When Marisa Sergi was growing up, grape-growing and discovering the subtle nuances of wine was part of her DNA. Her grandparents Dominic and Michele Sergi immigrated from Italy when they were both teenagers, bringing Italian winemaking traditions to Lowellville, Ohio. Her parents, Frank and Ruth Sergi, also learned the art and science of winemaking before her dad opened L’uva Bella, a nearby winery and bistro, which translates to “the beautiful grape” in Italian.
With a family history full of passion for wine, Marisa Sergi spent four years at Cornell University learning enology and viticulture, the study of winemaking and grape-growing, and working with the team at L’uva Bella, which is located in Lowellville, Ohio.
Yet, Marisa Sergi recalls she was unconfident and concerned about completing a capstone project by her senior year, which she had started two years earlier. “My project was to document the process of developing a wine label (RedHead) and marketing it in the U.S.,” Marisa Sergi explains. “This project was a unique twist to what was proposed by most students who usually conduct lab research or vineyard studies.
“My family encouraged me to discover and pursue my interests. Realizing and building on your strengths can be quite challenging,” she continues. “Starting RedHead Wine has allowed me to embrace every aspect of what I am passionate about — creating, meeting new people, learning new skills, taking risks and making wine, of course.”
After earning her degree in 2015, the third-generation winemaker, at age 23, founded Youngstown, Ohio-based RedHead Wine in August 2016, serving as its chief executive officer (CEO), winemaker, marketer, spokesperson and more. Additionally, the red-headed entrepreneur also serves as chief operating officer (COO) L’uva Bella Winery.
In operation for 12 years, the third largest winery in Ohio offers many wines and wine styles from sweet, medium to barrel-aged dry, the company says. “Distribution of wines are in three states and the winemaking juices we produce are sold and distributed in over 15 states, mostly in the Northeastern United States,” the COO says.
RedHead and Purple Rain are among the well-known brands offered at the winery, which help to bolster sales of other labels, she adds.
Marisa Sergi proudly enthuses that a new limited-edition wine — Bourbon Barrel Aged Montepulciano — combines the expertise of two businesses and three generations of Sergi winemakers and will be available on a “first come, first served basis” this November.
“We’re planning a limited release of 1,600 bottles of this bourbon barrel-aged wine for the holidays, so it will sell fast,” Marisa Sergi says. “Those who have tasted samples have raved over the smoothness and explosion of flavor.”
RedHead Wine also is surpassing expectations with sales of its brand increasing more than 100 percent compared with 2017, putting the CEO “on cloud wine.” Marisa Sergi credits her education at Cornell with teaching her “how to pitch ideas effectively, take risks and to diversify by thinking outside of the box.”
The company currently offers two varietals: RedHead Red Blend, a 12.5 percent alcohol-by-volume (ABV) wine, which blends California Zinfandel and Chilean Carménère; and a 13.9 percent ABV Provence-style Rosé blended from California varietals, Malbec, Merlot and Zinfandel.
“When creating both wines, I put a lot of thought into what consumers may like. My main goal was to add value with a taste profile that a majority of drinkers would enjoy at a reasonable price.” Marisa Sergi explains. “RedHead Red Blend has won multiple awards from the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition as well as the Texas International Wine Competition.
“RedHead Red Blend is a medium bodied wine that is sweet and spicy. RedHead Rosé is drier and lighter, crisp, fruit-forward but with a hint of ‘sassiness,’” she continues. “Blends allow winemakers to create a wine using the best characteristics of multiple varietals in one bottle.”
RedHead Wine also is expanding its lineup with the addition of two white wines: RedHead Platinum Pinot Grigio and RedHead Semi-Sweet Moscato, which are due out next year in late February and early April, respectively. The company also is working on developing a hard cider.
The taste profile of the Pinot Grigio will be full of crisp and refreshing citrus notes of lemon, orange zest and pear, while the Moscato will be lightly sweet at around 1.5 residual sugar (RS) with notes of peach, apricot, nectarine and a dash of honey to leave a lasting impression on the palate, she explains.
Sweet & Spicy Moments
With a tag line, “For life’s sweet & spicy moments,” RedHead Wine received a big boost when the young entrepreneur answered Walmart’s US Open Call Summit. The retail giant’s $250 billion pledge is designed to bolster the U.S. economy by investing in small hand-crafted companies.
“Not only has [Walmart] invested in many small businesses across the U.S. with this commitment, but they have created over 1 million jobs,” Marisa Sergi says. “For RedHead Wine, distribution has increased to over 60 stores throughout Ohio.
“I was just recently asked to be Walmart’s Ohio US Manufacturing Ambassador, increasing opportunities to speak about my business on TV shows, magazine articles and in stores as part of the program,” she continues. “It has allowed me to gain exposure that would be challenging to have without Walmart’s backing.”
From the beginning to present day, Marisa Sergi passionately believes that every store that has enabled her to sell her wine on their shelves constitutes as a “big break.”
“Each location is a gain in giving the brand more exposure,” she says. “Whether it is a ‘mom and pop’ owned store or 300 Walmart stores — each and every location matters.”
Unlocking the magic of wine
Marisa Sergi believes that the secret to unlocking the magic of wine lies in the deep involvement of the winemaker who offers a hands-on approach to every step of the winemaking process — from the moment the grapes arrive at the winery until the wine is blended and bottled.
“Making wine is equally a science as it is an art form,” she says. “Great wine starts in the vineyard, but great wine is also made by a passionate winemaker. Being involved in every aspect of the process gives me an edge to control and nurture the process as a scientist and an artist. Even when I am done working, I am checking my emails, responding to customers on social media and thinking of innovative ideas to add to our customer experience. I work many ‘after hours’ and it is hard to add up.”
All of RedHead wines are crafted and bottled onsite with an enormous attention to detail, but distribution occurs both on- and off-site, Marisa Sergi says.
“We produce many styles of fine wines from fun light bodied to full bodied barrel aged. We also supply bulk juice and wine to wineries or other beverage manufacturers,” she says.
As a female entrepreneur juggling two businesses, Marisa Sergi advises other like-minded individuals to simply ask. “The answer is always ‘No’ if you don’t ask,” she says. “Taking the fear out of being rejected was key for me. This philosophy has given me courage and has caused me to explore possibilities I never even knew existed.
“I have had audience with top executives in Fortune 100 companies,” she continues. “I realize now that starting at the top was not the fast pass to success. Old-fashioned ethics like hard work, being passionate and determination are the key to success.” BI