INTERVIEW: RENEE VENTRICE OF CORK AND KEG TOURS
By Sarai Butler
October 9, 2020
In the words of Renee Ventrice, one of the two owners of Cork and Keg Tours in Ashburn, VA, "never waste a good crisis". And that's exactly what this black owned family business is doing during this pandemic. This year, they have figured out a way to not only stay open but to thrive while adhering to new precautions and safety measures. And who doesn't love a good wine and a cold beer when the world is shut down? I certainly do.
October has been deemed Virginia Wine Month. So, in honor of that, I poured a glass of 2019 Malbec and discussed how Renee Ventrice selects the wineries for the wine tours, the effect the pandemic has had on their business and advice for future entrepreneurs.
So, you and your husband are a married couple, Navy Veterans and parents to a Son and a Dog. And you both are wine lovers. What made you fall in love with wine?
While stationed in Germany, we discovered wine by accident. We thought a bar was a beer keg but it was actually a wine cellar. The keg was actually a wine barrel! We tried different wines from all over the world. We thought the wines were more fancy than drinking beer. Fast forward, we moved to Pensacola, FL and had our son in 1998. We went out for our anniversary to a local sushi restaurant and asked the waiter what wine would be good with our sushi. He brought us over a bottle of 1996 Doctor Thanisch Riesling. That was our very first time pairing wine with food. We knew it was something there. We eventually settled in Loudoun County, VA. And in 2003, we discovered Loudoun County Wine Country. It opened up a whole new world of wine for us. After that, we started going to Sonoma, CA every year for work conferences and delved into wine education while there. That's all she wrote. So, it's been a passion of mine since 2003.
What kind of wines do you prefer?
I am a big red wine drinker. The bigger, the bolder, the drier, the better. I enjoy a dry red wine that has non-food properties like leather, tobacco, cedar and forest floor. It's nothing better than to pair that red wine with food and have the fruit to come out that makes the wine balanced and delicious. I also love a dry fun bubbly drink, like a Prosecco.
What inspired you to do wine tours in Loudoun County and how long have you been operating?
When deciding to do a business, we wanted to do something that we could enjoy and that we already had a foothold in. We knew wine. We knew winemakers. We knew winery owners and brewery owners. We knew about the upcoming openings of wineries and breweries. We thought that this industry was going to grow, let's get in. So, in 2003, we decided to go for it after my husband was laid off from his Cyber Security position at a major company. My husband no longer wanted to be at the mercy of someone else's decision on whether he could pay the mortgage that month. In light of that epiphany, we launched Cork and Keg Tours. After the launch, my husband was able to land a full-time position in Cyber Security. So, we decided to just do tours on the weekends for the first three years because I had a full-time career, as well. Fast forward to now, we have become so popular that we sometimes have to turn away as much business as we take.
You all customize and plan a complete experience for your wine tours. What does the experience include?
We customize EVERY wine and brewery tour. No two tours are the exact same. We ask a lot of preliminary questions such as what kinds of wines the client likes and the kind of experience they would like to have. We also have options for charcuterie boards, decoration packages, live karaoke, music playlists, and picture slideshows. We can take up to 100 pictures and forward them to the guests. And if we are asked for an option we don't have listed, then we try our best to accommodate all special requests. We even have suggestions for hotel accommodations in the area. Our business has become a collaboration between Cork and Keg Tours and other businesses in the Loudoun County area.
Your wine tours are around six hours. How many wineries do you get to visit and how do you select the winery?
During the wine tour, we are able to visit 2-3 wineries. We have built relationships with all the local wineries. And I've drank all the wines at all the wineries. So, based on your preferences, I would select a cluster of wineries that cater to your taste buds.
What is a WSET2 certified wine educator? Sounds fancy and important.
It's a Wine & Spirit Education Level 2. It's a certification for industry professionals and wine enthusiasts, where you learn how to taste and describe wine. I'm working on obtaining a Level 3 certification now. I would like to bring more diversity into the wine industry, especially when it comes to tasting.
I see you also have a podcast called Start Wine-ing? Such a catchy name. How did you come up with the name and what do you discuss on your podcast?
I came up with the name for people who just started wine tasting to become more comfortable. The podcast teaches people what's different from doing a wine tasting than going to a bar. We talk about etiquette and what you should do at a wine tasting to make sure you have the best experience that you can. We talk about pairing wine with fast food and junk food. We discuss wines from different regions and why they taste so different even though they can be from the same grape. We interview winemakers, winery owners and wine industry people to show people the behind the scenes look. Start Wine-ing is for beginner to intermediate wine drinkers to provide a different perspective on wines. And finally, we talk about how wine pairs with life and make it approachable for people.
Has the pandemic affected your business at all, positive or negative?
During this pandemic, I decided that Cork and Keg Tours needed to stay visible. I have been posting a lot about the business on social media. I've hosted live wine tastings on Facebook Live and virtual wine tastings on Zoom. Cork and Keg Tours has become a fun getaway to talk and learn about wine. I have promoted other businesses to network and connect with them. I've figured out a way to keep people in the community involved and engaged. For the tours, we sanitize our Mercedes Sprinter and have a partition between the driver and the guests for COVID-19 safety.
Has this business been everything that you were expecting? What are some roadblocks that you have experienced and how did you overcome them?
Getting the loan established was the hardest roadblock in the beginning. You almost have to not need a loan to get a loan. We had to make sure that we had the collateral. Creating our business plan was another roadblock. It was challenging at first to define who we were and what path we were going down. We had to establish our brand and stay true to it. Currently, our challenge is bringing together the podcast, my mentoring group Go Be Grape (which is a spin on Go Be Great), wine education and Cork and Keg Tours under one umbrella to be an all inclusive place for people to come to for everything wine related.
Do you have any plans to expand the business beyond Loudoun County, VA?
I would like to expand within Loudoun County, definitely. Beyond that, we would like to have different branches in Richmond and Baltimore and other close places, and funnel those people to Loudoun County. I'm not sure if we would like to offer franchising opportunities, just yet. We are looking at other states, as well. And ultimately, we would like to be an international brand. We are still working on our complete expansion plan.
What does owning a black owned business mean to you?
You may try my business because I'm black. But, you will come back to my business because I'm the best. This is my business pledge. My business represents black businesses. I want to make sure that anyone who hesitates to support a black owned business knows that my business is one for everyone. Everybody can enjoy what I provide. And I have a responsibility to make sure that other black business owners know the success they can achieve and know the resources that we have out there. I am focused on bringing up others with me and making sure that they know about all the beneficial resources. And they can count on me. In the Navy, I learned a saying that goes "A high tide raises all ships". I want others to rise up with me. Let's expand the awareness of excellence in black businesses across every industry.
What separates Wine and Keg Tours from any other wine tour service?
I like to be a surprise. I don't put everything out there when booking. So, when someone actually comes on our tour, they are pleasantly surprised at the customized level of detail their tour has. With my wine education and my husband's knowledge of beer, we are able to go to the wineries and breweries and make well informed suggestions on which wines and beers a guest should try. And we have been right every single time. That's a part of our secret sauce.
What’s the most important piece of advice you would give another aspiring entrepreneur?
We need to take advantage of this time. This is a high time for us. We have to show out and do a better job than anyone else. Show your best. You get one shot, no matter what color you are. We need to show all the ingenuity, all the fire, all the hustle, all of our great minds and all the great things we can do.
To learn more about Cork and Keg Tours - visit: www.corkandkegtours.com