In May 2017, Jennifer Dawn McDonald took her first trip to Napa, California. “I call it the happiest place on earth for me as a wine connoisseur and winemaker,” she says. “I thoroughly enjoyed my first trip to Napa. I, of course, had to get my picture taken in front of the Napa Valley iconic sign. I spent time visiting The Wine Foundry and working through a plan to make a pinot noir and chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills.” McDonald’s love for the west coast wine country was established and she made another six trips within two years. “I went back January 2018, July 2018, February 2019, April 2019 and lastly in September 2019,” says McDonald. Her visits were a perfect amalgamation of business and pleasure as she was in phase two of her plan to open her business, Jenny Dawn Cellars, an urban winery in downtown Wichita, Kansas.
Phase One and Done
McDonald says that it took six years—from the idea to opening the doors—for her business to come to fruition. “I broke my plan up into three phases to create milestones for myself. Phase one started in 2014 and that was making wine at home and completing my wine education.”
McDonald graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Doane University, a liberal arts college in Nebraska. “It’s like human resources for government,” she says. “I graduated in 2004.”
After graduating and getting married, McDonald took her first sip of wine. “I remember my husband and I enjoying baked ziti with merlot,” she says. “I loved this food and wine pairing. We used to make baked ziti all the time when it was just the two of us.”
McDonald spent the next twelve years working in human resources while her love of wine grew. “I have a fond appreciation for all types of wine,” McDonald says. “I really enjoy French and Italian wines in the summer if I am sipping on the patio. I love a good malbec. Then of course, I enjoy the wines that I have crafted. I could grab a bottle of rosé, chardonnay, pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon any day of the week. Those are my go-to wines.”
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In 2014, McDonald took her first steps into the wine business by going back to school. “I have a master's degree in agribusiness from Kansas State University,” she says. “While in graduate school, I wrote a thesis on consumer wine preferences. My thesis title was, Factors Influencing Premiums on Local Wines: An Exploratory Assessment on Kansas Wine.” She explains the focus of her thesis was what she called “wineucation.” It is also the name of her podcast series hosted with her two employees that documents her journey in the industry. She hosted wine tasting focus groups by having 80 people try 24 different wines. “I divided the wine into three groups: Kansas wine, my homemade wine and California wine. I had participants analyze the appearance, aroma, body, taste and finish of the wine.” McDonald collected data from the participants such as gender, age, race, income level, education level, frequency of wine consumption, then analyzed it. “The information also helped me realize the core of my Jenny Dawn Cellars business model,” she says.
McDonald finished her master’s degree in May 2016 and celebrated. “I remember opening up a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and sharing it with my parents to celebrate my graduation. That’s a moment that I will never forget.”
The Bigger Picture Starts to Develop
Wine education is a huge driving point for McDonald as she still teaches the wineucation classes once a month. McDonald says her business is “to fulfill a need” and add more diversity and inclusiveness in an industry where it severely lacks. “Most wineries do not market their wines to African Americans and people of color,” she says. “There is a lack of diversity in winemakers, wine owners, sommeliers and wine judges in the national and local wine industries.” McDonald is changing that with education about fine wines through her classes. “I want to show agriculture and the wine industry as a viable career field for young people of color so they can learn how to earn a living, generate a profit and make money.” Jenny Dawn Cellars’ success will be due not only to McDonald’s fervent knowledge of wine but also her desire to give back to her community and help in its sustainability.
McDonald says her drive and determination have always been with her. “I was a hardworking and dedicated child, just like I am as an adult. I never backed away or admitted defeat even if some of life’s tests made me stumble and lose direction.”
McDonald grew up in Columbus, Nebraska with three siblings and her parents. Her dad worked in finance and her mother was a stay-at-home mother for most of her childhood. With a family of six, dining out was a luxury, so McDonald learned her way around the kitchen. “My parents cooked most meals at home. I have always enjoyed food and as an adult enjoy cooking at home when time permits. As my love for wine grew, my love for food and wine pairings also grew.”
This love crossed over into her business with her classes, which also teaches others how to pair food with wine. “I don’t know of any other winery in Kansas doing that at this time,” she says. “I truly believe that our focus on wine service education sets our winery apart from others.” In fact, McDonald also has a cookbook coming out on June 13 titled “Wineucation.” “It will be a culmination of 27 recipes that I have featured in my wineucation food and wine pairing classes that I have held.”
The Last Milestone is Complete
McDonald is heavily involved in her business. After completing phase one of her business plan, she looked towards the next milestone: making wine in Napa through a wine facilitator. “I gained valuable experience in 2017 – 2019 while my wine brand was being incubated … in Napa.” McDonald turned to The Wine Foundry, a facility that offers customized wine services that include buying, tasting, making and marketing your own wine brand. “The Wine Foundry helped me achieve my dream of becoming a wine brand. I learned so much being on a team full of wine experts who I could call or email with questions. They did a lot of the heavy lifting while I focused on the vision for the wine, the final blend of the wine as well as the sales and marketing.”
Her time spent at The Wine Foundry proved to be awarding, literally. “I made six award-winning wines,” she says. “A 2016 pinot noir and chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills (won a silver and bronze medal at the New World International Wine Tasting), a 2017 chardonnay (won Best of Class in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition), pinot noir from Sonoma Coast as well as a rosé and white wine from Clarksburg (won People's Choice at The Hue Society’s Black Wine Experience at Essence Festival in 2019) at The Wine Foundry.”
McDonald also spent time at other wineries, specifically those that are family operated. “I am a huge fan of family-run, owned wineries, so I tried to support several of those,” she says. “I also have a strong admiration for Robert Mondavi, so I spent quite a bit of time there as well as at Beringer.”
McDonald’s ambition and her hands-on approach for wine also helped her network. “I believe in meeting my partners,” she says. “Or anyone who I do business with face to face to build a connection and rapport.”
Family-owned and operated, direct involvement and wine education describe how Jenny Dawn Cellars functions. “My entire family works in the wine business unofficially,” McDonald says. “My husband, Matt, is my business partner and a member of our LLC. Two years ago, he helped me cultivate and plant an orchard. Then a year ago, we expanded and planted grapevines. He built the trellis system by hand.” The couple has two children, Desmond (14 years old) and Emma (12 years old), who also help. “Desmond assembles furniture, mows at the orchard and helps with moving equipment. Emma is always along for the ride; she takes pictures and keeps us laughing.”
McDonald is completely enmeshed in her business. “I am highly involved in every aspect of the process of making wine,” she says. “I am the head winemaker but have a wine consultant who comes and helps me whenever we are filtering, finishing and bottling wine. I enjoy the crush and fermentation process. I also have a good palate, so creating the final blend is also my strong suit.”
Business is Still Open
Pre-pandemic, Jenny Dawn Cellars offered rented space for semi-private and private events. As of May 20, McDonald says they are offering private wine tastings by appointment only Wednesday through Sunday. “The cost is $20 per person. Each guest will receive a 2 oz pour of all seven wines and a small charcuterie plate. We'll briefly talk about each wine and allow guests to ask questions as well as visit with the people in your group. We will be taking reservations for groups of 2–6. Each tasting will start on the top of the hour and last for 45 minutes. If you want to hang out longer, you can purchase a bottle and enjoy it on the patio.”
A reservation can be made by calling the winery at 316-633-3022 or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, McDonald says they will continue to offer curbside pickup and bottle sales to-go Wednesday through Sunday during the COVID-19 business hours. Orders can be placed on the website.
Every Saturday and Sunday until June 7, Jenny Dawn Cellars will continue to offer an experience called Sangria in the Sun. McDonald says, “Our patio will be open for our customers to enjoy $8 sangria served in a to-go cup and $10 charcuterie plates. You can order online or in-person at the winery. “We want to keep practicing social distancing so we will not be serving guests inside the winery except by appointment only, but customers can hang out safely on our patio.”
If you don’t live in the area, Jenny Dawn Cellars can ship wines by the bottle to 37 states. Visit https://vinoshipper.com/shop/jenny_dawn_cellars_llc?list= to place an order.
Lastly, McDonald is also offering virtual wine tastings on Facebook Live and to private groups.
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Jenny Dawn Cellars is at Union Station located at 703 E. Douglas Ave, Ste. 180 in Wichita. For upcoming events and news for when the winery fully reopens, follow Jenny Dawn Cellars on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.