Education: "O" So Vital

By Kerry Newberry

Writer/poet Maya Angelou once said: "I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver." Giving defines the mission of O Wines, a winery based in Woodinville, Wash., where the art of blending is winemaking paired with community service. 

Founded in 2006 by best friends Stacy Lill and Kathy Johanson, the female-owned and -operated wine company contributes 100 percent of their net profits to fund higher education scholarships for low-income, high-potential young women. 

"The inspiration for O Wines was charity," Johanson said. She and Lill had participated in numerous charities over the years and always wanted to start their own. "This way we could put 100 percent of our efforts into something we firmly believed in," Johanson continued. "Both of us have other full-time jobs, so passion had to be the driver."

Their initial intent was to help abused women. But when Johanson found research on the correlation between the lack of education and abuse, the two decided to focus their philanthropy on education. "I found a journal article that cited a scary statistic: 82 percent of women who report abuse have less than a high school degree."  

O Wines - "O" stands for "opportunity"- has led to the establishment of the Opportunity for Success Scholarship through a partnership with the College Success Foundation. The foundation collaborates with public and private partners who pursue educational and financial incentives for economically disadvantaged and under-represented students so they can achieve their college and career goals.

The essence of O Wines is education, but this extends beyond books to mentoring motivated, confident women through the pursuit of knowledge.

In February 2008, Lill and Johanson released their first bottling, O Wines 2006 Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay. In a matter of nine and a half months, the winery sold out of its 5,000 cases and was able to fund four scholarships in Washington for students attending the University of Washington, Central Washington University, Washington State University and Northwest University in Kirkland.

Since that first release, O Wines has added another scholarship through Washington State University's Crimson Scholarship Foundation with a goal of funding a viticulture education. And in July 2009, O Wines began a partnership with Oregon State University's SMILE (Science and Math Integrated Learning Experience) program to fund five scholarships for the next five years.

At O Wines it is a true collaborative effort. Made by a team of winemakers - Kate Michaud (Covey Run Winery), Kerry Norton (Columbia Winery), Greg Lill (DeLille Cellars), Bob Johanson and the two founding women - the first Chardonnay was evaluated by six focus groups with six different demographics of women to determine the flavor profile and label.

Sourcing fruit from existing vineyards in Eastern Washington - mostly the Columbia Valley - the team of winemakers recently released their third Chardonnay and soon will release a 1,000-case production of the winery's first red, a blend of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese.

O Wines can be found in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, California, Arizona and Hawaii through Columbia Distributing, with efforts underway to add the remaining states to the distribution list.

With national placement, Lill and Johanson aim to create scholarships for each state's local colleges through the sale of O Wines. The ultimate aspiration for the women is to fund one million scholarships in their lifetime, certainly an endeavor to raise a glass to.

"We feel so blessed to be able to give back," Johanson said.

To donate money or for more information, visit

Kerry Newberry is a Pinot-sipping, vineyard-hopping wine and food writer. She resides in Portland.

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