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At Graft Wine Shop, Community Comes First

How a brick‑and‑mortar wine store uses email marketing to send its good‑neighbor mentality (and good‑tasting wines) nationwide.

Since doors opened in 2018, Graft Wine Shop has grown its small space in Charleston’s Upper King district into much more than a storefront. The brainchild of long-time friends Femi Oyediran and Miles White, the bar/bottle shop hybrid has become a beloved community gathering spot: On “Good Neighbor Sundays,” other local businesses even set up in the tiny parking lot, allowing customers to pair wine by the glass with pottery, art, and pizza.

That sense of camaraderie isn’t just reserved for local patrons. In Graft’s bi-weekly newsletter, Femi regales subscribers across the country with lighthearted guides to the best new bottles, from a “fine-tuned black cherry jam session” that “rips for under $30” to the “totally n'sync” pet nat he dubs “rockstar gatorade.” The newsletter also shares upcoming events, staff updates, and the store’s latest Spotify playlist—bonus content that won’t surprise anyone who’s seen the trove of vinyl records that line Graft’s walls.

But for all the witty quips and 90s pop-culture references, Graft’s 2 co-owners are absolutely serious about great wine. Named Sommeliers of the Year by Food & Wine in 2019, they count plenty of established wine collectors as enthusiastic followers, too. In fact, they recently launched Cellar Gang, a second newsletter geared specifically towards customers seeking rare bottles.

Femi says email marketing has been crucial to Graft’s e-commerce success, helping the store reach eager collectors in addition to guiding casual customers as they refine their palates. Mailchimp caught up with Femi about how the newsletters impact his business (online and in-store), how he deals with competitors, and why building community is Graft’s top priority.

What do you think sets Graft apart from other wine businesses?

I think most people that drink wine with us or buy bottles from us appreciate the way we communicate. Miles and I met each other when we were like 20, 21 years old. We were goofballs that worked in this restaurant together. People in wine love to use the phrase “down to Earth,” but what does that really mean? I think that we actually represent that here—we speak to people about wine like we would speak about records.

Your bi-weekly newsletter does have that conversational tone to it. How does email fit into your digital marketing strategy?

The newsletters are the only opportunity that we have to really talk to our customers. When we're on Instagram, our audience is going through thousands of photos a day. They give us about 2 seconds to read and hit like and then move on. For wine, that's not always enough. You really need a soapbox where you can wax poetic about the bottles that you're excited about, where you can get into the details. It's great to have more of an editorial voice when we communicate with people. When we write the newsletter, it feels like we're putting out our own magazine of sorts.

You didn’t always sell your wine online. How has e-commerce evolved your business?

E-commerce was definitely a pandemic baby. Everything started shutting down, and at one point we were selling wine online just to liquidate everything. Originally, when we launched e-commerce, all you could select was “Graft, Take the Wheel.” You would tell us how much you wanted to spend, and we would just give you whatever we had. [Laughs] Like I said, we wanted to get everything out.

Once we realized people were still buying wine from us, we started giving them choices. For the first 5 months of the shutdown, when we got all of our inventory online, it was just nuts every day. As things have opened back up, it’s definitely not been as busy online as it once was exclusively, but it’s still alive. We started shipping, and we actually get a lot of out-of-state orders. I think people read the newsletter and think, “You know, I could buy that locally here, but we're going to buy from these guys because I love reading this.”

The newsletters are the only opportunity that we have to really talk to our customers.

Femi Oyediran, Co-owner of Graft Wine Shop
Have you seen these digital efforts impact in-person sales as well?

This is probably the biggest change we saw: Before, wines that were in the $60 to $150 range would sit on the shelf. If you just walked in here, you probably wouldn’t take the chance on them unless you asked about them. Now, if I just give one of those wines a shoutout in a newsletter one night, it will be gone within weeks. It certainly is very critical to the way people buy wine—or at least the way people want to buy wine from us. I think the newsletter offers them a way to avoid buyer's remorse. I'm telling them, “This wine is delicious. I truly believe it, and I think there's a fantastic story behind it.” It helps people feel confident about the wines that they buy from us. You know if you spend that money, your curiosity will probably be rewarded.

You also started on a second newsletter, Cellar Gang, that focuses more specifically on premium wines. Why?

We started Cellar Gang for people who are looking to build serious cellars, or at least for people who are okay with being sold on wines that are kind of expensive. It's like I want your consent to offer you wines that are kind of ridiculous. [Laughs]

The people who walk in the store and leave with the most premium bottles are usually tourists. I'm not saying that locals don't, but when these out-of-towners come in on Saturday, they usually see stuff that is very difficult to acquire in big cities—and yet it's just here. People will subscribe to Cellar Gang, and they’ll find out that we have one of those oh-my-God wines—wines I'm surprised I even was able to get, so the fact they’re still on my shelf is bananas—and they might text a friend, and it will grow through word-of-mouth. It offers us an avenue to reach different customers.

You’ve built a really great network with nearby businesses, stocking their products or hosting them at your weekly “Good Neighbor Sundays.” Why is that an important effort?

When I was working at Charleston Grill, years ago, I read Danny Meyer's book Setting the Table. He writes that to create a really great, really successful restaurant brand, you have to really integrate with the community. He talks about how he did that with Union Square Cafe, in how they invested in the neighborhood and parks and community events. The best way for a restaurant brand to really stand the test of time is to be synonymous with the community. When people think of downtown Charleston businesses, local businesses, I hope Graft comes to mind. When they think about Sundays, I hope they think about Graft and it's a neighborhood party.

It seems like that community mindset extends to plenty of businesses beyond those you host for Good Neighbor Sundays—even competitors like other wine shops. Why?

A few years ago, I heard an interview with Questlove about the rise of the Roots. He compared it to punk rock in the 80s: There wasn't one singular band that came up, there were a multitude of bands that all came up together. He said that the way the Roots were successful was that the label signed all these artists that were like-minded and promoted them all together as a movement.

It took me a second of humility to come to the understanding that it's very much the same with wine. The only way Graft is going to be successful is if wine gets really successful in Charleston. That’s why I would send someone to another business or another wine store in town: I think that all of us being successful, wine being successful here, is a win for all of us. It's going to take a village.

Photos by: Joel Caldwell and Olivia Rae James

Published: March 8, 2022

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