Seattleite Spotlight: Jackson Rohrbaugh, Founder of Crunchy Red Fruit

Jackson Rohrbaugh, master sommelier and founder-owner of Crunchy Red Fruit ( Photo credit: Crunchy Red Fruit )

As the days are getting longer (and brighter!), there’s more time to enjoy that glass of wine on your balcony or porch in the evening, drenched in sunshine. But… do the long aisles of wine at the grocery store confuse you? Jackson Rohrbaugh, a master sommelier, has the perfect solution to end your wine decision fatigue. Meet Crunchy Red Fruit—a subscription-based wine club in Seattle founded by Jackson and Gretchen Rohrbaugh in January 2020.

Jackson’s midas touch differentiates Crunchy Red Fruit from other subscription wine boxes. Jackson ships a six-pack of wine every two months that he has thoughtfully curated and sourced from around the world. His goal is to introduce members to new and unique wines made with little or no manipulation in the grape-growing and winemaking process. He looks for wines that tell a story of a place and expand the knowledge of every level of wine enthusiasts. 

We spoke to Jackson about his journey to becoming a master sommelier and what makes Crunchy Red Fruit different from other wine-box services.

Seattleite: When did you start getting interested in wine? What inspired you?

Jackson Rohrbaugh: I got interested in wine when I lived in Italy. I loved that there were grapes grown locally that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world. I tried as many new things as I could. But it wasn’t until I moved back to Seattle and started working at Canlis that I saw wine could be an all-encompassing academic pursuit as well. That floored me, and when I started studying, I couldn’t stop. It became my passion, and since I was working at a restaurant, I could apply my newfound knowledge immediately in a service setting.

Seattleite: Could you tell us about your growing up days and background?

Rohrbaugh: I grew up in Gig Harbor, Washington, and because my dad grew up in Italy, we had an infusion of some cultural context growing up. The first time we went to visit my dad’s old neighborhood in Naples, it was a revelation. I remember Italian nonnas pinching my cheeks and forcing me to eat multiple-course Sunday meals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was setting the stage for a deeper connection to hospitality, food, and family.

Seattleite: Could you tell us about your journey of becoming a master sommelier?

Rohrbaugh: Becoming a Master Sommelier wasn’t an overnight thing. It wasn’t a realization that I came to when I started studying wine. But after I had taken a couple of exams and begun to work in wine, I realized that I just loved wine–its history, lore, and connection to living people and pieces of land. It became a passion of mine just to read more about wine and taste as many things as I could. I was beginning to become a Master Sommelier long before I took the exam itself. This sounds counterintuitive, but really you become a Master Sommelier by being curious and seeking knowledge… not just by memorizing facts. That’s certainly part of the process, though. You gotta do your legwork and study and flashcard and taste lots of wine, but you can’t synthesize any of those things into a successful exam performance without loving wine and being naturally curious if that makes sense.

Seattleite: How does being a sommelier give you an edge with Crunchy Red Fruit?

Rohrbaugh: Part of my goal with Crunchy Red Fruit has been to do for my customers what I did on a restaurant floor for guests. A restaurant has wine, but lots of other contexts: music, mood, tasty food, servers, and sommeliers to welcome you and give you context and story as you enjoy your meal. That’s what a Crunchy Red Fruit box is. It’s not the transactory “here’s your wine, now go away” experience that’s common to retail. Instead, we’re giving you chef-curated recipes, song pairings, a video describing each wine, and some extra treats along the way. We’re all about couching wine in context and showing you fun ways to enjoy it. You can go buy a bottle of wine anywhere, our goal is to help you enjoy wine even more by giving you these things to go along with it. Our main product is a six-bottle box that ships once every two months, for $189 including shipping. Everyone who’s a part of the Crunchy Red Fruit Circle gets the same wines, recipes, and everything else.

Seattleite: How did you conceptualize and launch Crunchy Red Fruit?

Rohrbaugh: I knew when I was leaving Canlis that I didn’t want to work restaurant nights for the rest of my life, but I still wanted to find a way to share the wines I was passionate about with people. I figured that a brick-and-mortar retail shop was a little too high in terms of startup costs. But a wine club offered me the chance to curate, and present wines in their best light. I could communicate my joy for these wines in writing, and help people to understand what we’re all about along the way. I could also be as picky as I wanted to be. Only the best wines, with the best stories and most conscientious vineyard and winery practices, would make it into my boxes. I launched Crunchy Red Fruit in January 2020, after a few months of planning, designing, and thinking.

Seattleite: How is Crunchy Red Fruit different from other subscription-based wine clubs?

Rohrbaugh: A common wine club trope is this: “Hey! What do you like? Cabernet? Great, here’s six cabernets!” My experience as a sommelier has taught me that the world of wine is bigger and more diverse than anyone can imagine. If sommeliers like me haven’t even tasted everything out there, what do you think the average consumer understands about the wine world? That five french grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc) encompass the world’s entire flavor profile? NO! We’re not here to regurgitate the familiar. We’re on a voyage of discovery, mining for stories and flavors. We are bringing our customers on that journey with us.

Seattleite: Could you tell us about your recent 3-bottle wine relief box for Covid-19?

Rohrbaugh: We weren’t planning on this. Nobody was. But as soon as I saw restaurants and their workers in trouble, we wanted to help out. We came up with the idea of this relief box back in March, and have since sold nearly 500 of them. More than we imagined, more than we were prepared for. There’s been a lot of long days packing and delivering, but it’s been rewarding and helped raise a lot of money. Our relief box is three bottles of wine for $79 including shipping/delivery to most anywhere in the continental US. 80% of the proceeds go to the Seattle Hospitality Emergency Fund. It’s brought us new customers, we’ve stayed afloat, and we hope it’s going to do a lot of good in people’s lives.

Seattleite: Any new, interesting projects in the pipeline at Crunchy Red Fruit?

Rohrbaugh: We’ve crafted a special Rosé Box that’s launching this week. Three bottles of yummy, organic dry rosé for $59 dollars including shipping/delivery. We expect to move a lot of these, after the success of our Relief Box. Down the road, we’d love to find a brick and mortar location that would function as a shipping/packing center, event space, and wine tasting bar. That’s a little way down the road, but we can dream, right?