With a passion for quality and a desire to build a better product, husband and wife duo Helena and Woody Hambrecht set out to transform the drinking experience for the modern-day consumer with wellness in mind. Helena, a Silicon Valley techie, married (quite literally) her brand-building skills with Woody’s experience as a third-generation winemaker to launch Haus, a direct-to-consumer brand selling alcoholic beverages known as aperitifs. Here, the co-founders and co-CEOs share how they used a loophole in the 100-year-old prohibition laws to break into the industry, how they channeled Pandemic-related growth into giving, and their vision for future expansion.
Where did the idea for Haus come from?
Woody Hambrect: I discovered aperitifs when I was living in Berlin over a decade ago. In Berlin, folks were drinking too—until 8am most nights—but they were drinking differently. They weren’t getting wasted. They were drinking to connect, have intellectual conversations, to remember the experience. They were drinking low-alcohol liquors called aperitifs. I eventually came back to California to take over the family farm and made my first Californian aperitifs from the extra lemons and grapes we had on hand.
Helena Price Hambrect: Watching Woody’s experience making wine and aperitifs gave me a first-row seat to the inefficiencies of the alcohol industry. He was doing everything right by traditional standards—he got the cool-kid distributor and got his products into the best bars and restaurants in America. But when you’re an independent (non-corporate) brand you have almost no leverage over how your product is placed in the market. … At the same time, I was going through a drinking dilemma that many folks can relate to. As a career-focused person, I was around alcohol constantly—at business dinners, at conferences, catching up with friends—and while I greatly enjoy gathering around a beverage, the downsides were starting to get to me.
Woody: We did some research and realized that it wasn’t just us feeling this way—it was an entire generation. Millennials cared about their health and image, as well as other tenants driving purchases like authenticity, transparency, brand. When we looked at what the alcohol industry was doing to adapt to these trends, it was nothing. It felt like a huge gap in the market.
How did you manage to disrupt such a highly-regulated industry?
Helena: The thing is, while every other industry had been disrupted by a millennial-founded DTC brand that reflected their values, that didn’t yet exist in the alcohol world because it was illegal. In liquor, thanks to 100-year-old prohibition laws, you can’t go DTC. You have to go through a three-tier system, working with distributors to reach restaurants and retail, who ultimately sells to the customer. … Corporate alcohol has no incentive to innovate because they control the system. It’s similar to what we saw with Luxxotica, pre-Warby Parker.
Woody: Enter the techie and the winemaker. Helena was complaining to me about all of this—how it would be amazing to create the “Glossier/Warby Parker/Everlane of alcohol” but it’s impossible because of the law. I then remembered a loophole that I’ve known about forever—where if you’re an aperitif, you’re typically regulated as a liquor, but if you’re under 24% alcohol and made mostly of grapes, the restrictions go away. You can sell online, go DTC. It’s a loophole that you wouldn’t know about unless you’re a grape farmer that makes booze, which I happen to be.
What have you been up to lately?
Helena: We recently launched The Restaurant Project, where we partnered with over a dozen of the best chefs in America to make custom aperitifs, with all proceeds going to the restaurants to keep them afloat during Covid-19. We, as a company, were growing in the pandemic and wanted to find a way to use our resources to pay it forward to others in food and beverage who were struggling. Restaurants are in crisis, and we realized that we had the ability to create products for them in a time when they desperately need the revenue.