First Walla Walla, then the world, clamor for new cleaner

 Wine Away products come in many forms.

Wine Away products come in many forms. Photo by Joe Tierney.

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Cheryl Corn, left, and daughter Staci Wanichek, with numerous framed publications in the background in which their Wine Away stain remover has received raves for its effectiveness, share a moment in their Walla Walla headquarters. The two started the family business in 15 years ago and now ship worldwide.

WALLA WALLA — The wine couldn’t have sloshed out of the glass at a more perfect time.

To the man who spilled red wine on himself during a flight from Seattle to Walla Walla, it probably seemed like a curse. Little did he know he was sitting next to the queen of red wine stain removers.

Staci Wanichek was just about to reach into her purse for her emergency kit of Wine Away when a flight attendant beat her to the punch.

“Take this,” the flight attendant told the man, handing him a promotional packet of Wine Away. She explained that he should apply it directly to the stain and let it set. Blot a little. The wine could disappear in front of him, or may take a second application, she told him.

The words had been coming out of Wanichek’s own mouth for years as she pitched the product in tasting rooms from Walla Walla to the Napa Valley, retail chains from Williams-Sonoma to Bed, Bath & Beyond, and distributors from France to Mexico. The fact that someone else was demonstrating it in front of her — albeit unknowingly — marked a shifting tide change for the business that celebrates its 15th anniversary in March.

“You know that they have it. You know that it’s there. But do they really know what to do with it?” Wanichek marveled from behind a desk in her recently expanded office along the Rees Avenue commercial corridor.

No longer a fledgling business, Wine Away has shown it has staying power.

The certified woman-owned business is run by Wanichek as president and national sales manager and her mother, Cheryl Corn, director of marketing and international sales, under Evergreen Labs.

The company is far from saturating the marketplace. Wanichek is targeting Costco, Fred Meyer and Bed, Bath & Beyond as retailers she’d love to carry the product. Demand doesn’t seem to be a problem.

“Consumers now call us to say ‘Are you in our town? Where can we get this?’” she said. If it’s possible, they make it happen.

“It’s sort of a dance,” Corn chimed in. “It takes about six months from the first contact” to get the product into a new market. And the women have not been above demonstrating the power of their Wine Away by causing a little spill from time to time.

Although volume and sales figures are not disclosed, the duo have numerous anecdotes to demonstrate how far their operation has come.

“Let me put it this way,” Wanichek explained. “When we first started, we hand-tied raffia around every single bottle. All of the labels were applied by double-stick tape.”

The labels, by the way, were also hand-stamped by Wanichek. As business picked up, the company switched to a synthetic raffia that made it easier for the bigger hands of some of the male employees to tie. Then the decision was made to include the raffia in the boxes but not tie it directly. The raffia is gone. So are the endless trips to ship out orders.

“We’re now fully automated with our own UPS system,” Wanichek said.

The ever expanding map of where the citrus-scented stain treatment is sold has grown from Walla Walla tasting rooms to include Sur La Table, Cost Plus World Market, Rite Aid, Yoke’s Fresh Market, participating Walgreens, the wine department at Albertsons stores, QFC, BevMo! and numerous other retailers. It is in 18 countries, making headway into China and having shipped its first Russian order — a 40-foot container including 800 cases of 12-ounce bottles, 800 cases of 8-ounce bottles and a mix of other combo packs — at the end of December.

Last month, Wanichek met with ACE Hardware reps in Chicago. That was after the February issue of Good Housekeeping came out and ranked Wine Away as the overall best product for removing red wine stains in a test that pit 10 formulas on white cotton and polyester fabrics, and nylon carpet.

“The write-ups are awesome,” she said. “It’s not us saying that it works. It’s somebody else.”

The ranking was the eighth endorsement from “Good Housekeeping.” Four have been in the United States and four in the United Kingdom edition.

About 25 employees work at Evergreen Labs making, bottling and shipping Wine Away.

The story behind the product is that it was born from an all-purpose latex paint cleaner and degreaser in the laboratory of Walla Walla Environmental, owned by Wanichek’s dad and Corn’s husband, Roger Corn. The business specializes in paint additives and chemicals that kill adhesives used in cardboard. Its most recent Environmental Protection Agency registrations were the agency’s first ever “interior and exterior” insecticide paint additive and insecticide coating.

Nevertheless, along the way in 1996 someone discovered the formula removed red wine stains. It removed other stuff, too — coffee, blood, fruit punch and an array of stains that are still being discovered and reported back to the company every time a consumer uses it. In a couple of unfortunate situations, consumers have discovered they’ve been able to remove stains from untreated wood and grout in homes that were under construction or remodel.

Wine seemed the ideal niche market. Growing American consumption was bound to lead to more stains. The formula was tweaked and refined, tested on friends and family, shared in tasting rooms, and finally launched. On some fabrics, the spray onto the stain results in a near instantaneous reaction. It’s said to work best on machine washable fabrics with treatments prior to running through the dryer.

The product comes in plastic spray bottles and aluminum spray cans. The company’s website offers 12-ounce duo bottles for $21, and 12-and-2-ounce combo packs or $17.

In addition to tasting rooms, it is available locally at Walla Walla’s Harvest Foods, Providence Fine Living and Salumiere Cesario.

Made and packaged entirely in the U.S., the product is described as bleach-free and biodegradable and made from vegetable extracts and water. A secret ingredient is locked down as tightly as Colonel Sanders’ blend of herbs and spices. Employees at Evergreen Labs sign a confidentiality agreement to work there.

In the building where Corn’s 15-year-old cocker spaniel Brandee wanders the nooks and rooms, the walls of Wanichek’s office are adorned with framed covers of magazines that have featured Wine Away. There is hardly space to include them all. But the product has been lauded by “Modern Bride,” “InStyle,” “Food & Wine” (which incidentally was the first to sing the praises), “Woman’s Day” and “Woman’s World,” to name a few. It has been featured on “Today” and “Good Morning America” and given away at Disney’s fifth annual California Food & Wine Festival.

What started as a fun project for Wanichek — who had been working in public relations on the west side of the state — and her mom — who came out of retirement from Walla Walla Community College to join her daughters (Wanichek’s sister Cassie Rothstrom was also integral in the business and has since reduced her role), has grown into a major operation.

“Now it’s our livelihood,” Wanichek said. Corn’s grandchildren have also been contributors, making fun label ideas and helping with packaging and shipping.

“It’s been a really fun journey,” Wanichek said. “It’s been a gift to be able to work with my mom.”

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