Donation Decorum

By Linda Donovan

Like many winemakers and winery owners, I hear this question a lot: “Will you donate some wine to my cause… my auction … my event … my whatever?” Every year, I receive at least 50 such inquiries, many from people I’ve never even met.

While most of the requesters represent valuable nonprofit organizations, wineries — especially the smaller ones — just can’t operate on the same basis. Wine costs money to make. We have to invest in grapes, labor and facilities for processing, label design, bottles and packaging, sales and marketing, storage, delivery and, of course, taxes. Whew. It’s tiring signing all those checks.

Now, I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. I chose this career, and I dearly love it. But I’m a little surprised that donations of wine are sometimes considered in a different category than, say, artwork or auto parts.

There are plenty of giant American wineries; but most of them in the places where I live, sunny Southern Oregon, are just small businesses. And, while they may not have the mega-resources of a Gallo or Ste. Michelle, most smaller wineries — especially if they’re owned in part by winemakers — are solid corporate citizens.  They understand that a vibrant community is a good place to live, to work and to sell wine.

Every winery is different, of course, but I’ll bet many of them share some basic philosophies about wine donations.  Here are my six absolute best pieces of advice to anyone seeking a contribution.

Target Your Search

Don’t pick up the phone and dial wineries starting with “A” in the yellow pages. It’s vital you understand the interests of decision-makers and their past giving history. What have they supported before?  In my business, I most want to help groups involved with economic development in my hometown or animal welfare. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but you’ll get a much more pleasant response if the winery’s passions clearly match your organization’s proclivity.

Do Some Homework 

Before approaching any winery, know exactly what they make — and don’t make. Read their charitable giving policy if it’s on the website, or call for a quick summary. Find out who typically buys their wine. Understand how what you want is priced, at wholesale and retail, so you know the true value of the donation. 

Make a Genuine Connection 

Get to know the owners, winemakers and tasting room staff.  If you imbibe, buy their wines for your personal cellar.  Attend their events and even consider signing up for the wine club. Friends help friends, not strangers — no matter how important the cause.

Ask Professionally 

Explain precisely how the winery will benefit from any donation. Put your request in writing — with complete details about the organization, what you’re seeking and if the donation is tax-deductible. Explain how and when the wine will be poured or used, and present exactly what’s required of the winery and its people.

Request Something Reasonable 

Instead of an outright donation, offer to pay the best wholesale price for the wine (typically, up to 40 percent of retail). That’s really important if you’ll be charging event guests for the wine. Avoid asking for the winery’s most expensive products. The higher-margin wines support the lower-cost second labels which, by the way, can be great event wines. And don’t assume winemakers/owners can attend every function; time is money, too.  

Showcase the Donor

Make sure the contributing winery is featured appropriately in all promotional materials and communications. If a winemaker or owner agrees to appear or pour at a charitable event, let that person say a few words about the wine and their business.  If they want, offer them space for signage, tasting notes, business cards or sales literature. And let them sign up interested people to their e-mail list.  

Linda Donovan is winemaker and co-owner of Pallet Wine Company in Medford, Southern Oregon’s largest custom crush facility. She makes wine under her own label, L. Donovan Wines. 

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