After a bunch of years in the wine business, I’ve noticed a couple things that would tell me it’s spring even if I couldn’t feel it myself. The first is that the changeover to daylight savings time makes people order more whites and rosés, even when the weather isn’t really warm yet. Seriously, the orders for red wine pretty much dry up. If by some chance I’d forgotten to change the clocks, I’d be reminded by the orders in my inbox.
The second is that lots of non-profit organizations hold fundraising events, and every fundraiser needs wine. Requests for wine donations go up substantially in March and April, and then again in September and October, both for wine to be consumed at events and for auction gifts. I have to admit I didn’t expect this when I started First Vine. I’ve also noticed that on wine business discussion boards you’ll inevitably see a thread each spring from a wine business newbie asking for advice on a policy for charitable contributions.
Since I’ve been in the position of asking for contributions (for my former employer and other organizations I’ve been a member of) and the recipient of many requests, I thought I’d share my thoughts and some experiences. Especially for new wine-related businesses.
Come up with an annual charitable contribution budget. Figure out how much you can reasonably afford to spend. This is sometimes easier said than done. There isn’t any recommended formula for percentage of gross income, unfortunately, since as a new business you’ll have a lot of unexpected expenses. You’ll get a tax deduction as long as the organization you’re giving to meets the right criteria. Two things to keep in mind: (a) not all of them do — if an organization spends a certain percentage of its income on lobbying it may not qualify; and (b) The deduction is generally limited to your cost for the wine and not its retail value.
You may also want to factor in the sad fact that some of your inventory will likely approach its shelf life during the year. If those wines aren’t selling they’d probably be great to drink at fundraisers. (But be sure to tell the recipient that these aren’t wines they should keep for next year if they’re leftover.)
Come up with a policy for donations. Will you decide to support a few non-profits more substantially, or spread it out among more organizations? Do you have a particular type of charity that you’d prefer to give to? Are you more inclined to go local when you give, or are national organizations also eligible? Are you willing to consider requests as they come in until you’ve reached your quota, or will you set particular times to decide on requests (say, monthly or quarterly)? Will you have a standard donation or will you adapt the donation to the request/event?
A lot of questions and different approaches. I know a shop owner who gives away the equivalent of $100 per month to a local charity selected at random. The charity can make the request at any time, but is only eligible to receive one donation per year. Another shop owner tells me he supports four particular charities each year and that’s all. First Vine is more in the middle. We support a couple of charities every year, and then make other donations with the rest of our budget based on requests. I prefer to donate wine or wine tastings for auction prizes rather than wine to be consumed at the events, although there may be exceptions if the event is a smaller one.
If you’re taking requests as they come in, you still may need a prioritizing system. I tend to put a higher priority on requests from my regular customers. That might not work for a brand-new business, but I’ve found it’s a good policy for us. After that, I decide based on what the charity does and who it serves, and then what level of donation is being requested.
Once you’ve figured out a policy, stick to it, and consider making it public on your website. That’s what the shop owner I cited in my first example above does, he refers callers asking about donations to his site where they can apply. If you are following your policy, you can honestly tell callers and visitors when you’ve appropriated all of your charitable contributions budget. Some may ask you if they can be considered for next year, and again, you can decide yes or no based on your policy.
We’re making some minor changes to our website, and I plan on putting our donations policy up then. I haven’t yet decided if I want to list the charities we support every year, but am leaning toward doing that. On the one hand, it really isn’t something I’d ordinarily publicize, but I’m also proud that we support them and don’t necessarily mind if people know.
Try not to get worked up over the volume of requests you receive, because you’ll get a lot of them. Think of when you were young and started going out to bars — you walked in and all eyes were on you. It’s going to happen again for your new wine-based business. You are the fresh new face, and the non-profit event/donation coordinators have probably already danced with all the other wine purveyors in the room.
Remember, though, that they have every right to ask for a donation. In all likelihood, it will be a nice request, since it doesn’t pay for them not to be. You probably wouldn’t want to hurt the feelings of a nice-acting stranger in a bar, so stay classy and don’t lose your cool.
Once you start donating, the requests for donations will increase. One of First Vine’s first wine donations was for a relatively exclusive donor event for a DC-based arts organization. Dare and I joked afterward that probably one-third of the attendees must have been fundraisers for other organizations because we got so many donation requests in the two weeks following the event. And talking to a few people we know in the fundraising community confirmed it: there’s plenty of I’ll-come-to-yours-if-you’ll-come-to-mine out there.
Try to convert donation requests into future sales. I have found that even when I can’t donate to a particular organization, the event coordinator may be open to a conversation about doing business together. You can try with an answer like this one: “I’m sorry, I’ve already reached my donation budget for this year. But I’d love to talk to you about things you have coming up — I have some really good, inexpensive event wines. How about I call you next month?” Then do it.
This is a good place to add three points based on my experience with donations over the past eight (gulp!) years. I’m not saying they apply to any business other than First Vine, but here they are:
1. I’ve learned to look at almost all donations strictly as charitable donations rather than as potential future business opportunities. Yes, this runs counter to what I said above, but I mean for the people attending the events rather than the organizations running them. I love wine, so I’d like to think that if I were served a wonderful wine at a fundraiser I’d seek it out again. But in 30+ years of going to fundraisers, I haven’t. And if I haven’t, most attendees won’t, either.
This isn’t to say that the karma of being a good corporate citizen isn’t a reward in itself, but I admit it took me a while to appreciate it, because of my next point.
2. Many donation requests come with statistics on the number of attendees at an event, size of the organization’s mailing list, etc. There may even be some demographic information on attendees/donors. Obviously, the attendees are the kind of people you’d like to have as customers. No promises are made (the words “potential exposure” are frequently used), but I allowed myself to infer from the information that the events would be better marketing opportunities than they turned out to be.
Perhaps walk-in business can convert attendees into customers more easily. But with an online-only business, people aren’t going to see a sign when they’re walking and remember that my business was the one that donated wine for that event last week. I’ve learned that some organizations will e-mail attendees on your behalf after the event if you can give them a one-time discount offer, but by and large they prefer not to spam their donors.
Let me say again, no one set out to mislead me. And I realize that most organizations asking for donations have nothing else they can offer you (beyond the good karma). It’s not their fault that these opportunities don’t really help market First Vine.
3. Based on my experience, though, I prefer to give to organizations that emphasize their work in appeals for donations, rather than the exposure I might receive for donating.
I recognize that these may not apply to everyone, so I’m definitely interested in hearing about others’ policies for donations and how they’ve worked out. And if any readers are fundraisers, I’d love to hear your perspective, too.
Cy and I are part of a dinner club with three other couples. We meet four or five times a year. The host couple picks the theme and makes the main course, and the other couples each make different courses in keeping with the theme. The rule is that you can’t make something you’ve made before. Too often we tend to fall back on the same things for dinner parties. It makes sense, you want them to turn out well, particularly if you’re entertaining people you don’t know well.
But Cy and I really enjoy trying new things, and we don’t necessarily want to make something more elaborate just for us. It’s not always a home run, but I’d say at least 90% of the dishes are. And we have a lot of fun. At our last dinner club dinner, the theme was New England. Our hosts made Ina Garten’s “Kitchen Clambake” and it was superb. Cy and I had the first appetizer course, which can either be cocktail party-style pass and eat or seated and plated. We decided to use fiddlehead ferns, which are both New England-y and spring-y. I remember seeing frozen fiddleheads when I was a kid growing up in Connecticut, and even once seeing them in jars. But I’d never prepared fresh ones, and so we decided to do something simple — so you could taste the fiddleheads — but easy to eat standing up with a glass of wine.
This week’s recipe is a streamlined version of our appetizer. Slices of cooked Yukon Gold potatoes sit on baguette slices, held down by a mixture of goat cheese and fromage blanc. Another schmear of the cheese mixture goes on top of the potato slices and they get topped by a single fiddlehead fern that’s been sauteed in butter. A little salt and pepper over everything and you’re good to go.
Fiddleheads need to be cleaned well and completely cooked. Like ramps, they’re wild and not cultivated, so they’re sitting in dirt. Plus they’re high in tannins and will not only taste bitter if not cooked enough, but they can upset your stomach. If you’re going to use them a couple of days after you get them, it’s simpler to wash and dry them when you get home. Then store them in a sealed plastic bag in the fridge. When you’re ready to use them, trim the ends, then cook in boiling, salted water for 7 to 8 minutes, then drain them. If you’re cooking them a couple of hours ahead, you should dump them in ice water to stop the cooking, then dry them. But if you want to use them right away you can drain and serve them. I like to saute them in a little butter. They taste like a sort of cross between asparagus and green beans.
We served San Benedetto Vernaccia di San Gimignano ($16) with the fiddlehead appetizer, and it was delicious. Vernaccia is crisp, mineraly, and citrusy, and it paired well with the fiddleheads and would make a great asparagus wine (something people often find difficult to pair). I think both would make a great appetizer presentation at your next party — or fundraising event 😉
Serves 8 for cocktail-style appetizers
24 baguette slices about 1/2-inch thick, toasted or untoasted as you prefer
24 fiddlehead ferns — they should have a nice, tight spiral and be about 1-1/2 inches in diameter — thoroughly cleaned and trimmed
3 medium to large Yukon Gold potatoes, around 2 inches wide (you’ll need to get 8 good slices from each one)
1/2 cup soft goat cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup fromage blanc or Greek-style yogurt, at room temperature
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
Bring at least 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of salt. Add the fiddleheads, and start timing once the water comes back to the boil. The fiddleheads need to cook for 7 to 8 minutes. They should be just tender but not mushy. Drain them, then put in ice water for a minute to chill. Spread them out on a towel to dry. (You can do these an hour or two ahead.)
In the meantime, put the potatoes in a pot with a little salt, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil for 30 to 35 minutes, until you can pierce them easily with a sharp knife. Drain and let them cool enough to handle, then cut the potatoes crosswise into thin slices. You should be able to get at least 8 slices from each potato. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the goat cheese and fromage blanc. Mash and beat them together with a fork until well-combined and a little fluffy. Stir in some pepper. Just before serving, melt the butter in a skillet. Add the fiddleheads with some salt and pepper and saute for a few minutes to warm them through. To assemble, spread a teaspoon of the cheese mixture on each baguette slice. Place a slice of potato on top of the cheese. Then top the potato with a dollop of about a half-teaspoon of the cheese, and lightly press a sauteed fiddlehead into the cheese. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve.