Gervasi Says Time is of the Essence When Building a Brand

Canton, Ohio is miles away from California and an even greater distance from Italy, but Gervasi Vineyard’s Midwestern address has not prevented its owners from rapidly making a splash in the world of higher price-point wines, luxury resorts and specialty food products.

When you consider the brand Gervasi has built on its 55-acre property— a catalog of 30 wines, a distillery, multiple high-end restaurants, a coffee shop, packaged gourmet foods and luxury suites — you might assume it’s been there more than a half-century.

But if that’s your impression, you’re way off. The destination resort winery situated on a former tree farm started as a small family winery in 2010, a year after owner Ted Swaldo purchased it following the former engineer’s retirement as CEO of ASC Industries, Inc. in North Canton.

The name “Gervasi” pays homage to the family’s Italian roots — their matriarch’s maiden name — and the company blends old-world winemaking traditions with a fast-paced, opportunistic business philosophy.

“We’re not a typical winery that you’d find in California,” said General Manager Scott Swaldo — Ted Swaldo’s son. “My dad had retired after selling a successful manufacturing business, and he thought a winery would be very cool for our family to do on a very small scale.
“But we listened to the public. We quickly reacted, and we grew. We didn’t do a lot of investment analysis, we just moved quickly, made decisions and came up with new processes. We got into the wedding business because women started asking if they could get married here. People wanted a place to stay overnight, and that led to the hotel. It wasn’t part of a master plan, but we’ve been good at reacting.”

It’s a family-run affair, and some of its success can be attributed to the fun they’re having as well as their go-for-it attitude. 

“When you’re having the time of your life, you just do it,” Swaldo said. “It’s not the big beating the small. It’s the fast beating the slow. Sometimes we make mistakes, and we’re willing to acknowledge those and go in a different direction. This gives us a lot of freedom.” 

The go-for-it mindset has also given employees a chance to evolve at the rate the business has — something Swaldo takes pride in.

“It’s just so exciting seeing our staff develop,” Swaldo said. “We have people starting out at entry-level jobs who are running the business, and it’s gratifying.” 

Despite its evolution into a resort with restaurants, specialty foods that include marinara sauce, lodging and a distillery, Swaldo says Gervasi still identifies itself as a winery first.

Growing and sourcing

To grow their portfolio from eight varietals to 30 in a region of the Midwest where the climate is not conducive to growing many grapes essential to producing popular fine wines. But that’s a riddle they said they’ve managed to solve.

“We are serious about making wine, but we also have challenges with our geography that limits what we can grow and what we can make,” Swaldo said. “Early on, we said we wanted to get into this business but we didn’t want to produce things that weren’t going to be great products. 

“The list of what will grow here is pretty small.”

But part of what’s helped Gervasi grow is the Swaldos’ willingness to admit what they don’t know and trust experts.

“We worked with Ohio State, which has an Enology program that studies microclimates. They really helped us,” Swaldo said. “They advised us on what grapes would grow well here. If you go an hour and a half northeast of here, there’s a much longer growing season because of lake effect winds and warmer waters. 

“We didn’t have that advantage, so we had to stick with hybrids.”

They planted six different hybrids, decided three of them didn’t meet their standards, and planted more of the three they liked: Aromella, Frontenac Gris and Marquette.

But, when producing wine to be consumed at an on-site, upscale restaurant, they knew they wanted more diverse offerings than those three grapes could offer.

“Right away, we knew we were going to have to source from northeast Ohio, from the Finger Lakes of New York, and, of course, from California and Washington,” Swaldo said. “We needed to source the best product we could from our vineyard with a short growing season, and buy as much as we could from Ohio to keep it local.”

That part of it wasn’t as easy as you’d think.

“Ohio sometimes treats buyers as an afterthought — they take care of their own needs first and get to you in the fall, but by then, I’ve already had to make those buying decisions,” Swaldo said. “Over the years, we have really gotten Ohio growers to commit to us. It’s much better than it was years ago.

“We’ve also got long-standing buying relationships with growers in California and Washington. We visit the sites and tell them what grapes we want from a particular acreage and get really specific with it.”

Ten of Gervasi’s wines are a private label product from Italy. Swaldo says the product is not sourced sight unseen — he’s made trips out there to visit the vineyards.

The Cabernet Sauvignon is the winery’s biggest seller, followed by the Truscano. Both are big sellers at the restaurants.

“It’s allowed us to become a niche business that our customers like,” Swaldo said. “Our wine is being created for a restaurant environment, and our guests are here to dine so we have to have a pretty diverse offering.”

Andy Codispoti is Gervasi’s Director of Winemaking and has been since Gervasi opened. Gervasi was Codespoti’s first professional winemaking opportunity, but Swaldo said he quickly got up to speed and hasn’t missed a beat.

“The guy who sold us the property had a friend who was a hobbyist winemaker, but he was exceptional  — he was quite good at it,” Swaldo said. “We hired a consultant to teach him how to do it on a larger scale. If you talked to him on the phone, you’d swear he has been making wine for 50 years. 

“He’s got an engineering, science and chemistry background and it’s served him well. But he also grew up in Italy and stomped grapes as a kid.”

Swaldo will readily admit finding Codespoti was a case of good fortune trumping skill.

“We got lucky … we got really lucky,” he said. “We could have done some damage if we had picked the wrong person. There are not a lot of winemaker candidates around here, so you are either developing someone, or you are bringing someone in.”

Pricing and distribution

Despite Gervasi’s popularity in the Midwest and rapid evolution from small winery to destination wine resort, Swaldo does not plan to sell Gervasi products through retailers.

The pandemic stimulated online ordering through Gervasi’s website, but Swaldo said the company prefers to sell its wines that way and at the restaurant and resort itself.

“In the early days, our strategy was to study a lot of business models around the country,” Swaldo said. “We do not have any interest or intentions of selling our wines through normal distribution channels. This helps us keep the price point and the margins higher. It creates exclusivity and gives us the opportunity to sell our wines at a higher price point. 

“We charge a higher price for wine that is served on our property than we do for wine that people buy to take home. So if it’s consumed on-site, it’s the best opportunity we have to keep profit margins healthy.”

Prices for Gervasi’s wines range between $17 for some whites to about $45 for some of the red varietals. They give customers who are purchasing bottles to take home an $8 discount on each bottle.

The wines are packaged in heavy bottles with a unique, distinctive shape, and all bottling is done on-site.

“We studied wineries in Ohio and studied local restaurants,” Swaldo said. “If I am producing a high-quality Cab and people are willing to spend $40-50 in a restaurant for it, why would I charge $20? Some people thought we were crazy or a little arrogant, but it’s easier to set your prices high and lower them than to raise them later.

“It’s a boutique, premium product we’re selling. And some of the wineries in Ohio that are making good wines were charging too low, so I think we helped take the price point up in Ohio.

For the most part, the public adapted. When you come here, you’re coming for an exceptional experience, and there’s a price tag for that. We are proud of our wines.”

During the decade Gervasi Vineyard has been in existence, developing its product line beyond the wine it sells has contributed to the diversification of its audience. Namely, the addition of coffee and a distillery have broadened its reach.

“We certainly have that person who still comes here because we’re a winery, and that’s skewed heavily toward women 30-50 years old,” Swaldo said. “Our distillery is a bit more of a lounge environment, and that attracts more men and a younger demographic.

“Our hotel is a four-diamond property and the price point is relatively high for our area, so it attracts older people who have a little more money to spend.”

Navigating COVID-19

Like most businesses, 2020 threw Gervasi a curveball. When you run a resort, the last thing you want to encounter is a pandemic that leads state and local governments to encourage people to stay home by limiting the extent to which businesses can operate.

It was tough, Swaldo said, but Gervasi adapted.

“On March 16, Ohio shut down, and that was our 10-year anniversary day,” Swaldo recalled. “It was supposed to be one of our biggest days, and instead, it was one of our worst. 

Our hotel stayed open and we could still do takeout. We got focused on our shipping line. We only ship to about eight states, but we tripled our online sales.

“As for carry-out at the restaurants, that’s never been a big thing for us. We didn’t have much in the way of online ordering, so we developed that for two of them. Thanks to the loyalty of our customers, it worked. It’s something good that came out of (the pandemic), and it’s a separate operation we can keep going.”

Another thing working in Gervasi’s favor during the pandemic were the grounds themselves. With 55 acres connected to a county park system, the winery and restaurants could attract customers easily. It facilitated the resort’s abilities to adhere to best practices rather than merely meeting occupancy and social distancing requirements.

“People trusted us, and if they were going to go anywhere, it would be here,” Swaldo said.

The distillery also helped Gervasi weather the storm, pivoting to shift its production focus to hand sanitizer, which it distributed in the community. It donated it before shifting to selling it.

“It put a dent in our production plans for spirits (word seems wrong?), but it was a good PR opportunity,” Swaldo said. “That’s not the reason we did it, but it was a bonus.”

Moving forward

With so much having happened in 10 years, it’s hard to fathom that there’s much room for growth when you’ve already got a winery, a distillery, three restaurants, a hotel, a coffee line and local partnerships.

But Gervasi is a rolling stone.

“We’re wrapping up our outdoor expansion at one of the restaurants,” Swaldo said. “We’ve built a bandstand and put in a bar. It will take us up from 80 to 300 seats. Our gift shop is relatively small. A little over half of it is wine and spirits, but it isn’t being presented the way I want. So we want to expand our marketplace to present our own products better.

“That kind of thing is our focus right now. We want to take what we have, tweak it and find ways to maximize it.”

Photo: Sabrina Hall Photography

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