Drink for a Good Cause? O’ Why Not!

Photo: Christine Buffalow

You rarely need an excuse to enjoy a nice bottle of wine. Other than “I’m thirsty” or “It’s Thursday.” But thanks to the women of O Wines, you now have an extra reason to add to the excuse bank.

Owners Kathy Johanson and Stacy Lill created O Wines (the “O” stands for opportunity) to fund scholarships for low-income, high-potential young women. And 100 percent of net profits from their wine sales are donated to these “Opportunity for Success” scholarships.

Photo: Christine Buffalow

Since opening the doors to O Wines in 2006, 34 scholarships have been granted to worthy recipients. “This is a life-long project,” Kathy said. “Before I die, I want to grant one million scholarships, and offer them in every state.”

The idea of crafting reasonably priced, good wine to raise funds for educational charity began over dinner at Barolo Seattle Ristorante on Oct. 31, 2006, when long-time friends Stacy and Kathy and their husbands were tasting wine and talking about the wine business.

Previously, Stacy had worked for 20 years in sales and marketing in the corporate world. Kathy was a Boeing engineer and program manager. In 2003, Stacy joined forces with her husband, Greg Lill, owner of DeLille Cellars, and “became entrenched in the wine industry.” Meanwhile, Kathy decided to retire from her 24-year career at Boeing and was spending time on two of her passions: writing and education; she recently returned to teaching part-time in the Master of Science program at City University.

The day after that fateful Halloween dinner in 2006, Kathy woke up to 40 Barolo napkins full of notes, and a new wine and charity business was established. “If you told us ten years ago that we’d have a winery, we would have laughed in your face,” Kathy said. “But we decided to take on the challenge of the male-dominated wine world and combine it with our love for education and mentoring.”

“We were friends for 20 years,” she added. “Then we discovered how well we work together.”

Photo by Team Photogenic

Well-known Washington wine maker Kate Michaud came on board, and by March 2008, the first bottle of O Chardonnay was on the shelf — described by Washington wine expert Paul Gregutt as “a delicious bottle, full-flavored, fleshy and dolloped with buttery oak.”

O wines is now on its third vintage of Chardonnay and recently introduced O Red, a blend of Syrah, Merlot, Cab Franc and Sangiovese.

“What’s important to both of us is producing quality,” Kathy said. “Whether it’s our label or our wine’s flavor profile, quality — amazing taste at an affordable price — is what matters.”

As part of their mission, Kathy and Stacy also host chartable auctions, fund raisers and events targeted at community involvement for the scholarship funds. Their photos frequently appear in local publications, most recently in the Puget Sound Business Journal’s “Scene” section on Feb. 18.

The College Success Foundation was their first sponsor, initiating the Opportunity for Success Scholarship in 2008. In 2009, they signed a contract with Oregon State University’s SMILE (Science and Math Integrated Learning Experience) program to fund five scholarships for the next five years, giving 25 young students the opportunity for financial assistance in college.

They also set up a Viticulture and Enology scholarship with Washington State University’s Crimson Scholarship Foundation.

In addition, Kathy and Stacy plan to set up scholarship programs in each state where O Wines is sold, so the net profits can be geared at local students. So far, there are partnerships with Arizona State University, University of Hawaii, and University of California, Santa Barbara. “All profits from our wine sold in that state stay in that state,” Kathy said.

In an arrangement with Celebrated Chefs, 5 percent of the bill at any Celebrated Chefs-designated restaurant is donated to the O Wines scholarship fund. A partnership with Heidik Jewelry and owner/designer Heidi Knavelsrud resulted in an “O” line of jewelry; 50 percent of the proceeds go directly to the Opportunity for Success Scholarship fund.

“Heidi also encompasses a similar passion to ours for charity,” Kathy said. “An entrepreneur like us, Heidi is not afraid to enter the world of big fashion, a male-dominated industry, just like the wine business.”

More than 75 volunteers help them achieve their vision, which goes much further than scholarships. Eventually, Kathy and Stacy would like to establish an academy for girls, “where they are safe to learn and experience their dreams of higher education.”

“The model has already been established with what Oprah is doing in Africa,” Kathy said. “She has paved the way for others to follow. By establishing a similar infrastructure right here in Washington State we hope to encourage others in the United States to follow the lead and begin building for the future of America.”