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Meet Your Merchant: Tahoe Blue Vodka owner seeks to preserve Lake Tahoe one bottle at a time

When Matt Levitt made it to Lake Tahoe near the end of a road trip in 2001 he was left with $60 in his pocket and decided to stay for a few more months.

“I just fell in love with the clean air and clear water and outdoor lifestyle,” he said.

A decade later the same clear, blue water that urged him to make Tahoe his permanent home inspired the creation of his award winning Tahoe Blue Vodka. When he was sitting lakeside enjoying a vodka cocktail in 2011, he said a light bulb came on.

“I’m looking at the bottle, looking at the lake, looking at the bottle, looking at the lake,” he said. “And I’m thinking isn’t there an easy to draw parity between the clear, pure waters of Lake Tahoe and clear, pure, smooth premium vodka.”

He set out to make a product that not only reminds consumers of the clear blue waters of the lake but also the outdoor lifestyle that Tahoe provides. After doing some research he determined that it had not been done and there were relatively low barriers to entry in the industry.

“The idea stuck and became an obsession,” he said. “I wanted to see if I could do it.”

‘ONE MAN BAND’ NO MORE

While Levitt found a distillery to make a test batch for him, none of the distributors in the industry had much interest in selling the vodka. Instead of calling it quits, he obtained his own distributors license and began selling the vodka out of the trunk of his car in 2012 delivering bottles to local bars and restaurants.

“It was a one man band,” he said. “And it took off from there.”

Now he employs 20 people with two warehouses, one in Tahoe and one in Sacramento, distributing bottles across Northern California and Northern Nevada.

The brand is now one of the fastest growing vodkas in California and recently received top honors in the 2019 SUNSET International Spirit Competition.

“It’s an actual functioning business now,” he said.

According to Levitt, less than 2% of spirits brands succeed in distributing 15,000 cases in annual volume. Last year Tahoe Blue Vodka distributed 30,000 cases.

“It’s an enormously challenging industry to gain any real foothold in,” he said. “If I knew then what I know now I may have not started the business.”

However he said the experience has given him a whole new appreciation for business owners who start from the ground up.

“The moral of the story is that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss our product ideas,” he said.

GIVING BACK TO COMMUNITY

From its inception, Levitt said, the company has been giving back to the Tahoe community “building philanthropy into the company’s roots.”

To date Tahoe Blue Vodka has donated over $100,000 to Tahoe-based charities including the Tahoe Fund and the League to Save Lake Tahoe, he said. In the past, money has also gone to small restoration projects such as beach cleanups.

“It’s extremely fulfilling eight years later to be donating to projects that can actually make a difference,” he said.

Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at 530-550-2652 or hjones@sierasun.com.

From Red Dog to Shred Dog: New Tahoe company offers high-performance winter gear for youngsters

A 7-year-old skier sits with his father on a chairlift during a cold, windy winter day at a local mountain in the Tahoe area.

The two have only taken a couple of runs when the shivering youngster looks up and gives his father a look all too familiar to parents.

“I’m cold, I’m wet, and I want to go home,” he says.

An early morning of loading the car with ski gear, packing lunches, and racing to the mountain to beat lift lines has been cut short.

Marc Dietz experienced the scenario many times over the years while taking his then 3-year-old son to Squaw Valley. Dietz taught his son, who is now 9, to ski at the resort, but over the years he became frustrated with the price and performance of the snow gear he was purchasing.

“One of my favorite things in my life is being a dad, and what goes along with that is doing things outside with my son — biking, kayaking, camping, you name it, but skiing and snowboarding (is) No. 1,” said Dietz.

“I was experiencing super expensive gear that, A) often isn’t that good, and, B) the kid outgrows it every single year.”

From those experiences, Dietz, who’d made a career working in the tech industry in Silicon Valley, began bouncing around the idea of starting his own brand of winter gear designed specifically for children.

Then, in the spring of 2017 he ran into Dallas Moore, who had been working the past six years for the high-performance hunting gear company, KUIU. With Moore’s expertise in working with different performance materials, the two launched SHRED DOG, a brand that takes inspiration from the Squaw Kids program, the mountain itself, and nearby Red Dog Chairlift.

“We took inspiration from Squaw Valley and the Red Dog lift, and basically the patterns the lift lines make on the mountain. Some of the seam lines and personality of the initial jackets literally was inspired by Squaw,” said Dietz, who sold his home in Tahoe to help get the business off the ground.

‘out all day’

“Our goal from day one is we want to build a very premium, high-performance product,” said Dietz. “We don’t want to skimp on construction or quality. We were telling people last year, ‘Hey we’re a first-year brand, but don’t get the idea we have sewing machines in our garage.’ This stuff is made by the best in the business, and we wanted nothing less.”

The company aims to keep youngsters on the mountain comfortably when conditions are at their worst.

“There’s that old adage: There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear,” said Dietz. “Kids that are cold and wet want to quit at lunchtime and go to the lodge and have a hot chocolate. SHRED DOG kids, what we enable, is they’re out all day no matter the conditions.”

The products are designed based on Dietz’s own experiences, and also from customers, who are be able to offer input through SHRED DOG’S Co-Design Program.

The company also works with a design team that has more than 30 years experience in the industry, according Dietz, while the products are constructed overseas at the same factory used by other leading performance gear producers such as Arc’teryx, Saloman, Spyder, and Adidas.

“Made in the USA wasn’t really an option for us right now,” said Dietz. “Some of that stuff is coming back. Some of our future products we anticipate will be made here.”

CutTING out the middlemen

SHRED DOG is able to offer quality gear at more affordable prices by using a direct-to-consumer approach, cutting out middlemen and retailers. The company’s products range from around $160 for ski jackets and $150 for bibs.

“We’re not inexpensive. We’re not cheap. We don’t compete with Columbia Sports or let alone shopping at Target. We wanted to start at the top to prove this is the best stuff out there, and then we can go down to a midgrade model that costs less as opposed to starting there, and then trying to convince people we can also do something premium,” said Dietz.

“We’re positioning ourselves as a premium outdoor brand, not a ski brand or a snowboard brand. Some of our products today are at least three-season, if not year round, like our puffy insulator jacket. Camping in Tahoe in the summer, a puffy jacket by the campfire is perfect.”

Recently the company brought on Joe Commendatore, a Truckee local, as vice president of global alliances and business development.

Commendatore, a lifelong skier, has been involved in the community throughout the years with Hula Networks and the High Fives Foundation.

“I met Dallas (Moore) on a ski lift last winter,” said Commendatore. “It was just a half-chance thing. We were riding up the chair and he was talking to his brother in-law, and they were talking about the ski equipment. I was listening on the chair and said, ‘Hey, tell me a little bit about this.’ As soon as Dallas started talking about the gear, I lit up.”

Commendatore, who has children ages 7 and 9, said he’d experienced similar problems with gear for youngsters, and was eager to become involved in the company.

“In the ski world, especially with children, gear is so expensive,” he said. “(Parents) are not looking to spend a couple hundred bucks on a jacket, because it’s going to be gone in a season. The nice thing that we do is, we’re able to offer quality products that will last five years. Yeah the kid does grow, but it’s a high quality product for about half the price of what somebody spends now.”

The rapid rate in which children outgrow their ski gear is a constant headache for many parents. Over the years other companies have innovated by adding seams that rip out of pant legs to get another inch or so of length. Once the seams are ripped though, the gear is no longer waterproof and can’t be shortened again to pass down to younger siblings.

“We innovated on that and came up with a system that we’re calling an industry-first, Adjust-a-Fit system,” said Dietz. “We ship the pant legs and sleeves a little bit long, and inside there’s a little elastic and button system like in the waistband of every kid’s pants these days. You can cinch it up for the first year, and as they grow you let it out. But then you can also bring it back in for a hand me down.”

Another issue Dietz faced was that as his son got older he no longer wanted to wear bibs like a “little kid.”

Normally that would mean shopping for more snow gear, but SHRED DOG offers a convertible bib system where the bib portion can be removed, allowing young skiers to move to pants like their older peers, while also having the ability to be reattached for powder days on the backside.

“It’s just little things like that from my experience when (my son) was 4 or 5,” said Dietz. “It all just kind of snowballed into ideas.”

‘the memories we make being outside’

SHRED DOG is set for its first full season on the market in 2019-20. The company’s products won’t be found in retail stores in order to keep prices down, and orders must be purchased through its website or at a pop-up event during the season.

While eliminating retailers allows SHRED DOG to keep prices lower than its high-performance competitors, it raises other challenges, as customers aren’t able to touch and see the products in person.

“When we’ve done pop-up shops or events or people are in person looking at it, they get it right away,” said Dietz. “It’s just getting people to take that chance.”

In order to help facilitate sales through its online store, SHRED DOG offers free shipping on orders more than $50, free returns, free exchanges for wrong sizes, and a lifetime limited warranty.

“We’re trying to eliminate as many points of friction as possible to get people to try it, because once they do, they’re hooked,” said Dietz.

Moving forward, Dietz said the goal is to raise awareness of the brand. Eventually SHRED DOG plans on branching out to include lower-cost gear for children and a line for adults as well.

“We want to be a national, if not global brand, as soon as possible. But our heritage is Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe and being a part of that community and giving back,” said Dietz.

“One of our core tenants with the brand and something we’re going to invest more and more in is getting more kids outside. These days as a parent, I — just like everyone else — struggle with managing screen time. My son loves his iPad and his Xbox, and that’s fine, I like those things too, but it doesn’t compare to the memories we make being outside.”

SHRED DOG is offering Sierra Sun readers a preseason promo. For a limited time, customers can use discount code SIERRASUN25 for 25% off any purchase at ShredDog.com. Offer expires at midnight on Oct. 31.

For more information on SHRED DOG or to check out the company’s lineup of gear, visit ShredDog.com.

Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at jscacco@sierrasun.com.

Meet Your Merchant: Tahoe Dave’s owner helps employees’ ‘ski bum’ lifestyle

When Dave Wilderotter was taking ski trips with his friends in college, they had a simple motto: “have a good time and stay out of jail.”

As a psychology major a the University of Michigan, Wilderotter, longtime owner of Tahoe Dave’s, said he had no idea he would end up as a permanent ski bum in Lake Tahoe still living by that saying.

“It was never my intention to stay or be in the ski business,” he said. “It was just one of those things that was working with me at the time.”

After moving to Aspen for a year right out of college, he said he decided to get a “real job” bartending in San Francisco. The money he made afforded him a mid-week ski lease in Lake Tahoe, where he worked part time at a rental shop and bussing tables at Alpine Meadows for a ski pass.

It wasn’t long before he moved to Lake Tahoe full-time to start his own rental shop.

In 1977, Wilderotter opened up the first Tahoe Dave’s at the Henrikson building in Tahoe City. At the time it was nothing but a small tune-up shop with a collection of 15 pairs of rental skis.

Over the next two decades, he would see his small ski shop grow into a network of five stores around North Lake Tahoe. In 1990, he opened a location in downtown Truckee, followed by a new shop in Kings Beach and a dedicated snowboard shop in Tahoe City in 1994. In 1998, the location at the entrance to Squaw Valley was opened.

This weekend the Truckee location will be transitioning into the first Tahoe Dave’s Beach House, which will offer swimwear and beach essentials.

Wilderotter said it was never his intention to grow his business, but he did it to better support his employees.

“I had good people that wanted to make more money, and in order to do that they had to be in charge of more,” he said. “Once you get past a couple stores, then you have a staff that’s big enough to take the pressure off of everyday stuff.”

EMPLOYEE HOUSING

In order to retain employees Wilderotter said “you got to give them a lifestyle they like.” This includes access not only to the ski slopes, but also to affordable housing.

To help with this need, Wilderotter began buying up real estate that he would rent exclusively to his employees. This includes small homes in the Truckee RV park that he began to purchase around three years ago.

“It’s never difficult to find bodies; it’s difficult to find them housing,” he said.

Additionally, Wilderotter will assist his employees with security deposit payments for rental units and in some cases a down payment on a house.

“Some people have family money, some people have their own money and those that don’t, I can help them,” he said. “If somebody’s worth it, we make sure we keep them around.”

Each winter, Wilderotter purchases ski passes for his full-time employees to the mountain of their choice and subsidizes the passes for part-time employees.

“The thing about a ski bum is they’re always happy as long as they’re skiing,” said Wilderotter, who says he tries to align his employee schedules so they all get enough time on the slopes.

“Sometimes I have to remind myself that when I was 21 I lived the lifestyle of a ski bum,” he said. “If I can help my employees with that lifestyle, I will.

“I’m just making sure people have a good time and stay out of jail.”

Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at 530-550-2652 or hjones@sierrasun.com.