Aiming to Tease
Naked Winery strips pretension from wine with fun, provocative approach
By Stu Watson
When C. Patrick Neagle drove south from Trout Lake, Washington, to pick up his quarterly club wines from Naked Winery’s tasting room on June 13, he wore a white terry cloth towel.
Well, except flip-flops and shades.
The tasting room crew let him in anyway. Even if he wasn’t totally naked, he was close — and spot-on with the day’s events.
Neagle, a writer who teaches college English classes aboard Navy ships, figured a towel was the perfect attire to qualify him for role play in that weekend’s Naked Experience, themed after the popular movie, “Top Gun.”
Neagle jokes how it was a good towel, because it stayed in place despite several up-and-down jumps to test the waistline tuck. Good thing it did, too, because he was wearing the same thing underneath the towel he wears beneath his kilt: nothing.
All in a day’s business at Naked Winery, the rapidly growing wild child of the Columbia Gorge wine scene.
It’s exactly what founders David and Jody Barringer and Dave Michalec intended when they dove into the brand-saturated wine business 10 years ago.
Michalec sold the Barringers their Hood River home, after the two electrical engineers bailed on successful Silicon Valley tech careers and moved to Hood River because, as Dave Barringer says, “We wanted a place to raise our kids that was wonderful, and we wanted them not to measure their life by the brand of shoes they wore.”
Michalec, who had been making his own wine for a while, became a wine-drinking buddy. They would attend wine shows together. From watching how most wineries engaged their customers, they came to believe that the industry needed far less pomposity and a lot more fun.
“Everybody was saying the same thing,” Barringer recalls. “It was about the soils, the grapes, but they were not talking about the experience.”
Their concept crystalized one night at the bar of the Lyle Hotel, 12 miles east of Hood River.
“This lady came to the bar, and she was afraid to order wine because she might order the wrong wine,” Barringer recalls.
The founders concluded that most wineries emphasize education and esthetics in their customer relations, but they don’t spend much time, if any, on escapism and entertainment.
That led Naked to the distinctive risqué wine branding — names such as Tease Riesling, Foreplay Chardonnay, Booty Call Blush and Penetration Cabernet — that led some people to suspect the company put more emphasis on packaging than wine.
Barringer takes exception. “We let our wines stand on their own,” he says. “Friends come up to me and say, ‘Dave, your wines have gotten better,’ and if you think so, great. But I don’t think our wines have changed that much. Our 2013 Cab is very close to our 2002 Cab.”
The company makes and bottles wine under three brands — Naked, Oh! Orgasmic and Outdoor Vino — which aim to reach three distinct market slices.
“I’ve always admired how they introduce new people to the wine market,” says Nicole Backus, communications coordinator for the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association. “They’re very approachable.”
Wines with the Naked label are the heart and soul of the company’s production. Oh! appeals to a more experienced, discerning buyer. And Outdoor Vino — bottled in lightweight, recyclable plastic bottles — aims for an après-adventure, outdoorsy consumer.
“Naked always had a plan,” Barringer says. “We didn’t see winemaking as a big risk.”
Not, especially, if they could also nurture a “unique buying tribe” united around “a memorable, shareable experience” — inside tasting rooms, or around a variety of activities ranging from snowshoeing to dressing in Medieval costume to stand-up paddleboarding on Central Oregon lakes.
Besides, Michalec had made wine for years, and Barringer loved wine, having spent time in California with a number of people in the industry. Those relations responded positively when he would send unlabeled bottles south for them to taste and critique.
Barringer and Michalec were more active in the winemaking early on. These days, they focus on marketing and product branding. Winemaker Peter Steinfeld and his assistant, Alaina Waller, guide cellar operations and relations with growers in the Gorge, Washington, the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon.
“It was always our strategy to buy great grapes,” Barringer says. “If you do, you make great wine. You just have to get out of the way.”
Steinfeld appreciates his growers, like Dan Kraemer, who supplies Naked with Willamette Valley Pinot Gris.
“I just love the fruit,” Steinfeld says. “He really cares about the fruit and the wine that his fruit makes.”
Or Nathan Ziegler, who grows just north of the Columbia River on Underwood Mountain. Steinfeld bought 8.5 tons of Tempranillo from him in 2013.
“His Tempranillo is very clean fruit, nicely balanced, delivered in perfect condition with even ripeness.” Steinfeld says. “We are about delivering the best wine possible, and that’s why we get it from different sources.”
Making and serving good wine doesn’t mean you can’t have fun doing it. Taking the snoot out of wine became the imperative for Naked Winery when it launched in 2005.
Early on, it adopted the tagline, “We aim to tease,” with a stated mission “to cut America’s divorce rate in half by encouraging people to reconnect with each other by sharing a glass of wine nightly.”
Their strategy is working. Sales more than doubled each of its first three years, jumped 70 percent in 2009, and charted gains ranging from 18 to 60 percent in subsequent years.
That growth drove addition of new production space in 2014, and plans for further expansion in Hood River, and elsewhere.
Naked Winery has come a long way, from sharing equipment and space with Cascade Cliffs and Pheasant Valley wineries. Barringer values that sense of cooperation the Gorge wine scene still fosters.
Barringer says the company hopes to expand its network of branded tasting rooms beyond Hood River, Bend and McMinnville to other out-of-state locations — in addition to South Dakota — and keep its Club Naked members showing up in towels.
“We’re authentic,” Barringer says. “We are what we say we are.”
Naked in South Dakota
Sometimes, tasting rooms open more than wine bottles. When Rob and Kim Livingston stopped at Naked Winery’s Hood River tasting room in 2010, they opened opportunity, for themselves and their hosts.
Just when Naked was looking to add tasting rooms, the Livingstons inquired about representing Naked wines in their native South Dakota.
They wanted to build a hotel and feature Naked. They did.
They wanted to build a distribution company and feature Naked. They did.
And they wanted to build three tasting rooms. They built two.
Because Naked couldn’t franchise tasting rooms outside Oregon, it needed — and developed — a legal framework by which it could license the look and feel of its tasting rooms and sell wine through those licensees.
When the Livingstons in 2012 opened Naked Winery-branded tasting rooms in Custer and Hill City, South Dakota, they opened the door to two entirely new business channels for Naked.
Naked president David Barringer says working through licensees is more profitable than owning and running its own tasting rooms — no overhead, no staffing issues, just sales. That’s why co-founder Dave Michalec is in talks with other interested licensees.
Barringer says the South Dakota channel also revealed other opportunity. He didn’t realize, for example, wine drinkers in the Midwest like their sips a bit sweeter. So they expanded their sweet wine.
“I’d guess they do about half of our total sweet wine sales,” he says.
As a result, they also discovered customers in Oregon, California and Washington love sweet wines, too. Now Naked offers them in all their tasting room locations.
A veteran Northwest newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, Stu Watson owns Watsonx2 Communications in Hood River.