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Stories of resilience, passion, and courage are inherent in entrepreneurism, as all things are necessary ingredients for business success. Corey Christman, a retired Air Force veteran, embodies these traits in his remarkable journey from military service to becoming the proud owner of Bravery Winery, a flourishing venture in the heart of New York’s Finger Lakes region.

Corey’s path to winemaking began with his retirement from the military in 2012, transitioning from a 20-year military career, and led him to study Enology at Washington State University, before honing his skills at the Anthony Road Wine Company in 2014.

Bravery Wine began there, as a brand, before emerging as a standalone winery in 2020, marking the realization of a decade-long dream. Corey reflects on the courage it took to transition from a wine brand to an established winery, navigating a pandemic as well as the complexities of permits and licensure.

What sets Bravery Winery apart is not just its exceptional wines but also its commitment to service and community. Corey’s military background infuses the brand with a sense of purpose, honoring veterans, first responders, and military spouses through a thoughtful donation program.

The journey hasn’t been without its challenges, as Corey candidly discusses the competitive yet collaborative landscape of the Finger Lakes wine industry. However, Bravery Winery’s unique approach sets them apart. Bravery has has success over the years at the New York State Wine Classic, where many of their wines have secured gold medals and Best of category awards.

Looking forward, Corey shares exciting news about Bravery Winery’s upcoming tasting room in Dresden, New York. The intimate space aims to connect directly with customers, fostering organic growth for the brand.

To support Bravery Winery, Corey encourages enthusiasts to connect on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram (@braverywinery) and explore their website (www.bravery.wine). Additionally, he invites everyone to the unveiling of their first reserve wines – the Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and Reserve Riesling – on December 14th at True Roots Kitchen and Laurentide Beer Company in Penn Yan.

As we raise a glass to Corey and Bravery Winery, their story reminds us that success in business, like a fine wine, requires time, dedication, collaboration, and a touch of bravery.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.

Maureen Ballatori: I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt, a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food, beverage, and agriculture industries. 

Today’s guest is Corey Christman. He is the owner of Bravery Winery. And so our conversation today is about Corey’s path from 20 years in the Air Force to creating a winery. 

One of the things I love about Corey’s story is how he talks about the development of his business, and how he took his company from ideation to the implementation of Bravery Winery, but also that he started as a brand first. 

I love that as a concept because before he jumped all in into the formal execution of an entity and everything that established the organization as an official winery with licensing rights. 

He started as a brand so he got hyper-focused on the product and what he was creating and what was resonating with people. Corey had some awards come through for the wines that he was making and he was just really hyper-focused on the product quality, the story. 

He’s deeply interested in helping to support veterans and that comes through in everything that he talks about in the brand that he’s built. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Maureen: I’m very excited to share your story here. And I always like to start these from the beginning. You spent 20 years in the Air Force. So why don’t you start us there and talk about what led you to join the Air Force? And then bing us right up to what you’re spending your time doing in the present day?

Corey: I knew at an early age, in high school, that college probably wasn’t going to be my first step. I was interested in the armed services. That was right around the time of the first Gulf War. And the Air Force, I made the mistake, I guess, if you want to call it that, of visiting an Air Force recruiter.

About a year later, at the ripe old age of 18 and a half years old, I was on my way to Lackland Air Force Base for basic training. About 20 and a half years later, I retired. That would have been in 2012. 

During that time frame, I had picked up the kind of the hobby of winemaking. And I said, well, let me see if I can learn more about this at Washington State University for Enology, which is a fancy word for winemaking. And right after that point, I was fortunate to meet up with the Martini family at Anthony Road Wine Company in 2014. And subsequently, I’ve been there ever since.

Maureen: So you’re at Anthony Road, but you’re making your own wine.

Corey: Yes, I guess I can give you an update. It started with Anthony Road in 2014. In 2020, we did a collaboration with Anthony Road and started our own brand of Bravery Wines. Most recently in October of this year. A couple of months ago now, Bravery Wines became one of the newest wineries in New York State.

Maureen: Talk a little bit about what that means. That feels, by the way that you just explained it, it feels like a big deal.

Corey: It could be a big deal depending on… No, it’s definitely a big deal for us. Ten years in the making. 

In November of 2020, we were a brand. Meaning, legally we weren’t a winery. We had a say in how the wines were made. I worked side by side with head winemakers Peter B. Kraft and Anthony Road. We collaborated on the wines together, but legally those wines were Anthony Road Wines.

Now as of October 1, any of the wines we are making currently are Bravery Winery wines.

Maureen: What did it take for you to make that shift?

Corey: I think: a lot of courage. I’ve been asked this question recently about what did the military provide you by way of preparations. And I think, as you very well know with all of your successes, business, whether it be small or large, requires a heck of a lot of tenacity, requires a heck of a lot of vulnerability, especially when the destination isn’t always known. 

For us, I knew that the wines we had been producing were of the quality and of the potential for us to be successful on our own. When I first got into the wine business, I wanted to, if you will, test the brand and also test, can I do this? So I think we’re always going to be testing ourselves, but I think we’re at a point now where we have a brand that can stand on its own two feet and we also have a product that I think will resonate with our consumers as well.

Maureen: The transition from Bravery Wines to Bravery Winery, so from brand to organization, was it came from a place of confidence that you had tested the market and built a foundation that you were confident you could build off of. And then I would imagine some legality, right, of creating an entity or an organization to be able to be a winery, right?

Corey: Absolutely. With any business, there are always attorneys and permits and licensure involved. In the wine business, there tends to be a little bit more of those safeguards just because of alcohol and what have you. So the transition, prior to the transition becoming effective, we did have to go through a licensure phase, both federal and state.

Currently, we’re on a temporary license, which is normal, just because they have to do background. They, being the state, have to do background checks and things like that to make sure that who’s receiving licenses or who they say they are.

Maureen: And so now that you have this important designation and this transformation, what’s next? What are you looking to do with the company?

Corey: Well, that’s a great question. We are in the process of closing a deal on a tasting room. 

We’ll still produce our wines at Anthony Road Wine Company. And we’ll have a tasting room, which will allow us to greet our customers face-to-face. Right now, our wines are available in certain commercial outlets. What we’re missing out on is the ability to greet customers and grow our brand more organically.

Maureen: I know you’re not the only winery that is producing at Anthony Road. so there I’ve heard of others you know that are also doing their production there. so talk about that a little bit in terms of what that means for the wine industry, particularly in the Finger Lakes but you know further afield as well what it means to have resources like that.

Corey: Well, one of the things that early on in my winemaking career, I flew out to Napa to meet a friend and a fellow veteran to explore opportunities to see about becoming a professional winemaker. But I closed the door on that very quickly simply because of what the Finger Lakes has to offer. And the reason I share it.

Maureen: Meaning that you intentionally did not want to establish in Napa, you wanted to establish in the Finger Lakes.

Corey: Correct. The primary reason for that is exactly what you just alluded to, and that’s the collaboration between winemakers, between wineries. 

It is amazing what’s happening in the Finger Lakes. We have a group of individuals, family-driven, amongst all the wineries who are celebrating the success of the region more so than their individual successes. 

Now, they’re all in business, don’t get me wrong, they have to keep the lights on, but Anthony Road and the Martini family are just salt of the earth people and it’s been our privilege to be associated with them for over 10 years, but the collaboration piece is why we want to continue to work with Anthony Road more so than anything else.

Maureen: You’re not the first to say that. We’ve had other guests on the podcast who have spoken deeply about the collaboration that happens in this region, not just in winemaking and in the wine industry, but Agency 29 focuses on food, beverage, and agriculture because those industries are so uniquely knitted together. And I think that that collaboration thread is something that we see in all three of those segments of the industry.

Corey: I couldn’t be more excited about the future of the Finger Lakes, regardless of the lake you’re on or wherever you visit. It’s pretty, pretty exciting.

Maureen: Right, couldn’t agree more. Where, I meant to ask this as you were talking about the tasting room and I don’t want to miss it, where will the tasting room be? Can we drop that to let people know where to look for you?

Corey: Well, I’m not sure exactly when this will release our conversation, but we’re fairly confident saying that it’s going to be in the metropolis known as Dresden, New York. You might have visited this location in the past. It used to be an ice cream stand, Mr. Twisty’s. 

We’ve been in, we’ve already got all the approvals, and so now we’re hopeful that we’ll move forward in the next several months. What was an ice cream stand will now be a very small but intimate tasting room.

Maureen: That’s great. I look forward to visiting once you’re open. 

That was a really great thread we were on and I don’t want to divert from that, but I want to go back to what made you want to launch a winery in the pandemic. 

Was it just perfect timing that you had mentioned? That you’d always had an interest in wine and you had left the Air Force? Was it just that was the next thing that you really wanted to pursue? Talk a little bit more about that.

Corey: Well, who could have expected a pandemic in 2020? Right? Right.

Maureen: That’s true. So it was pre-pandemic that you had decided to move forward in that direction.

Corey: Yes, we had done a lot of preparations in 2019. Wines were being made and originally our goal was to launch on Memorial Day of 2020. And if you recall, that’s right when things were really getting tricky. I mean, there were no tastings in tasting rooms.

Maureen: The wheels fell off the bus at that point is what I like to say.

Corey: It was just a really tricky situation. We were at a point where we had to make a business decision at that point. And so we just pushed all of our chips in the center of the table and said, we’re going to go on Veterans Day. It’s a day that’s obviously very meaningful to me and my wife and our family. And the rest is history.

We had wonderful support from our friends and family and people around the country. Our ability to ship wines around the country was, man, without that we would have been in a hurt.

Maureen: You’re not alone in that. I mean, you talk about the collaboration and the connectedness of the industry as the whole. Everyone was in that together. Thankfully things could be shipped and people could still get what they needed, both from the consumer side as well as the business side.

Your Rieslings have won some awards. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Corey: Yes, our Sauvignon Blanc in 2020, our 2020 Riesling, and what we found out, geez, about a year after the fact, also our wine called our Vignole. So three of the six wines that we had entered, all were recognized as gold medals, but they were all best of categories. So each one of those wines was the best Sauvignon Blanc and the best medium sweet Riesling and the best Vignole in the entire competition.

Maureen: Wow. And which competition was that, Corey?

Corey: It was the 2022 New York State Wine Classic and, obviously, for us, we were blown away by that.

Maureen: That’s pretty remarkable for 50% to take home Best Of category.

Corey: We were watching that online, because nobody was doing those award ceremonies [live] and the screen flashes up. And it’s one of those things where you  go, does that say what I think it says? And, and it was just, if I would have had hair, it would have been blown back, you know? 

It almost brought on tears. Well, it did bring a tear to my eye just because you can say what you want about competitions. You know, in a wine business, we say, well, they’re only as good as the results that day. You know, who knows what would happen in subsequent days. 

But for a brief moment, it gave us a picture of what is possible. We did it once and we’ve done it since then, but it was just a massive accomplishment and one that should be recognized by several people, not just myself, but people like Peter B. Kraft and my colleagues and Anthony Road, just a real team approach to those awards.

Maureen: What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced in building a small wine brand?

Corey: I think one of the biggest challenges is the wine quality in upstate New York and in New York state is just exceptional. And so how do you elevate? How do you compete in a space that is full of great wines and great winemakers? 

For us, we really wanted to focus on our brand. Not that our brand is any better than anyone else, but we’ve taken a little bit of a different approach. 

As I’m sure you’re aware, we recognize veterans, first responders, and military spouses through our donation program. And we firmly believe in celebrating common people who choose to live life in an uncommon way. 

Oftentimes those people get recognized as law enforcement and military and those folks deserve that title. But we’re also equally focused on people like moms and dads and teachers and neighbors, people who live a life of service and they don’t do it for any other reason than that’s who they are. 

So while our wines and our labels pay tribute to my brothers- and sisters-in-arms, make no mistake about it, our brand is about people who live a life of service.

Maureen: And how have you gotten that story across? What are some of the ways that you have found to make that story resonate?

Corey: We try to do it in the background and someone like yourself and all your accolades would say, well, we probably need to get you on a better plan to celebrate what it is that you’re doing. But I think, kind of not answering the question you just asked, but I mean, I think for us, we try to recognize those people on our own.

Whether it’s a donation, whether it’s something that happens to show up on their doorstep and they might not know who it’s from. Little random acts of kindness that let people know that we see you, others may not see you, but we definitely see you. And I think more of that could go a long way in our world today.

Maureen: One of our core values at the agency is the concept of going above and beyond. And even just something as simple as sending a handwritten thank you note to someone who went out of their way to have a conversation with you, or make an introduction for a client, you know?

I think that concept of going the extra mile, it’s never crowded, and leading with kindness. I love that strategy and it’s served us well and it sounds like it’s made a big impact in Bravery Wines as well.

Corey: When you do something nice for someone for the sake of doing it, the funny part is that it always tends to work itself out, right? It doesn’t have to be monetary, it doesn’t have to be a big, huge gift. But when you’re recognizing people who are just salt of the earth, things have a way of working it and working themselves out. 

You know, there is an old sales guy, you might’ve heard of him back in the day. His name is Zig Ziglar. And you can see some of his videos online and he has a famous quote that says, you help enough other people get what they want, you’ll get what you want. And that’s kind of how we are. We just believe in service. 

Maureen: Tell me a story about a way and, of course, you didn’t just tell that story for me to pull out a recognition story from you, I’m sure. But tell me about a time when you went the extra mile to do a random act of kindness for someone and what that meant to you, either connected to the brand or not.

Corey: There’s a nonprofit that we support called the Special Liberty Project. They are located in the beautiful mountainous region of North Carolina. And they had a Memorial Day function that they were… 

Well, let me back up a second. Let me tell you a little bit about what they do. They have a farm and they have a glamping, if you’ve heard of the term glamping, right? So imagine these very beautiful, elevated, customized tents with beds and platforms. But their target audience is Gold Star families. And if you’ve heard of the term Gold Star moms and dads and children, these are families who have lost a loved one typically in combat.

It could be combat, it could be elsewhere, but [Special Liberty Project] runs a series of programs at their farm that are mental health and spiritually focused. And one of the things that they were doing the last Memorial Day was putting on their Memorial Day ceremony for Gold Star families, specifically, the Gold Star spouses. 

And what we did is we drove down from New York and were able to participate with them and help them recognize people who have given more than any of us will know. And that was an opportunity for us to spend time with great people and to support a fantastic nonprofit.

Maureen: I would imagine, too, that those individuals hopefully got to get some exposure to Bravery Wines, right? That brand story permeates that audience so deeply because it’s something that they’re personally deeply connected to. And that’s I think that’s where brands with a guiding force like that, that’s so impactful and so meaningful, really can make a huge difference.

Corey: Yeah, I mean, our goal is – we don’t want to be the biggest and we don’t want to be the most expensive winery. Our goal is, can we just do a little bit? I like to say, can we do our fair share? And when I say do our fair share, can we be the brightness in someone’s day? Can we help an organization get to that next level?

I mean, we’re a small business, make no mistake about it. But I think most small businesses, it’s not the huge help that they need. It’s just a series of a lot of little things that they need. And I think we can fill a lot of those voids.

Maureen: Yeah, that’s great. Okay. In conclusion, this is my last question for you. How can people support Bravery Winery and something in the foreseeable future that you’re looking forward to for the brand?

Corey: Well, on social, or social media that is, we are Bravery Winery. We’re not at every platform at the moment, but you can find us on a couple of the major ones, Facebook, Instagram for now, and our website www.bravery.wine

One of the things that you might be interested in, because it’s local, is we just announced the release of our two very first reserve wines. Our Reserve Sauv Blanc and Reserve Riesling, which was a complete rebrand for us – new labels, new bottles, and new packaging.

We spent the better part of about six months this year just getting the packaging correct. I think we did a good job. I don’t know much about these things, but the feedback I’ve gotten has been positive, and it’s been from people who just didn’t tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. But the reason I share that with you is we’re having an event on December 14th locally at True Roots Kitchen and Laurentide Beer Company in Penn Yann.

Maureen: We can make sure that it goes out in advance of that. So that’s December 14th at Laurentide. And can people find more information about that on your Facebook page?

Corey: Yeah, if they hit us up on Facebook or they can send me an email if they’re not a Facebook person, corey@bravery.wine.

Maureen: Fantastic. So how will the Reserves differ from your standard runs?

Corey: Well, of the two, Sauvignon has been one of our more popular wines in general. We knew in 2022 when the fruit came in during harvest that we were dealing with another very special vintage. So these wines, both the Sauvignon and the Riesling spent the better part of a year in a barrel, neutral barrel, so there’s no oak to either of these wines, but a lot more work, a lot more attention to detail. And really, just superb quality of fruit. So if you’re a Sauv Blanc and a Riesling fan, we hope that you will consider these wines.

Maureen: Great. Well, I look forward to giving those a taste. 

Corey, thank you so much for spending time with us today. I think you’ve got a really beautiful story about the importance of giving back, and paying forward, however you want to think about it. I think you kind of do both. And the way that your time in the Air Force is clearly permeating everything that you’ve done since then. So I look forward to continuing to see the success of the future of Bravery Winery and tasting some of those future releases.

Corey: Well, congratulations on all your successes, Maureen. I’ve been watching from afar, and it’s clear that you’ve got a bright team. I’ve met some of your colleagues, and I’m excited to see what you all continue to do for the industry as a whole, because we’re lucky to have you in the Finger Lakes as well.