Couple's Wine Paraphernalia Business Has a Heady Future


Hardcore wine connoisseurs eat, breathe and sleep the drink. Mark and Kathie Johnson also would like them to wear it, read it and decorate the house with it.

The husband-and-wife entrepreneurs have started a Ventura-based mail-order business, Wine Designs From the Heart, through which they market clothing, jewelry, books and home accessories inspired largely by wine.

Since April, the company has distributed its debut catalog to 90,000 potential customers and has taken in $50,000 in sales, according to the owners.

It remains to be seen whether the business will approach the success of the Johnsons' other Ventura company, Commander Printed Products, which last year sold $2.8 million in business forms and promotional products.

But thanks to an upward trend in the wine industry, the owners' expectations are high.

"I could see, with proper timing and marketing and finding the right mix of products and customers, it could equal what we are doing at Commander," Mark Johnson said. "The percentage of premium wine drinkers and premium wines sold has increased quite a bit over the last few years. There's more wine education, more of a wine lifestyle out there, and that's what our magazine is targeted toward--someone more than the casual wine drinker."

In selling wine goblet earrings, corkscrew clocks and "Forgive Me For I Have Zinned" T-shirts, the Johnsons are following the path taken by a number of Ventura County business owners--from wine growers to sellers of wine and accessories--who are trying to capitalize on the booming wine industry.

"How long has wine been with us, 2,000 years?" Johnson said. "I see our market being around for years and years. When you look at how many acres have been planted in Santa Ynez and the Central Valley--these people are gearing up for drinking. It's like a growth industry in many ways."

Bruce Boring, co-owner of the 10,000-member California Wine Club, also based in Ventura, said the success of the wine companies and related businesses, like most commercial ventures, boils down to supply and demand.

"Demand for wine has been increasing steadily since 1991 and the supply has been a little lean," Boring said. "Prior to 1997 there were a lot of shortages. Mother Nature hasn't been so hot. We've had bad years, cool years, bug-infested years."

With a good harvest in 1997, however, Boring said supply has caught up with demand. In particular, he said, it is the producers and sellers of top-of-the-line wines who are seeing the bulk of the increased activity.

"People are drinking more quality wines than ever in the past," he said. "In the 1970s, we drank a lot of jug wines. As baby boomers get older, they don't drink as much wine, but they are drinking better wines."

Members of the California Wine Club fit that demographic, said Boring, who provides his members with hard-to-find, mom-and-pop wines from throughout the state. As a result, his company has seen income climb 31% between 1996 and 1997.

"Our customers tend to be more upscale--business owners, doctors, attorneys, bankers," he said. "Recessions, [downturns] in the economy don't seem to affect them as much. They may have to lay off a half-dozen employees, but they themselves are not that affected."

With success in an industry comes competition. Mark Maitland, one of the owners of the family-run Old Creek Ranch and Winery in Oak View, has noticed it as much as anyone.

Maitland, his sister and their spouses took over operation of the 17-year-old winery in late 1996, after the death of family matriarch and winery owner Carmel Maitland.

In two years, Mark Maitland said, he has learned plenty.

"The winery business is a healthy business and it's growing, but it's also very competitive," he said. "We need to find a happy balance between our retail availability and the wholesale marketplace. I'm working as closely as I can with restaurants and other wine outlets, and if I can develop that retail, we'll be in a good place."

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