Go East Young Winegrower | February 2008
Over the years I have taken on several young apprentices here at Linden Vineyards. Most come with little or no experience, but with great enthusiasm and a hunger for knowledge. They lull me out of stifling inertia and complacency with inquisitive and often challenging questions. I provide them with a hands-on foundation to pursue their dreams of starting their own winegrowing venture. As with so many young aspiring winegrowers, they are often intimidated by the huge financial hurdles that are the price of admission to starting one’s own vineyard and winery. I went through the same scenario 25 years ago. The following are my thoughts and advice for the next generation of young, driven, but financially challenged winegrowers. I have peppered this article with examples of my own experiences in getting started. Obviously, there is no single best way in approaching such a colossal lifelong undertaking. As I reflect, it seems that a healthy dose of idealistic naiveté can be very useful.
My advice is to start and stay small, and focus on making only one or two red wines. High-end red wines require a great site, knowledge, and time. They can be made in a relatively primitive facility with lower equipment investments than white wines. There is now a wealth of Eastern viticultural knowledge and success stories that can give us the confidence and the ability to produce high-end red wines in most regions east of the Rockies. Just as important, there is now a consumer base that is curious and willing to support local artisan winegrowers.
My apprentices and I usually have had shared values and lifestyle goals. Our interest in vines and wines is in the process, rather than the glamour. Pruning vines on a bitter January morning is more attractive than presenting wines at a vintner’s dinner. Washing barrels and tanks is preferable to working a tasting room. We are content being introverted farmers, and are willing to make financial and material sacrifices to live that lifestyle. As with most farmers, we are willing to live poor and die rich, as our wealth is in the ground.
I am a product of the “back to the land” era of the 1970s. In 1979 I returned to Ohio after an eye opening two years as an agricultural Peace Corps volunteer in Congo. I studied Foreign Affairs in college, but had already been bitten by the farming bug while earning extra money helping out local farmers in Ohio. I couldn’t get enough of Mother Earth News and anything published by Rodale Press. I saw grape growing as a possible cash crop on my fantasy subsistence farm tucked away in the still affordable Appalachian foothills of Southeast Ohio. My path took different twists and turns as I became more involved and entrenched in the business side of winegrowing. However, tending my garden, cutting firewood and sitting quietly on my back porch when staff and customers have gone home still give me my greatest pleasures.
Money, finances and other boring stuff
Capital is a critical tool in any start up venture. Let’s start with a healthy dose of reality. Even a bootstrap operation is going to require significant start-up money. I found that banks are great business partners. Banks don’t finance dreams unless they come with collateral, co-signers, and convincing business plans. You are first going to have to convince parents, aunts, uncles, and/or rock star friends to back you with seed money and their signatures. Wine is sexier than the dry cleaning business or hog farming. Use this to your advantage, but also protect your personal financial destiny by retaining good legal consul.
I was fortunate to have the support of my family who were willing to join me as silent financial partners. Initially they enjoyed some tax benefit as there was nothing but losses to show for our efforts. I borrowed money from any available source including owner financing on the land, construction loans on the winery, and lines of credit on the inventory. My family bailed me out on more than one occasion when my overly optimistic economic projections regularly fell short. Once Linden Vineyards began to show a profit, I was slowly able to use bank financing exclusively. After 25 years I am still making regular monthly mortgage and credit line payments, but I have no regrets, as this was the only way I could have achieved my dream.
The key to producing great wine is knowledge. Knowledge can be free (the internet and visits to local wineries), inexpensive (trade journals, seminars and tastings), or expensive (degrees, trips to Europe, and buying benchmark wines). I found that the best way to acquire knowledge was to have someone else pay me to learn. The majority of the most highly esteemed winemakers in the US took advantage of the “earn and learn” approach. I learned my nuts and bolts working for wineries in Ohio and Virginia. I do regret however, that I didn’t push myself to apprentice at more sophisticated operations. In the early 1980s that would have required moving to California or Europe, but I feel that my learning curve could have been shortened substantially if I had been more ambitious.
Today there are many more opportunities to work at well-managed winegrowing operations here in the East. Part time or seasonal work can often lead to a full time position. It is, however, important to work under someone who knows what they are doing.
If you are starting your own vineyard and winery, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades. You become a mechanic, carpenter, and bookkeeper. I took advantage of night classes at the local high school and Community College. Welding, wiring, chemistry, soil science, accounting, automotive, and masonry classes have paid off in spades.
We now have a much better understanding of what a good vineyard site is than 25 years ago. Yes, land is expensive, but it is the foundation of growing high quality wines. It rarely depreciates in value. It is great collateral when looking for loans. In the established European and Californian winegrowing regions land prices reflect potential wine quality. Here in the East land prices are primarily dependent on commuting convenience and sub-division potential. The trend here in Virginia is to buy land that is easily accessible for tasting room traffic and hope and pray that grapes grow on it. There is still lots of excellent vineyard land to be purchased at a reasonable price, but it is far from the tourist routes. We could all learn a lesson from some of our California colleagues who sell limited amounts of very expensive wines exclusively from mailing lists. They do not have, nor want, a tasting room. We in the East need to also start thinking outside the tasting room box.
I bought my land in 1983 after several years of spending a lot of time with frustrated realtors who didn’t seem interested in my long list of soil, slope, and elevation requirements. This parcel of land, which I later called Hardscrabble, met all my requirements except that it was not cleared, and it was bigger than what I thought I could afford. Fortunately the seller agreed to owner financing. This was the beginning of my long association of the world of balloon notes, interest payments, amortization schedules and all things foreign to me at the time.
The majority of the costs of establishing a vineyard is labor and vines. While your own labor is not “free,” the scale and size of the initial start up vineyard needs to be small enough so that hired labor is kept at a minimum. Much of the initial labor revolves around posts and wire. Establishing a trellis can be started before planting and finished a year later, thus spreading out your own labor input. Vine propagation is not rocket science, but does require good horticultural common sense. Given enough time, it is possible to propagate both own rooted and grafted vines.
When I purchased my land it had to be cleared. This meant that I had two years before the land was ready to plant. I took cuttings of Seyval and Vidal, dug up the back yard of the cabin I was renting, and rooted out 3 acres worth of vines. I also teamed up with a neighboring vineyard and together we grafted 6 acres worth of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc using a borrowed grafting machine and rented greenhouse space. These vines also went in my backyard.
While clearing land, I was able to harvest the locust trees as posts. Twenty some years later, I am regretting this as most of them are needing to be replaced. Twenty years seems like a long time when you are young.
Land and vineyard decisions are permanent, but the winery building and equipment can be ever changing and evolving. An exclusively red wine facility can be a basement, garage, or a converted outbuilding. Underground is best because of temperature and humidity requirements. Great red wine is mostly about vineyard decisions. If the ripeness, balance and concentration exists in the harvested grapes, the winemaking is simple and fundamental. I have tasted many a great red wine made in bare bones facilities. A quality wine revolution in Bordeaux was appropriately named “garagist” in reference to the expensive garage wines made by new, under financed winemakers in a region known for its stodgy chateau tradition.
In 1987 I bit the bullet, got bank financing, and built a fairly nice winery with a tasting room. That was the beginning of my bottomless mortgage. At this time, Virginia wines had little consumer acceptance, and most wine distributors, shops and restaurants were skeptical, or even cynical. The internet didn’t exist, and the thought of buying wine over the phone was still foreign. The only two outlets I had was the tasting room and festivals. Americans drank white wine over red by a margin of three to one. Virginia winegrowers were still in an experimental stage in trying to figure out which varieties made sense. The first Virginia vineyard I worked at had 28 varieties with Delaware and Concord planted next to Cabernet and Chardonnay.
While my marketing options in 1987 were bleak, today’s situation is very different. A lot more people drink wine. They are willing to spend a lot of money, especially on red wine. There is an exciting trend to support local farms and wineries. Younger consumers don’t remember the bad old days when regional wines fell short. Many regional wine industries have made significant progress in establishing themselves as a viable, serious wine option. However, as tasting room wineries spring up like mushrooms after a rain, they are all going to have to work even harder with events and promotions to attract buying customers. Less traditional marketing and distribution avenues are available, although I concede that they are not easy to navigate. West Coast “cult” wines have found a small, but very profitable niche. I believe that we now have the knowledge and ability to do the same here in the East. A valuable experience would be to work at a high-end retail shop, restaurant, or distributor. If you understand the inside workings of how expensive wine is marketed, your path will become much clearer. In the East we have become dependent on tasting rooms and festivals. I see “cookie-cutter,” formulaic, wineries popping up everywhere. There are other options.
If you love what you do, then you never have to work a day of your life. You are not out there alone. This industry is fueled by sharing knowledge and giving a neighbor a helping hand. We want our colleagues to succeed and make better wine because we know that in the long run it will help all of us.
Newcomers to this business ask me which wineries in Napa they should visit. We have little to learn from Napa Valley today. We can learn a lot from studying the Napa pioneers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is inspirational to read about the humble beginnings of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Tongi, Frog’s Leap, and Grgich.
Many people getting into the wine business today immediately jump into a frenetic race to have a bottle with their label on it in “record” time. This entrepreneurial impatience is totally counter to the inherent nature of winegrowing. It’s the process that should be rewarding. The privilege to work the land and be a part of the magical transformation of grapes into wine is more than enough. The cash flow of selling wine is what allows me to continue to do what I love.
Wine East, February 2008