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SBA resource partner helps winery navigate economic recession, develop new business strategy
By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
WOODINVILLE, Wash. – In the sometimes pretentious world of winemaking, Bob and Lauren Bullock are pragmatists who think good wine should be an anytime pleasure.
At Eye of the Needle winery, they buy surplus wine from premium wineries and blend, age and bottle it under their own label in an effort to create a flavorful wine for $10-$15.
"We don’t want to be the Friday or Saturday night wine,” Bob said. "We want to be the Sunday through Thursday night wine business.”
In 2009, the Bullocks’ startup sold its first 440 cases in 11 weeks. By 2012, Eye of the Needle had three part-time employees and annual sales of nearly 6,000 cases - or more than 60,000 bottles of wine. In 2012, four wines - Harvest White, The Eye, Sangiovese and Syrah - won awards at the Seattle Wine Awards and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Eye of the Needle is selling six different wines in 159 locations, mostly in the Puget Sound area but also in six other states and Canada. The tasting room in Woodinville is open two days a week.
The brand has grown quickly because it’s a great value, said Lauren, but they put a lot of effort into presentation - both the label on the bottle and the vibe of their tasting room.
"Your winery is always so much fun to visit,” a customer wrote recently. "The employees are cheerful, knowledgeable and fun, the winery is decorated beautifully for each event and the wines are always so tasty.”
Getting help to ‘do it right’
Through it all, the Bullocks have worked with Jennifer Shelton, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
The Washington SBDC provides no-cost, one-to-one advising to small business owners who want to start, grow or transition their business. The Washington SBDC network includes 28 business advisors and four international trade specialists.
It receives support from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), Washington State University and other institutions of higher education and economic development.
Working with Shelton, Bob said, "is gold. Pure gold.”
"Anytime there’s a question, if I call her and she doesn’t know, she’ll find someone who does,” he said.
"If I want to send wine to China, she knows someone at the SBDC who can help. E-commerce? She has answer after answer after answer.” "We were just starting out,” Lauren said. "We knew this was something that could really fly and we wanted to do it right.”
Roundabout route to winemaking
Shelton said the Bullocks make a great team: "They are positive, generous, dedicated business owners who are fun to work with. I couldn't ask for a more rewarding experience than being a small part of their journey to success.”
In 2010, the Bullocks were able to get an SBA Patriot Express Loan through Banner Bank for equipment and working capital, and then they got a line of credit, thanks to Shelton. True, the Bullocks were new to winemaking, but they weren’t just starting out.
Eye of the Needle was born of second chances. A Vietnam War Veteran, Bob began distributing wine in western Washington in the early 1980s, which was an exciting time to be involved in Washington wine.
But after about a decade he was looking for a change, and he ended up in the medical insurance industry in 1996. In 2001, he suffered a major stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side.
His prognosis was uncertain, Lauren Bullock said, but he surprised his doctors by walking out of the hospital just eight weeks later.
With a lot of work, he eventually was able to walk an entire marathon averaging 16-minute miles.
"I always think I can do something until I know that I can’t,” he said with a smile.
Recession opens a niche
Never one to get stuck in a rut, in 2006 Bob decided it was time for a change. He looked into a couple things, but finally decided he wanted to return to the wine business.
In 2008, he became an independent wine broker, once again working with premium Washington wineries. But the recession hit. Where others saw obstacles, the Bullocks saw an opportunity - premium wineries had surplus inventory just sitting in tanks but the market was strong for mid-range wines at an affordable price.
In late 2008, the Bullocks formed Pacific Wine Enterprises, LLC, and started doing business as Haystack Needle Winery, which later became Eye of the Needle.
As a negociant winery, Eye of the Needle buys grapes that it crushes and bottles, but more than three-fourths of its inventory is bought as finished wine from other suppliers.
By buying finished wine, the Bullocks avoid the cost of owning winemaking equipment and are able to use their capital to buy the best wine they can get. Then their artistry begins, as they begin blending tastes - and price points - to get a good wine at an excellent value.
"I tell our team to leave their egos at the door,” Bob said about the group that gathers for blending trials.
"It’s not about our palates; it’s about a specific taste profile that defines what our customers are looking for.”
For more about Eye of the Needle, go to http://www.eyeoftheneedlewinery.com.
For more information about the Washington SBDC, go to http://www.wsbdc.org.
For more information about SBA, visit www.sba.gov/wa or call (206) 553-7310.