When you think of the different businesses being opened by entrepreneurs each year, chances are "vintner" would not be at the top on your list. Yet a surprising number of newbies have entered the highly competitive winemaking world, and making a go of it.
If going the traditional route, where you buy the land, plant, harvest and bottle yourself, the challenges are immense. Between the cost of the land and harvesting, the capriciousness of Mother Nature and the length of time before the wine is aged and ready to sell--it's a long shot at best. Even if you buy your grapes from other sources, add in the cost of marketing, a global competition field and a tightly run network of distribution channels, and you can see it's a tricky business.
Anyone who wants to run a successful wine business has to have a number of ducks in a row, including: professional input, deep pockets, long-range vision, a thick skin and an unwavering belief in the end result.
"You have to be a little nuts [to be in this business], but that's OK," says Cathy Corison, one of the first women to do cellar work in California's Napa Valley in the mid-1970's. Today Corison, 54, owns a small establishment, Corison Winery, which employs 5 people and is a niche market producer of artisan Cabernet Sauvignon that has been hailed (and sold) in national and international circles.
Though she says it's been an exciting ride, Corison says there is nothing logical about small wineries because they are capital-intensive businesses. (She inventories a good cabernet for three years before she releases it for sale.)
"You are also at the mercy of the international currency exchange and the economy," Corison says.
Yet being in one of the greatest wine growing regions of the world and focusing on superior quality vs. massive quantities, she has proven that a woman can create a global brand and thrive in a complex and difficult business.
Finding a Niche
Jason Grizzanti and Jeremy Kidde, both 30, have been friends since the seventh grade. In 2002, Kidde left a banking position at Credit Suisse to work with Grizzanti's father's winery in Warwick, New York--the Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery.
With more than 200 wineries in the Hudson Valley, Kidde and Grizzani realized the need to develop a niche. They quickly began developing an American Fruits line of fruit brandies and liqueurs.
"The wine industry is so competitive now that it makes it extremely difficult to succeed without doing something unique," says Kidde, whose foray into locally-produced fruit-flavored brandies and ciders has proven to be a winning ticket.
In six years the childhood pals have quadrupled sales, and increased employee count from four to 20. Grizzanti is the head winemaker and COO and is currently pursuing his masters in brewing and distillation from the Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. Kidde is the director of sales and the CFO.
With their know-how and business skills combined, their wines have won several awards--including a gold medal for the Bartlett Pear Liqueur from the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, and a silver medal for the Pear Brandy from the Riverside International Wine Competition.
From Corporate to Connoisseur
Jennifer McCloud, who founded Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Virginia, knows the value of having a niche. McCloud chose to have her winery in Virginia--and not Napa--for one reason:
"We have the world's largest planting of this vine and are involved in restoration of this really heirloom gem," she says. "I'd rather make the best Norton than the world's 40th best Merlot."
This is serial entrepreneur McCloud's 14th business venture. McCloud was in the software business before purchasing her bucolic 412-acre spread that is a hop from downtown Washington, DC.
She employs 25 to 40 people each year, and devotes 71-plus acres to produce 15 wines, using grapes that include the indigenous American Norton, as well as the French Viognier. She faced a number of hurdles in her new venture, not the least of which was adjusting to the slower pace of the country life.
To get her wine business on a success track required "motivating people to accomplish what's needed to move forward," says McCloud, who believes that the speed with which you can accomplish your goals determines the power of the company.
McCloud is also making a positive impact on the environment through "new" agriculture, in a place that used to be a powerhouse of commodity production for Virginia (wheat, corn and dairy).
Born from a Book
When a sudden divorce turned Deborah Brenner's life upside-down, she began to reflect on the course of her life.
"The divorce was my catalyst," says Brenner, who left her job as a successful marketing and business development executive for a high-end manufacturer. "I knew I couldn't find a better balance for my life and career without getting off the treadmill of working in my daily job."
A passion for food and wine led to a trip to the Napa Valley and a fortuitous lunch with Karen Cakebread, from Cakebread Cellars. According to Brenner, their conversation covered a lot of ground, including their similarity: working in traditionally male-dominated industries.
Curiosity and her journalism education prompted Brenner to do more research on women in the winemaking business. The idea for Women of the Vine was born, and Brenner was soon trekking to California to interview passionate (and famous) winemaking women entrepreneurs.
In the process, Brenner realized that along with the book, she could champion women in wine more directly by going into the wine business herself, so the Women of the Vine Cellars label was born.
At first Brenner thought she'd buy wines from women and just sell them. Then the idea evolved to be a part of the creative process, to produce what Brenner calls "art gallery winemaking," through limited productions of several handcrafted wines, using the talents of various artisan women winemakers.
Unlike the winemakers who live on or close to the winery they run, Brenner works from home in Rockland County, New York.
So whether you have deep pockets for the significant investment needed to buy or establish a fully functioning winery, an interest in developing a niche product or a passion for putting your label on a regionally- produced product, these hardy oenophile entrepreneurs have proven it can be done within a variety of business models.