Is it possible that the mere mention of free hot wings could alter one’s destiny? For Marisa Sergi, the answer to that question was a resounding “Yes.”
As a student at Cornell University studying enology and viticulture, Sergi had been developing a unique wine blend as her capstone project for graduation, but never imagined it would turn into a full-blown business. That all changed when Sergi got an email about a student entrepreneur organization's meeting offering free hot wings.
Marisa Sergi“My plan was to go get some food and peace out,” says Sergi with a laugh. “But when I got there, I found out you had to do a 60-second elevator pitch for your business.”
Though Sergi hadn’t exactly developed a business plan (or a pitch, for that matter), she “winged” it and ended up being selected out of 20 pitches as the “Student Business of the Year” nominee for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Sergi remembers thinking, “Oh, this is getting real fairly fast.”
Indeed it did, and just a few short years later, Sergi is the CEO of RedHead Brands, a fast-growing company that offers two varietals: RedHead Red Blend and Provence Style Rose. Currently, RedHead wines are available at a range of retailers across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and WalMart added the wines to its shelves permanently after a two-year test market period. (Did we mention Sergi is only 25 years old?)
Even as her business rapidly expands, Sergi remains committed to her roots here in Northeast Ohio.
“What’s special about [RedHead] is that the ground roots of the business have blossomed here in Cleveland and Youngstown,” shares Sergi. “Because of everyone in both communities, we’ve been able to get this far. When people say, ‘Why Northeast Ohio?’ I like to use my company’s success as a [basis for], ‘Why not Northeast Ohio?’”
Uncorking a passion
Sergi comes by her passion for winemaking honestly as a third-generation winemaker. Her parents own Lowellville-based L’uva Bella Winery, and her grandparents were also recreational winemakers.
“I grew up around wine because my grandparents immigrated from Italy and brought the tradition of winemaking with them,” explains Sergi. “When someone walked into our house, it was really important for my family to make them feel comfortable and welcome. Even if the person said no, they still got a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine.”
The bistro at L'uva BellaIn the early 2000s, her father Frank Sergi started selling fresh winemaking juices to home winemakers, using the warehouse of Youngstown-based pasta sauce company Gia Russa. “After a few years, we outgrew that space, and my dad bought the winery’s [current] building in 2005,” says Sergi, who was in junior high at the time.
Today Sergi produces RedHead Wines out of the L’uva Bella Winery facilities, so Sergi splits her time between Lowellville and Tremont. For both RedHead wines and L’uva Bella wines, the grapes are sourced in California (with the exception of Purple Rain Concord) and produced here in Ohio.
Sergi describes the RedHead Red Blend as “velvety smooth and fruit-forward with notes of strawberries, blackberries, cherries, and plums with a subtle cinnamon spice” and the Provence-Style Rose as “smooth, fruit-forward, and crisp offering notes of citrus, peach, and melon.”
Nick Latousakis of Weirton, WV-based Wine and Beverage Imports, Inc. (the RedHead Wines supplier for West Virginia) says that Sergi’s strong knowledge of wine and young age make her a force to be reckoned with in the field. “The largest percentage of wine drinkers skews from 21 to 35 years of age,” says Latousakis, “so consumers look at Marisa of one of their own group.”
Raising a glass
Now that RedHead Wines has finished its test period with WalMart, Sergi says that the store will add two more wines to its shelves (Provence-Style Rose and Purple Rain Concord) and expand the brand's presence from 60 to over 150 locations within the next few months.
“Over time, we’ll be available in all WalMarts in Ohio and West Virginia,” says Sergi, who was named as one of FreshWater's #Fresh10 last year. “The fact that we survived our test market with them and they’ve opened the doors further is very exciting—it shows we have potential to become a regional and/or national brand one day.”
Sergi says the brand is also expanding in other retail locations such as Giant Eagle and Dave’s Supermarket. To accommodate the demand, RedHead Brands is hiring between four and eight full-time employees this year, and L’Uva Bella plans to add another warehouse on its property in 2020.
In the future, Sergi also hopes to add more product lines like chocolate and coffee, but she’s staying focused for now. “I have that on the radar, but I need to make sure the wine [side] is completely taken care of before I diversify,” says Sergi, who returns to Cornell University each semester as an entrepreneur-in-residence.
To maximize exposure, Sergi will be entering several wine competitions this year, including the Finger Lakes International Competition (where it nabbed silver medals in 2015 and 2016) and Ohio Wine Competition. RedHead will also be sponsoring the 20thannual Grapes and Ale fundraiser at Progressive Field on June 14, 2019.
Though Sergi spends much of her time traveling throughout the region to promote and further the brand, she says “it doesn’t feel like work. I’ll be working on my laptop until midnight, splitting time between the winery and stores, and talking to customers doing wine tastings, but I’m involved in all aspects of the business because I want to be, not because I have to be.”
And Sergi's totally fine with incremental growth—in fact, she prefers it. "My goal is just to keep having momentum," she says. "I want to keep expanding my reach and sharing wine with as many people as possible. As long as we're moving forward, I'm happy."