Friday, February 22, 2013

Sun shines on Roanoke Valley Wine Company

By Meg Hibbert

SALEM – Rob and Beth Crittenden became wine geeks and fell in love with Oregon wines about the time they got married in 1985.

The couple who live in Botetourt County started their business in a 20-by-20-foot storage unit in 1994, outgrew that and another location in Roanoke, and then the old Farmers Co-op building in Troutville.

Rob and Beth Crittenden, owners of the Roanoke Valley Wine Company in Salem, try a glass of Italian Colle Dei Barellini wine front of an antique painting in the company's foyer that exemplifies family and friends enjoying a meal, talking, and wine. Photo by Meg Hibbert

They moved the business to Salem in 2008 and now are distributing fine wines – and Belgian ales and kegs of Canadian beer – from Europe, Oregon and more to restaurants and other retailers throughout Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia out of their solar-cooled and heated wine warehouse.

“We got involved with wine when we moved from Virginia to Seattle, by lending a hand during crush and generally being wine geeks,” said Rob. “We realized Northwest wines were not available in Virginia and decided to import and distribute them ourselves,” Beth added.

Getting proper storage facilities was easier said than done. At one time, they had their wine in three different buildings. The Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Board worked with them to approve temporary wine storage, they said.

Moving to the warehouse in the Intervale Industrial Park off Electric Road in Salem has been a great move for their family owned business, Rob said. “It is all on one level. Salem has been great place to have a business.”

“Even before we were open, people from the City of Salem were coming in to welcome us.”

Salem officials and plenty of guests were on hand on Jan. 11 of this year when the Crittendens officially cut the ribbon at the warehouse to call attention to the 422 high-performance solar panels that are beginning to generate about 70 percent of the company’s needs for keeping wine and beer cool in warm months and the right temperature in cold months.

The system should pay for itself in about six years, Rob said, and is already offsetting the $20,000 annual electric bill RVWC was paying to the City of Salem for electricity.

Today the company has 42 employees, almost half of them sales staff. From the RVWC warehouse in an East Salem industrial park, the company distributes wines from Oregon, California, France, Spain, Australia, Italy, Germany, New Zealand and other regions. They also distribute Riedel glass stemware.

About half of their time, Beth and Rob spend on the road and in the air, visiting wine growers in those areas, as well as retailers and customers. They also spend a lot of time tasting wines, to decide what to carry and offer to their customers.

The Crittendens have a home in Botetourt County as well as in Seattle, and a grown child on each coast. Daughter Katie, 24, who is a wedding stylist at the original Nordstrom store, and husband Morris Brandon are in Seattle. Son Matt, 21, lives in Roanoke and is a student at Virginia Western Community College.

Sometimes, Beth said, the only way she knows where she will be the next day is to check her day planner. For instance, about now they should be on the West Coast, flying down to California to see some of the growers.

They have a two-and-a-half day meeting in San Francisco, then fly into Dulles Airport, go to Virginia Beach for the beginning of the Roanoke Valley Wine Company Road Show in Tidewater, then Richmond and next in Northern Virginia.

A subsidiary of Roanoke Valley Wine Company is RVDC, with a warehouse in Washington, D.C.. “We ship every night to Washington, four days a week,” Rob said, pointing to labeled doors on the interior of the loading dock area.

“Our guys ‘build’ shipments in the late afternoon and early evening and trucks take them out. This shipment is going to the Richmond Fan District. This one to Charlottesville, Those are to the Highlands of Virginia. And the next, to Lynchburg,” he added.

The Crittendens hand-pick the growers whose wine they distribute. “We receive a lot of samples from growers around the world,” Beth said. “In our tastings, we’re pretty ruthless, selecting our portfolio of wines.”

“One of the challenges we try to represent our growers very well,” Rob said. “We have to keep the number of wines. Our goal is to keep 800-900 sku (stock keeping units) of different wines and beers.”

Their right-hand man is General Manager Andy Travers, who is a LEED Accredited Professional. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Although he’s usually in the office more than the Crittendens, Travers has just returned from installing four solar panels at the St. Timothy School on the southern coast of Haiti.

The Crittendens, Travers and their company believe in sharing their good fortune and their respect for the environment with people in other areas. Rob sits on the Haiti Education Fund board that helps in 40 primary schools and six high schools.

“Part of what makes us feel like we are in a noble profession is we like promoting businesses with sustainable practices,” Rob said.

They are also supporters of the “slow food” movement, as opposed to fast food.

“I cook a lot. I’m very passionate about food,” Beth said.

A large painting that hangs in their front office exemplifies their idea of taking time to enjoy food. It shows a happy family with small children and friends, gathered around a meal – with wine, what else? – talking, laughing and enjoying their time together.

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