Before Dennis Wilkinson had even put together the showroom of his trophy shop in 1993, his first customer came tapping at the door to see if he could etch a wine bottle. If he had told her no, D&S Awards in Santa Rosa, California, wouldn’t be the business it is today: An awards shop that bought a forklift “because I got tired of unloading the pallets of wine by hand,” he says. “We do thousands or tens of thousands of wine bottles.”
Wilkinson and his wife, Sherryl, opened their business in their garage in 1991, while Dennis Wilkinson was working as a diesel mechanic. They considered buying a laundry or a video store, but a friend’s experience with bowling trophies seemed like it might be a good fit. “A roommate of mine in Denver… did bowling trophies out of our basement, he and his partner. They did quite well,” Dennis Wilkinson, 61, says. “His partner did good for a long time. Just figured that might be something to try.”
The couple visited the Trophy Dealers and Manufacturers Association trade show in Las Vegas, where they met with some experts and took some classes-including one on etching glass. They also purchased a Meistergram engraver, a machine they have since rebuilt and continue to use.
Eventually, Dennis Wilkinson decided the business needed a storefront location. “We were just cramped in the garage, and I didn’t feel that it was such a reputable business if we’re trying to work out of a garage,” he says. “You have a place where you can have your customers. You can set up a showroom and have them come in and not worry about the neighbors thinking you’re a drug dealer.”
The Wilkinsons found their location on the north side of Santa Rosa, just west of U.S. Highway 101, among a mix of retail and light industrial buildings. The Santa Rosa Creek separates the commercial area from suburban homes to the south.
The lease was signed. A painter covered the windows in white, and lettered signs announcing that an awards store offering glass etching and promotional specialties would open soon. “I was working in the back, building my office, putting (drywall) up and stuff,” Dennis Wilkinson recalls. “I hear this ‘tick, tick, tick’ from a key clicking on a glass door, somebody clicking on the front door.
“So I go out there. The showroom is just a pile of rubble. I’m throwing everything there to put in my truck to take to the dump. It’s just a total disaster… I open the door and the lady is standing there with a big wine bottle under her arms, a three-liter bottle. She introduced herself and she says, ‘I see on your window you do glass etching. Would that also include wine bottle etching?'” Wilkinson recounts.
Breaking away from the story, he explains, “To tell you the truth, I had never etched a piece of glass, except the one that I took at a class at a trade show at Vegas. We did one in the glass. We bought the sandglass unit, had it shipped here, and it was still in the shrink wrap in the shop area. I had never even considered doing wine bottles. I didn’t know you could do it,” he says.
But he didn’t share that secret with his potential first customer. “I told her, ‘Oh, yes, absolutely, would you like to come in?'”
From the pile of trash, he tore a lid off a cardboard box. Using his carpenter’s pencil, he wrote up the order. “She left, and then I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK, so now what have you gotten yourself into?’ because I have no idea how I’m going to do this,” Wilkinson laughs. As soon as she drove away from the shop, he headed to the liquor store to purchase a case of cheap wine so he could get to work.
“It took me about four days or so to figure this out and get it going. It was really difficult,” Wilkinson reflects. “But I figured it out; I managed to get her bottle etched.
“She came and picked it up, and she looked at it. It was painted gold. She said, ‘Well, you know, it’s kind of rough, but for this project it will work fine.’ From that day until 2002 or 2003, they were my number one biggest customer,” he says, adding that he already has jobs lined up for the same customer in 2016.
Fortunately, Dennis Wilkinson loves wine; with “a pretty nice set-up in the back yard,” he is making seven or eight barrels-enough for almost 200 cases, he says.
While D&S Awards sells plenty of plaques, trophies and promotional items, about 40 percent of its business involves wine bottles, Dennis Wilkinson says. Most of that is from nearby wineries, but he also works on hundreds of bottles for walk-in customers wanting to celebrate weddings, anniversaries and birthdays, he adds.
“We never saw (that volume) coming,” says Sherryl Wilkinson, 55, who kept her job as a dental hygienist-one day a week since the shop opened-until last year. “We didn’t go looking for it; it came to us.”
The store has received some pretty cool accolades for its work. On its website, Epilog Laser highlighted D&S Awards’ work and the store’s use of the Epilog Legend 32 for Armida Winery, in nearby Healdsburg, California. The shop had to etch a skull and crossbones label, hand-paint each one, then seal the neck in wax on 3,500 bottles of varying size.
“The wax on the top-we dip it in wax and have a technique to make it run down to make it look like blood dripping down,” Dennis Wilkinson says. The entire job required four months of work, according to the website. Armida has been a customer since 1993 and, even now, he continues, he usually has a pallet of the winery’s bottles in the shop, waiting to be etched.
Word of mouth and good relationships have built D&S Awards’ business. In Sonoma County alone there are 439 wineries, according to a July 2015 story in The Press Democrat.
“Everybody knows everybody. And in the wine industry, everybody knows everybody,” Dennis Wilkinson says. “They’re all buddies; a lot of them are related. They’ll go from one winery to the next, and that’s how our business has grown, because… different people move around. The people move around and we follow with them. They trust what we do and how we do it.”