Walmart VP Tours L’uva Bella

LOWELLVILLE, Ohio – Walmart is prepared to address retail challenges such as ongoing supply chain issues and inflation as the holiday shopping season approaches, an executive from the retail giant said. 

Adonis Clark, regional vice president and general manager with the Arkansas-based retailer, visited L’uva Bella Winery and Bistro to tour the winery, a supplier since 2017. Accompanied by other Walmart personnel, he joined a group that included representatives of Superior Beverage Group and area legislators.

“Walmart is well positioned for the holiday season to serve our customers,” Clark said. “From a supply chain perspective, we’re well positioned.”

The chain’s mission is to save customers money so they can live better, he added.  “That’s going to continue to be our mission and that’s going to continue to be our focus,” he said.

In 2013, Walmart committed to spending $250 billion to sell goods that are manufactured, assembled or grown in the United States, Clark said. Last year, it committed to spend $350 billion within the United States.

“That’s what brings me here today, the partnership with our local businesses,” he said. “When you can build an ecosystem that creates jobs for others, it’s very, very important.”

In 2017, Walmart selected L’uva Bella’s Redhead Red Blend for placement in 20 local stores through its Open Call program. Now six of L’uva Vella’s wines are sold in 750 Walmart stores including Purple Rain, the top seller among the six brands.

Including Walmart, L’uva Bella wines now are carried in thousands of locations, said Marisa Sergi, L’uva Bella’s chief growth officer. Sergi formulated her Redhead Red Blend wine as her capstone project at Cornell University.

“It’s a really great opportunity to reflect on that growth,” she said.

State Sen. Michael Rulli, R-33 Salem, recalled listening to Sergi describing her vision after she returned from Cornell.

“When you have an entrepreneur like her who has the ability, the foresight and the vision to take this program to where it is,” said Rulli, director of operations for Rulli Bros. Markets, said. “It’s absolutely incredible because when you graduated there was nothing.”

Sergi and Evan Schumann, the winery’s president and CEO, bought the winery and bistro from Sergi’s parents in 2020.

The couple were married last year.

“It’s been an amazing couple of years in this company,” Schumann said. Sales to Walmart represent about 25% of L’uva Bella’s distribution.

The winery manufactures about 100,000 cases of wine per year but is on track to grow that to 300,000 within the next five years, “thanks to our retail partners,” Sergi said.

“Right now, we’re working with a really amazing team here at L’uva Bella,” she said. The winery has been able to support its team of about 30 with health and other benefits and invest in infrastructure to expand capacity and grow further.

“One significant problem that we had when we took over the company was we were growing really, really fast,” Schumann said.

Within six months of buying the winery, its distribution expanded from Ohio to a total of five states. The owners needed to determine how to best use its existing equipment to get more throughput without adding more tanks. “Because we just didn’t have the time to bring the tanks and to get them set up within the timeframe” Schumann said. “We had to get the orders out the door.”

Among the investments the owners made were glycol-jacketed exterior tanks installed earlier this year. Glycol is liquid at around 16 degrees, allowing the contents to be cooled to the necessary level, winemaker Garrett Lattanzio said. 

“It’s a giant chiller,” he explained.

A cross-flow filter installed at the winery also has increased productivity because it can process around 1,400 gallons per hour, he added. The system employed before its installation did about 100 gallons per hour, Sergi said.

Another new technology allowed the winery to cut production time by two weeks on some of its wines, Lattanzio said.

Additionally, Sergi pointed to the positive response by the Walmart wine representative to the new packaging for the Passion line, which lets the customer easily see the flavor profile on the label.

The winery sources grapes from California growers it partners with and from Welch’s Foods Inc., Schumann said. L’uva Bella brings in truckloads of whole grapes and crushes them on site.

“Many other wineries don’t have the ability to do that,” he said. The winery also crushes grapes for other wineries around Ohio.  

State Rep. Al Cutrona, R-59 Canfield, presented L’uva Bella with a commendation to mark the business’s success.

“It goes to the heart of the valley,” he said. “It’s a family owned, operated business that has continued to expand,” he said.  

Walmart’s Clark was impressed with what he saw. At the conclusion of the tour and luncheon that followed, he was making plans for a visit to the bistro with his wife.

“You guys have got something going here,” he remarked. “I think about the jobs that [Sergi] created here and the jobs that the expansion will bring, it’s awesome.”

How much further L’uva Bella grows within Walmart will be determined by demand, Clark said.

“That’s something that’s usually determined by the customer,’ he said, “Our job and goal is to try to deliver for the customer and they get to make those decisions.”

Selling in more stores is “definitely an amazing opportunity” but Sergi wants to ensure that L’uva Bella is servicing its existing stores properly before expanding.

“Right now, I’m trying not to bite off more than I can chew,” Sergi said.

“We continually have growth opportunities.”

Pictured at top: Evan Schumann, Adonis Clark and Marisa Sergi.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.