BTU #298 - Making Wine on Active Duty (Brian Retherford)

They told us they had three barrels of cabernet that they weren’t going to bottle. We tasted the sample and thought it was amazing. We ended up buying it and sold it to our friends and family.
— Brian Retherford

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Why Listen:

Brian co-founded a wine business while on Active Duty, which is one of several “side hustles” in his life. Regardless of your interest in wine, entrepreneurship, or side hustles, this is a FANTASTIC interview. We talk about how you can use an existing product while bringing marketing and branding to the table to make it a business. In Brian’s case, he is redistributing wines from incredible vineyards under his own label, which means he doesn’t have to worry about creating and maintaining a product. We talk about how preparation happens well before the opportunity arises, about giving back, about using volunteering opportunities, about cultivating side pursuits while in the military and more.

About Brian:

Brian Retherford is currently serving in the US Army, where he is the team leader for a multi-function cyberspace operations team, and has served for 15 years. He is also the Founder of Claudine Wines, which is what we're going to spend most of our time talking about today. He started out at West Point, and has served in the Army since he graduated in 2004. He has an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Our Sponsor: 

  • StoryBox- People trust each other more than advertising. StoryBox provides the tools and supports businesses need to take the best things customers say about them, and use them to drive more sales and referrals. StoryBox offers a 10% discount to companies employing veterans of the US Armed Forces.

  • Audible is offering one FREE audio book to Beyond the Uniform listeners. You can claim this offer here, and see a list of books recommended by my guests at

Selected Resources: 

  • About Brian

  • Related Episodes:

    • BTU 297 - Freedom Makers (Laura Renner) - a great outsourcing option

    • BTU 290 - We Study Billionaires (Preston Pysh)

    • How I built This - podcast Brian enjoys and helps him think about growing his own business

  • Books

Transcript & Time Stamps:


Joining me today from Destin, FL is Brian Retherford. Brian Retherford served in the US Army, where he was the team leader for a multi-function cyberspace operations team, and served for 15 years. 

He is also the Founder of Claudine Wines, which is what we're going to spend most of our time talking about today. He started out at West Point, and has served in the Army since he graduated in 2004. He has an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. 


Can you tell us more about your transition out of the Army?

I’m leaving active duty but will be staying in the Reserves. I just felt like I had reached a point where I had done everything I had wanted to do inside the military. I was ready for the next challenge. 


How do you explain what you now do?

I do multiple things. As you think about financial freedom and really doing what you want to in life, having multiple income streams is key. 

At Claudine Wines, we go to high end wineries in Napa Valley and buy their warfarin barrels. We then bottle that wine and sell it under our own label. You end up drinking really good wine for a much better price. 

We realized a few years ago, that not a lot of people were doing this in the high end wine space. Those high end wineries worry about diminishing their brand with overproduction. So that’s how they end up selling extra wine to us that we can then bottle under our own label. 

I first visited Napa Valley in 2008. I got bit by the wine bug then. I thought it would be awesome to be part of that world. My brother lives in the San Francisco area. One year, we decided to make our own wine. It wasn’t that good. So we thought it was fun but we didn’t want to go down the road of making our own wine. 

The next year, we got in touch with the General Manager of a high end winery. He told us that they could sell us their excess barrels that we could then sell under our own label. So we did that and sold the bottles to our own family and friends. That’s how the business took root. From there, we bought our website and went through the proper licensing channels. We now have 1300 people on our mailing list and we’re shipping bottles all over the country. 

For every ten things we taste, we don’t end up producing 9 of them. So what we do bottle is very selective. We have wineries calling us offering us their extra wine. We’ll go taste the wine, mark the bottles that we want and then have those bottles delivered to us. 


How did you get interested in this?

My parents went to Napa Valley for the first time in the 90’s. As I was growing up, there was usually good wine around the house. Once you’ve had good quality wine, it’s very hard to go back. But we wanted to find a way to bring good wine to people that were on a budget. 

Our business’s success is about getting more and more specific about exactly who our client is. If you’ve never spent more than $15 on a bottle of wine, $50 is still going to sound like a lot. So a lot of times, I find myself selling to people that are accustomed to spending around $100 on a bottle of wine. The idea of getting that same high quality wine for a lower price is really appealing to them. 


How was the process of that first re-barrel purchase?

We pre-sold all of it through our friends and family. We told them everything we could about the wine. We didn’t make any money on that first bottling. 

My brother does 80-90% of the work and he financed us at first. I don’t have all the best ideas and he doesn’t either. We’re able to bounce ideas off each other. Since that initial investment, we haven’t had to put any more seed money into the company. 

The preparation happened well before the opportunity. We had done a tremendous amount of research ahead of time and then identified this niche in the market. 


What is it like having your brother as your partner?

In business school, they told us not to go into business with family or do a 50/50 ownership share. But I’ve had a great experience working with my brother. We’ve had our challenges but at the end of the day, we’re totally in synch on the idea of bringing high quality wine to our customers. 


You started this while fully employed. Do you have any advice about that?

I have two kids at home so it can be difficult to balance everything. I’ve learned to value of outsourcing things that have a specific protocol and process. I use Upwork quite a bit to handle those tasks. You do have to be careful about what you outsource. Things that need to be your perspective and your voice - you can’t outsource that. When things are small, you need to be involved in every little detail. But as things grow and become more processed, things can be outsourced and automated. 


At what point did you think that you really had something with Claudine?

I think it was after the first year. During that time, it was a lot of people just supporting us because they believed in us and knew us personally. But when those people started coming back year after year and our customer base grew, that’s when I really believed we were on to something. 


What advice do you have surrounding networking?

I love talking to people. I think everyone has an interesting story to tell. Before starting Claudine, I really needed to learn about this industry. I ask all kinds of questions and I ask to be introduced to other people in the industry. I also offer any contacts I have to anyone I’m talking to. 


Preston Pysh is a mutual contact of ours. How did he help you with Claudine?

We did 16 weeks of training together at Fort Belvoir. We were both interested in finance and investing. He invited me onto his podcast. I had just graduated from business school at that time. I also talked about Claudine during the podcast. Our mailing list more than doubled in the month following that podcast. We had a good inventory at that time so we were able to handle the influx of customers. 


What else do you spend your time doing?

For right now, Claudine is the one money producing activity I’m working on. I also get involved in the community quite a bit. I was on the board of our homeowner’s association which allowed me to increase my interaction with local business leaders. I 100% believe in investing in your community.


How did you approach the idea of leaving active duty at 15 years?

As I transition out of the military, I’ll be going into a job as a management consultant. I’m just not financially ready to commit to Claudine full-time yet.

As far as leaving the military, I was just ready to solve new and different problems. It was the right time for me. 


How did you find the person that will be coming on to help you with Claudine?

I found him through another podcast that I was doing. He reached out to me and then we’ve just kept the conversation going. It was fortuitous that he came to me at a moment when I was looking to bring someone else to the team that has a specific skill set in branding and marketing. 


Are there any resources you would recommend to listeners?

How I Built This is a great podcast by NPR. 

Good to Great by Jim Collins and Influence by Robert Cialdini are two great books. 


What advice do you have for people interested in the wine business?

The wine industry is highly regulated so it can be a difficult business to get into. But for us, the passion pushed us to overcome those barriers. I started small by just volunteering my time and learning as much about the industry as possible. 

As far as making side hustles a part of your life, it can be really worthwhile. I came across an Air Force member recently that runs a fleet of cars as a side hustle. Look at how things you are interested in can earn you money. Sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith and go for it. 


How do you deal with shipping wine to different states that have different shipping policies?

You have to obtain different shipping licenses. Each one will allow you to ship within a different region. We cannot ship directly to customers in Alabama or Utah. 


What is the best way for people to get in contact with you?

Through our website


Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?

I just tell people to go and do it. Prepare and research but then just go do it. Veterans are problem solvers and if there’s anything I can help you with, please reach out to me.