As a New Jersey Shore native, Mary McAuley spent her summers seaside collecting sea glass, competitively sailing, basking in the sun, and, most memorably, enjoying local seafood. Every summer, a bucket of steamers with melted butter was a Saturday afternoon staple on the McAuleys' porch. Full-blown clambakes and lobster dinners were almost daily occurrences around town. One of Mary's most distinct childhood memories was her grandfather Poppie forcing her to try a steamed clam drenched in butter. A retired Army sergeant, Poppie didn't take no for an answer. He grabbed 7-year-old Mary by the chin, told her to open wide, and she was instantly hooked.
When McAuley began applying for jobs toward the end of her senior year at Georgetown, she wondered if a traditional career path was right for her. A natural entertainer and host, she dreamed of attending culinary school and opening a restaurant. So McAuley and her parents struck a deal: After graduation, if she still wanted to pursue culinary school, they'd support the decision.
Fast-forward three years, and much to her parents' surprise, McAuley's resolve had not been dampened--she continued working full time in health care analytics and went to the Institute of Culinary Education part time. There, she learned knife skills, food prep, menu planning, restaurant management, and most important, she learned about the world of wine. Much to her surprise, wine became a favorite area of study, and that earlier dream of cooking and opening a restaurant was put on the back burner (no pun intended). McAuley got her feet wet working as a wine buyer for various New York City restaurants, including La Vara and Maialino. Early success as a buyer encouraged her to go all in and become a sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers.
With her new knowledge of wine, McAuley was enlisted as the unofficial wine buyer for family and friends for any occasion or gathering--cocktail parties, holiday dinners, barbecues, and, you guessed it, summertime clambakes. When it came to her clambake wine pairing, McAuley knew the perfect accompaniment would be a light, clean, unoaked Chardonnay. Clambakes necessitate wine rich enough to stand up to lobster and potatoes, but acidic enough to emulate a squeeze of fresh lemon to cut through the butter, at a price point that matches the casualness of the occasion (ideally under $20). McAuley set out to find one, and she couldn't.
"For next year's clambake, I'm going to try making the wine," McAuley recalls saying to her friend the morning after one of the traditional seafood feasts. And she did just that, except, instead of initiating a moonshine-like product for personal consumption, she dreamed bigger and produced enough cases of the Clambake Chardonnay to sell in the local New York and New Jersey market to test the waters. Would it be a hit among an unbiased public, not just family and friends?
"I produced a beautiful and silky Chardonnay, but didn't oak it or make it 'buttery,' says McAuley. "So it tasted cleaner and was more crowd-pleasing than your typical, aggressive Californian Chardonnay--the ones that are losing favor in the marketplace. We picked the grapes slightly less ripe than industry standard, so [the wine] boasted more citrus and mineral notes, which is the perfect flavor profile for shellfish." The end result was exactly what she was looking for: wine rich enough to stand up to the proteins in a classic clambake, but light enough to accentuate delicate flavors, as well. "It struck a balance between big, oaky Chardonnays and watery, simple Pinot Grigio-type wines," says McAuley.
And, better yet, it was a hit in the marketplace.
"When I decided to go forward with the business plan, I had the added confidence in knowing that there was a void in the market for fine wine under an approachable label," McAuley says. "There were a lot of extremely successful cute and fun brands that were all bottling cheap, low-quality wine. Domestic wine producers force buyers to choose between great branding and great wine; I wanted to be one of the first to marry the two."
While other producers assume that young wine drinkers are out to find the cheapest bottles, McAuley understands her target market better, being a Millennial herself. "I know the Millennials who are buying wine," she says. "They're my friends, my peers. I understand that they'd spend a couple of bucks extra on a bottle with 'cute' branding and great wine, so as to not compromise on either."
Two years after her initial 400-case launch, McAuley shipped nearly 6,000 cases of wine, easily selling out of her flagship Chardonnay and fall 2014-released Rosé.
McAuley is quick to note that she couldn't have done it all alone. She worships her early brand champions. "In the beginning, I had to go door to door to restaurants and bars doing tastings," she says. "I hit the pavement hard. One of my first big sales was to a Montauk, New York, shop: Finest Kind Wines. Mike, the owner, bought 10 cases, and I walked out of the store doing a little jig." Mike went above and beyond for McAuley, whose wine he enjoyed and story he believed in. He featured the Clambake Chardonnay in a window display complete with sand and a beach towel and chair.
"It was perfect!" McAuley recalls. "Usually companies have to budget thousands of dollars for those kind of displays, but Mike believed my wine would be a big seller in Montauk." And Mike was right. Montauk continues to be a huge market for Ripe Life Wines. McAuley adds that "Those early advocates really helped my company become so successful."
Demand is rapidly growing for Ripe Life's wines across the East Coast, and McAuley is moving at full speed to keep the shelves stocked.
"At the rate we're going, there is no doubt that in five years we will be shipping more than 20,000 cases all across the U.S.," she says. Great branding and great wine are sure to make the Clambake Chardonnay a household name.