August 13, 2022
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Uncorked: O’Neill progressive in promoting well-being

In a tumultuous year with a global pandemic, civil unrest and catastrophic natural disasters, O’Neill Vintners and Distillers has done its part to spread goodwill.

The California company has led campaigns on several fronts in 2020. Its efforts led founder Jeff O’Neill to be nominated for the Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star “Person of the Year.” The culture at O’Neill is what CEO Christine Moll said fosters an opportunity for employees to be engaged citizens.

“Jeff O’Neill had a town hall meeting to address the teams about our safety and security in the winery and the marketplace,” Moll said. “He only spoke for eight minutes, the rest was opening it up to employees to galvanize our own culture and everyone that needed our help.”

When there was a shortage of hand sanitizer, the O’Neill distillery had the resources to help. First responders and hospitals were in need, and Moll wasn’t surprised the O’Neill team found a way to come through.

“That’s the M.O. of our organization,” Moll said. “Everyone turned to how to help each other, both employees and communities. We asked, ‘How can we provide for local heroes?’ The distilling team decided to provide hand sanitizer to police and children’s hospitals. It was organic and heartfelt. It was an employee movement – not something set by corporate.”

Public health wasn’t the only suffering sector that O’Neill set out to assist. With restaurants either shut down or their capacity severely reduced, the O’Neill team looked to assist their colleagues in the service industry. The people responsible for selling O’Neill wines by the glass or bottle in a restaurant were in need.

“Sales and marketing mobilized right away,” Moll said. “They launched a GoFundMe to support the restaurant workers union foundation. In two weeks, they raised $27,000.”

A lack of diversity in the wine industry has led O’Neill to partner with former NFL cornerback Charles Woodson’s Intercept Wines to create a college scholarship.

Black, Indigenous and People of Color students interested in careers in the wine industry are encouraged to apply for the Charles Woodson & O’Neill Family Wine Scholarship. A scholarship would cover 100% of tuition and room and board for one undergraduate student at both California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo’s wine and viticulture program and Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute.

The civic goodwill doesn’t stop at the pandemic or social causes. It extends into environmental stewardship as well. In a year where unprecedented wild fires ravaged California and Oregon, O’Neill has reduced its carbon footprint with 2,500 solar panels that power the wineries’ bottling line and air-conditioned warehouse.

At the Parlier winery facility near Fresno, O’Neill has the largest worm-powered wastewater system in the world. The worms convert wastewater nutrients into worm castings, which growers can add to soil to increase its health.

Giant beds of what eventually will be 200 million worms that will recycle 80 million gallons of water to be used for irrigation sounds like science fiction, but it’s a way to help reuse water, a scarce natural resource in California.

When it comes to wine, O’Neill has continued to offer a wine array of reasonably priced everyday wines. As on-site sales came to a halt, retail business is up, and e-commerce, a delivery mode Moll said the wine “industry is behind the eight ball in,” also has risen to the point that 80 percent of wine consumers have had shipments sent to their homes. Harken Chardonnay has embraced the oaky, buttery style. Robert Hall showcased Paso Robles with a mix of both everyday and moderately priced wines.

“A lot of success we’ve seen is work that was done pre-COVID,” Moll said. “We always want to have a more meaningful relationship with consumers. When they trust you will deliver, it’s easy to come back to that. It’s hard to pivot to building that during a pandemic, but the groundwork we’ve done the last five years has paid off. We want to make sure we are still available for consumers.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.