about five shows that were going to go up over the course of the theater season. We were in show three and I was like, “Oh my god, I started a business during the holiday season!” I thought that was the worst time to start a business. And everybody’s like, “No, it’s the best time,” because people drink between Halloween and New Year’s Eve, but I didn’t see it that way. Then we took off because we did home tastings and so people were like, “Can you come to my house? Can you do this for my bridal shower?” That propelled us out there. We were spending a lot of time making wine—we thought it was easier!

Nicole Kearney poses while holding a glass of red wine.

Why did you decide to open a storefront?
We were in a co-shared space on the south side. There were five businesses total, and we were getting our business off the ground. It was a great community because we were launching and we got to be like “What are your struggles?” “Oh, you know about this market.” “Hey, do you know about this event?” We still stay in touch. But then we had a lot of adjustments, so we went from 250 square feet to 2500. Now we’re making wine in huge amounts. We were making wine 18 gallons at a time and now we need 72-gallon tanks.

Do you have an online store as well?
We have online! You can order all of our products, including a sampler set that is all seven wines and they come in a single bottle. It’s a glass of wine, so you get to try all of them and figure out which one is your favorite. We ship almost everywhere. The website is fun. A lot of people can engage with us there. We also have what we call ‘SipSperiences,’ which we started doing during the pandemic. They are virtual wine tastings. We do a lot of corporate ones, we do a lot of everyday things and we do a monthly one that’s around a different topic. We just did ‘Sip and Self Worth.’ This month we’re doing one about plants. Then, in April we’re doing ‘Sip and Pair’ which is a seven-course dinner with all seven wines. 

Which came first, the online store or the brick-and-mortar store?
We did events, and then the online store came after. We always sold directly to people. Then we went into the small production space, but then we opened up the online store because people were like, “How do we get this when you don’t see you at an event?” And so we thought, “Oh, that’s a good question! Let’s go online.” 2019 was our first year online, and it was so fortunate because we already had the infrastructure in place before the pandemic hit. It was just easy to tell people “You can order online!”

What are some skills/qualifications that you think are important to have before launching or managing a storefront?
Know your market. That is super important. Understand the aesthetic that you want to create for those customers. Then, figure out if they will come to you or if you need to be in a specific area. Really run your numbers. You forget you have heat, you have lights. Who’s going to come in and clean up the space? Are you cleaning it up? That’s what gets people. Also, not being afraid to increase the price. We have to be able to pay the bills. If you’re honest with people, they’ll ride with you.

What’s more important when opening a storefront: location, having a nice cash cushion or having a lot of retail experience? Why?
The cash cushion, because you don’t know what could happen. Not only read your lease but get an attorney because you could be responsible for anything on the inside that breaks. We looked at a space, and they were like, “Oh, rent is $800, but if the furnace goes out, you have to fix it.” That’s about a $2,000 expense. We don’t want to do that, so now we’re in a different place. 

How do you decide which vendors/products/brands you want to carry in your store?
Customer led! When we got into cans, we knew people wanted us to add a moscato. We launched it last June and it has sold well. We listen to what people say. We do have a new product launching this year. It’s all about what the customers have said, so we like new formats. Everything we do is always around fun and innovation.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in running this business?
Sometimes it’s the seasonality. We came through Dry January, so we knew that was going to be a little slump for us. We got into wholesaling and that gave us a cash cushion. It’s how much money you want to put into marketing versus the retail space. You never know the answer, so every day it’s a guess.

Nicole Kearney poses with a glass of red wine in one hand and a bottle in the other.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of opening their own storefront or someone interested in gaining management experience?
Start small. If you could do a co-working space or anything like that, start small and test your concept. Will people buy this? Once you know that, look for a space that meets your needs as a business and that people would come to. I like more eclectic neighborhoods, so I tell people to look at Fountain Square, Fletcher Place, Mass Avenue, South Broad Ripple. Own whatever your niche is. Management experience comes with time. Think about all the bosses you had, all the places you went and everything that sucked, and create a better place than that.

What advice would you give to an up-and-coming brand looking to build a strong relationship with a retailer?
Build the brand first with the community, and the community will do the talking for you and get you into that retailer. If you haven’t built a brand, a community or a following, being on the shelf doesn’t happen. The worst thing to do is lose the shelf space. Once you’re gone, they’re not going to ask you back. Start backward, build your base and then your people will go to restaurants and retail places saying, “How come this isn’t here?” They’ll call you and say, “Let me get it in.” Then, continue to be in partnership. Don’t just put it on the shelf. It’s like dating! Treat them the same way you do when you’re courting them. Keep that same energy.

Are there any online resources that you regularly visit to help you run your business better, or keep up with the latest industry trends?
I always go to BevAlc Insights. It’s a beverage alcohol journal. I look at that like, “What are the trends? Are we on track with what we’re producing?” I get the Wine Journal monthly in print, but I also read it online to make sure I know what’s going on. And then I belong to African American Vintners Association. I tell people staying abreast of what’s going on in your industry should be built into the early part of your day before you get super busy. That is what I do my first hour every day.

Want to grab a bottle? Find Kearney’s wines locally at Mass Ave Wine and Total Wine, or order online from the Sip & Share website. Wine lovers can keep up with Sip & Share on Instagram and Facebook.

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