Wine and art are two passions for Rafe D’Amico, who works full-time at Cumulus Media. So, in 2013, it made perfect sense for him to marry the two by founding Ozymandias Wines, a true passion project that helps raise funds for emerging artists by selling wine with artist-designed labels. D’Amico, who serves as President, and his predominantly volunteer staff use the bulk of the proceeds from wine sales to fund art projects and support the Ozymandias Wines Scholarship at the New York Academy of Art (NYAA). Through the label contest, a first-year NYAA student is selected to have their work featured on the front label of a limited edition wine release exclusively poured at NYAA events and available for sale to the public. The student also receives a scholarship award from to help fund and continue their studies at NYAA.
In this interview, Artrepreneur’s Kate Flanagan talked with Rafe about his two passions and why they are such an important and perfect pairing.
Kate Flanagan: [00:00:00] Hi, this is Kate Flanagan Head of Marketing and Communications for Artrepreneur and today I will also be heading up the role of Creative Career Center podcast host, speaking with Rafe D’Amico, the president and founder of Ozymandias Wines. Ozymandias was founded in 2013 and was a way for Rafe to marry his two great loves: wine and art, which we will talk more about today. So, welcome Rafe and thanks for joining us.
Rafe D’Amico: [00:00:28] Thank you for having me Kate. I appreciate you having me on the show and I’m excited to be here.
Kate Flanagan: [00:00:39] So tell me about your early start in wine. I read that you grew up making wine with your family when you were a kid.
Rafe D’Amico: [00:00:48] So I grew up like I think many Italian Americans, where wine was always present in meals, you know, even as a [00:01:00] pre-teenager, having a little bit of wine in the glass with some water and feeling like an adult. It was just always a part of special occasions and always a part of family gatherings and in those good times and memories.
So that’s kind of where it all began and then you know as I got older it evolved. I was born in 76 so growing up like in the 80s of those formative years seeing wine from different countries like parts of Europe and even at that age when you see something that’s 10 years old or something that was harvested before you were even born and you’re looking at a bottle and that year seems like it was so long ago and you’re talking about Italy and France and these faraway places across the Atlantic. It just had this way of kind of taking me through a journey to a different time and a different place.
So, it had that magical element to it, that’s kind of always staying with me, but that’s the foundation that has taken me on this journey.
Kate Flanagan: [00:02:02] So, from childhood then to becoming an adult, and I know you have a day job in the media industry, how did eventually 30-some years later, you decide to actually start your own wine business?
Rafe D’Amico: [00:02:19] Yes. It’s kind of crazy because, you know, it was one of those moments where I realized the only obstacle was me. You know, like I had always kind of seen my love and passion for wine as kind of like a spectator sport and then you know, I guess one day it dawned on me that I could participate and if if I wanted to the question really only became why am I not doing something with wine and then it evolved to, “what will I do? What can I do? That kind of set me on the idea of like, okay, well I [00:03:00] had this passion for wine. I love it. I know I want to do something with it. But at the same time, wine is kind of a rich man’s game, you know, if depending on what side of the business you want to get in. It’s very romantic to look at a Vineyard and to visit one and say wow like I’d love to do this but at the end of the working in the vineyard is grueling work a really long runway from a business perspective, if you’re putting Capital into the investment, the amount of time that you put that investment to when you actually get it back. If you’re starting with fresh vines, it takes a few years before you even get great set.
You have to let it age for maybe 12 months depending on what you’re making, and then bottle it, and after some time sell the bottle and you just get a little bit of your investment back at a time. So, those were some big obstacles that I was wrangling with and had to figure out how I was going to find my niche in the wine business, and eventually I did.
Kate Flanagan: [00:04:02] And that niche is the combination of wine and art, or at least one of your niches I’m sure, so tell us about how art is a part of your wine business.
Rafe D’Amico: [00:04:18] I’m sure anybody listening can think of an occasion when maybe they were visiting an art gallery and the galleries may be serving wine or, you know, you can look or talk about almost any art while you’re enjoying the bottle and I think a lot of people myself included would argue that wine itself is an art and wine makers are themselves artists.
The idea kind of germinated as far as what I do with it, which is I offer a scholarship to a student, particularly at the New York Academy of Art, it’s a master’s program, and I offer a first-year student a scholarship for their second year, and the students who received the scholarship also has their artwork – the winning piece so to speak – that artwork is featured on the label. So, it’s a great way to showcase their art, a great way to get them some exposure, and then they get funding for their second-year tuition, which is great. The endeavor is entirely 100% philanthropy, in the sense where it’s not like 10% of the proceeds go towards helping emerging artists. Literally every penny of revenue that comes in from the brand is then given to emerging artists in helping them in one way or another. And like you mentioned earlier, this isn’t how I make a living, because I’m making a living through different means, so it enables me to do this and I figured out a way to mitigate my costs with the wine so that I’m able to put as much back into helping artists.
One way that I do that is that I partner with vineyards. It’s important to me that I have quality control of the wine. I want all the wine to be estate-grown, meaning the vineyard and the bottling, the storage of the wine, everything that takes place with the production of the wine, the harvesting, everything is all done on a specific estate. But I don’t own that estate. So, it’s not like I had to shell out a few million dollars to get 10 acres of land and wait for the vines to grow. I have an amazing partner with Laurel Lake Vineyard in Long Island. It’s there in the North Fork of Long Island and the owner-winemaker there is named Juan Sepulveda.
He and I were connected through a mutual friend, and Juan heard the idea of what I wanted to do and the vision that I had for Ozymandias. He fell in love with the idea and thought it was something that was worthy enough for him to partner with, because they don’t do any other “white labeling”, but he really loved this idea.
So, we started working together, and it’s been now a few years of bottling. It’s really been a great partnership.
Kate Flanagan: [00:07:25] Beyond just the natural cohesiveness of art and wine, do you have a specific passion for helping emerging artists? What makes you passionate about providing opportunities to these emerging artists?
Rafe D’Amico: [00:07:47] I think it’s a great way to help someone who needs help, you know, I’m not the first person to think of marrying wine and art. A lot of people do that. You look at Mouton, which is a Bordeaux, one of the best Bordeaux wines out there. Similarly, they have a different label every year just like Ozymandias has a different label every year. They essentially commission very renowned, famous artists, someone like Picasso to do their label. Picasso actually did a couple of labels with Mouton and hey, that’s amazing. That’s great. That works for them. You’ve got this incredibly well-known premiere brand marrying with this incredibly well-known, successful artist. I thought it would be great to give exposure to a relatively unknown, or completely unknown artist, to help give exposure to their brand. And I like the idea of being hyper local. At least the initial wines that I’ve done have all come from New York. The artists are from New York. It’s the New York Academy of Art that I do my main partnership with, so I like the idea of all that being in one big backyard, so to speak, and being connected in that way.
It gives it a different and more special meaning, I think, to not only to the school, to the artist, to the winery, but then also to the people enjoying the wine. A lot of the venues where the wine is available are in the New York area. There’s some New York and Philadelphia restaurants and wine bars that serve the wine, so that just kind of speaks to me. And from a business perspective, you want to start small and I thought this was a good way to do that, but also create something that could scale.
Kate Flanagan: [00:09:49] Regarding the scholarship, I think you’ve had two students who have won so far and there will be a new one chosen this fall. Tell us how that selection process works. Is it just “this art would look really cool on a wine bottle” or is it a little bit deeper than that?
Rafe D’Amico: [00:10:10] Well, yes, absolutely. They are very cool on the bottle and just to give props to the past two scholarship recipients of New York Academy of Art: The first scholarship recipient was Mary Ball. She’s an amazing artist. And to touch on the previous question of why I enjoy working with the emerging artists; It’s been amazing to see Mary’s work really evolve and her grow as an artist. And that’s something she absolutely would have done on her own, but to have the wine be associated with her, is really cool. Besides just showing her work on the bottle, and her being able to put that on her resume saying her work was deemed special enough to kind of rise above her peers – very worthy peers as well – I think that was something special, and I like the idea of continuing to grow with the artist.
Even now when Mary shows some of her work, I will donate wine to her events, to a gallery opening. And the second recipient, Jay Miriam, same thing. Her work is just amazing, and she just graduated this past May. Jay— it was a really unique story. She was a fairly successful artist before even going to the school. She was featured in some galleries and was selling her work, and now she’s just blossoming even more. When I saw both of their studios – because what we do is a studio tour of all the students, usually on a couple floors at the New York Academy of Art. I’ll go around with Gregory Thornbury who has been a great partner at the school, and we will visit every student’s gallery or studio. We’ll take a look at, of course, what is aesthetically pleasing, and you know, I try not to put too much emphasis on a marketing aspect of it by thinking, “Okay, well, how is this going to look on the label? Is this going to get a consumers attention?” I really try and focus on the artwork itself, and I think the key variables that I try and pinpoint with narrowing down the finalists are: Does the artist have their own style? Could I recognize their artwork in a crowded gallery full of other artists? Do they have their own voices?
You obviously want to see other artists that have influenced them and see what they’re trying to say, but I really like the idea of the artist having their own style, being able to identify their work amongst the crowd. Then I basically narrow it down to about three finalists and then I circulate the particular piece of those finalists to people in the art world who I respect. Some people associated with Ozymandias whose opinions I respect, and I like involving the past scholarship recipients of Ozymandias for their opinions. So, you kind of get an Ozymandias Club, if you will, that gets to continue having a voice. And then we select a winner.
Kate Flanagan:[00:13:40] How quick is the turnaround between you announcing the new scholarship winner on August 21st, and actually distributing and getting those bottles out to the world?
Rafe D’Amico: [00:13:50] That’s always a little bit of a moving target, because we bottled as recently as May – I think last year’s bottling was in May – this year is going to be a little later. Sometimes it depends on the particular wine or blend that we want to use. Sometimes red wine, maybe you want to have aged a little bit longer. White wine depending on the grapes that are going to be used if you want a little bit more oak to be present you want to have more time in the barrels, but for this particular year we will be doing the blend October 20th.
Rafe D’Amico: [00:14:27] And what’s really cool is that for the first time we’re doing a fundraising event at the winery in Long Island. At Laurel Lake on October 19th, we will be hosting a fundraising event and then the next day we will be doing the blend. And what’s cool about that is I always like the artists to participate in the blend. So, we’ll have, of course, Juan Sepulveda will be there, myself, and some other people, and we blend different grapes, do barrel tastings, and then we select the grapes that we like and we do a blind tasting, and at the end of the day we figure out which blend will be the new Ozymandias blend.
Kate Flanagan: [00:15:17] Where can people find your wine? At restaurants, at stores? Where should people look for it?
Rafe D’Amico: So, the best place to get it is at Ozymandiaswines.com, and we can ship to people in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and California. You’re going to get the best price there. And what’s great about that is that the greatest percentage will then go back to the artist. It is available at Trio Wine Bars in Philadelphia. They’ve been amazing partners for the past few years.
Until it sells out will be available there. It’s also available at Estia, which is a great high-end Greek restaurant in Philadelphia, and in the past and probably continuing, is available at Gurney’s in Montauk at their restaurant, Scarpetta, as well as De Dong, which is a gourmet Chinese restaurant right near Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan.
So those are some of the restaurants where it is available, but like I said, Ozymandias.com, and then of course at any of the events, if you follow the wine brand on Instagram or Facebook, you can see some of the events and art galleries that we partner with, and of course the New York Academy of Art, anytime they have an event we donate the wine.
Kate Flanagan: [00:17:07] My final question is: how did you come up with the name Ozymandias? And what’s the history behind that?
Rafe D’Amico: [00:17:31] I’m glad you asked, because it’s interesting. It comes from the poem by Percy Shelley and it’s another name for Ramses The II, who’s considered one of the more well-known pharaohs in Egypt. Percy Shelley was writing a poem commenting on what was going on at the time.
He wrote the poem at 1818, and it was talking about the British Empire the time, pillaging and raiding tombs of the empire of the past. The takeaway is All leaders live and die. All Empires come and go, but the one legacy that they leave, at least to me, is culture and art, and that always resonated with me.
And the idea for the marriage of art, and the mission of Ozymandias really germinated around 2010, right around the time when we were in our Great Recession. It was frustrating for me to see a lot of things that were going on, especially the fact that our government started cutting back on music and art programs. And I just thought what a shame, the irony there. Here we are, supposed to be the greatest society of the time, a modern-day empire, and isn’t it a shame that when we faced some adversity, the first thing we cut back on is what will be our legacy through art and culture. And I told myself instead of getting mad about it, do something about it. And that’s really that was the seedling for the idea.
English Lit majors, they usually know the poem very well, and I’ve had complete strangers come up to me at events and they will just start reciting the poem, which I find incredibly impressive because I certainly can’t recite the poem.
Kate Flanagan: [00:19:23] Thank you so much for joining us on the creative career center podcast. It was awesome talking to you and we will definitely be spreading the word to the Artrepreneur Community about your event on October 19th. Thank you so much, Rafe.