Donations like the cases of wine from Rescue Dog Wines help the Humane Society of Sonoma County care for dogs like Adela. (Image: Humane Society of Sonoma County)

Wine is allowing dogs and cats to live their best lives.

Most animal rescue organizations rely exclusively on donations from the average person and local businesses, grants, and money raised via fundraisers. Those fundraising events often involve wine; with bottles given to them for free.

“We would be in terrible shape without the relationships with the business community,” said Priscilla Locke, director of development and communications with Humane Society of Sonoma County.

Rescue Dog Wines, which is headquartered in St. Helena, created a custom label for HSCC with the face of Scamp the Champ. Scamp won the 2019 World’s Ugliest Dog Contest. Scamp was rescued from the streets of Compton, and lived out his last years in Santa Rosa with Yvonne Morones.

Humane Society of Sonoma County still has some of the 50 cases of the red blend that Rescue Dog Wines donated in 2021, which was the year Scamp died. Bottles are used in raffle baskets, as thank yous and in other ways to promote the organization to attract financial support.

While numerous wineries donate bottles or cases to various nonprofits to use in their fundraising endeavors, Rescue Dog Wines has made dogs an equal partner in their business.

This means half of the proceeds go to owners Blair and Laura Lott and the other half is distributed to various animal rescue organizations throughout the country.

In the North Bay six groups have benefited directly from Rescue Dog Wines. Last year the winery donated $36,900 in wine, capital, and services to more than 80 rescue organizations throughout the United States, with most being in California.

Since Rescue Dog Wines was founded in 2017 (first bottle was released in 2018) it has donated the equivalent of more than $55,000 through 2023.

Scamp the Champ is a limited edition red blend exclusively for the benefit of Humane Society of Sonoma County. Scamp in 2019 won the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest in Petaluma. (Image: Rescue Dog Wines)

Animals are the winners

It’s not just canines who benefit from Rescue Dog Wines. Most shelters also have cats. However, Cat Tales Rescue in Vacaville is strictly a feline entity.

The group runs on a shoestring of a budget. The annual fall fundraiser last year brought in $11,220, which was a record. Rescue Dog Wines donated two cases each of the last two years.

“We take in cats and kittens from shelters or from local people who have found them. We use that money to spay and neuter all of them, vaccinate them, make sure they are healthy, and provide foster homes until they are adopted,” explained volunteer Tina Atherton.

The group doesn’t have a physical site. All animals in its care are fostered. 2023 was a big year, with 679 cats coming through compared to 550 in 2022.

“I fostered 59 kittens last year. Kitten season is supposed run March to October, but it’s been running every month. It just doesn’t stop,” Atherton said.

Paula Thompson, who runs Cat Tales Rescue’s fundraiser, is worried the needs are going to keep increasing. Recently seven kittens needed to be bottle fed; mom had died. They were sent to a partner organization with more resources. In February five pregnant cats got spayed.

“They can get pregnant at 4 or 5 months, and when they are still nursing, or by siblings or the father of them. People don’t understand or realize that,” Thompson said.

That’s why education is also a component of what this organization and others do.

There is never a dearth of animals in need. Which means there is always a need for money and in-kind donations like wine.

This September will be Marin Humane’s 18th annual gala—which is all about raising funds to keep the shelter in Novato going. For the last two years Rescue Dog Wines have been part of the event with two of its sparkling wines available to guests. The hope is this will be the third year the winery contributes.

Molly Foley, special events coordinator, expressed how easy the winery is to deal with, highlighting how the wines were shipped directly to the group.

Waggin’ Trails Rescue Foundation was founded in Southern California in 2012, though recently relocated to Napa. It’s run by mother-daughter duo Gisela and Ingrid Campagne. Last year was the group’s first food and wine auction in Napa, with Rescue Dog Wines contributing to the cause.

“We got a call Feb. 15 from the Napa shelter about a hoarding situation in American Canyon. We are going to take 30 (of the 58) chihuahuas,” Gisela Campagne said. “This is why we do fund raising.”

Waggin’ Trails Rescue Foundation rescues animals from all over the state and transports them mostly to the northwest and parts of Canada.

“Those folks up there are able to adopt them quickly,” Campagne said. About 40 to 50 dogs a month find new homes this way through Waggin’ Trails.

Pets Lifeline in Sonoma has two major fundraisers a year, with smaller ones throughout the year.

“We are solely funded by donations and grants, and from in-kind goods,” Jody Purdom, development director for Pets Lifeline, explained.

Her introduction to Rescue Dog Wines came via Humboldt Distillery in Fortuna, which contributes to the group’s fundraisers. The director of sales there has connection with the winery.

“Our biggest goal is to keep pets at home,” Purdom said. “We have a pet food pantry to give food away to people who need it. Shelters are inundated with animals. A fair amount of owners surrender them because they can’t care for their pet for whatever reason.”

This is why in the world of animal welfare rescue groups are trying to keep pets in homes by providing animals with medical care and food so they stay out of shelters.

On the flip side, Humane Society of Sonoma County is trying to accommodate more animals so they are not euthanized at other facilities. The independent nonprofit has existed for 93 years; with its main office in Santa Rosa and a satellite one in Healdsburg.

“We keep trying to bring in more and more animals. One of our strategic objectives is to significantly increase capacity especially for small under resourced shelters that are overcrowded and desperate to find homes for animals. They are having to euthanize animals because of space,” Locke said.

Locke said rural parts of the state don’t have a lot of veterinary care and that it can be expensive. The folks at Cat Tales Rescue say that is definitely true of Solano County.          

Animal shelter facts and figures:

• In 2023, 3.3 million cats and 3.2 million dogs entered animal shelters and rescue organizations.

• 48% came in as strays, 25% were surrendered by their owners.

• 2024 is the fourth year of having too many animals and not enough adoptions—especially for dogs.

• 2023 is the first year since the creation of the national database in 2016 that the number of dogs euthanized surpassed the number of cats euthanized.

• In 2023, 359,000 dogs were euthanized—the highest number in the past five years, and 330,000 cats were euthanized.

• 2.6 million cats (65% of total intake) and 2.2 million dogs (56% of total intake) were adopted in 2023.

Source: Shelter Animals Count

How it all started

            The Lotts thought they were buying property in Acampo near Lodi with grapes they might sell, or maybe have a barrel to bottle for themselves. Rescuing dogs has always been part of their mantra. Soon the vision to have a winery and help dogs led to the founding of Rescue Dog Wines.

“The first wine we put on Facebook. It was like wildfire. I saw this had legs. That was a big inspiration for me,” Blair Lott said.

This year they expect to bottle 8,000 cases, with the first estate bottling taking place in the spring—a rosé of grenache. They have 20 acres, of which 17.5 are planted.

Will they grow? Maybe.

“If buying more vineyards would support the dogs or the business better, the answer would be yes,” Laura Lott said.

Appropriately, each label has a different dog (and the occasional cat) on it. Most have been created by artist Lawrence Peters of Modesto. The particular breed or mutt chosen to be featured is based on the personality of the wine.

“We riff on that. The cab is a fairly big and chewy red, and the bulldog makes sense for that,” explained Blair Lott. “Daisy who passed away was a big inspiration for our sparkling wine. She was a super bubbly boxer, so her on the sparkling makes sense.”

It was also important to make wine people want to drink. So while creative labels and charitable causes are integral to the mission, Laura Lott points out, “We decided the most important thing was to make the best tasting wine we could make, otherwise why bother?”

For those not at an animal event where Rescue Dog Wines are being poured or auctioned off, they are available in stores and online. The latter is where about 25% of sales come from, with the rest being sold mostly at Northern California retailers.

“Through the dog rescue events it’s like having a mobile tasting room. People see the mission and connect with the wine,” Blair Lott said while explaining why there are no plans for a traditional tasting room.

When it comes to deciding which organizations to help, the Lotts vet the groups, starting with ensuring it is a 501(c)3. Most organizations reach out to the Lotts instead of the other way around. There is never a lack of need, as evidenced by the testimonials above and at least one group reaching out to them each week.

“It is really about highlighting the value of animals that frequently end up discarded,” Laura Lott said in who becomes part of the Rescue Dog Wines family.

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the North Bay Business Journal.

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