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Bottling Individuality How one wine lover turned his passion into a chain of storefronts where anyone can play vintner.

By Jason Daley

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Team Vino: Jennifer Alviani, left, David Schmeltzle, and Robin Raible of Vintner's circle.
Team Vino: Jennifer Alviani, left, David Schmeltzle, and Robin Raible of Vintner's circle.
Photo © Natalie Brasington

For many men, hobbies are fleeting fascinations--millions of garages full of abandoned fly-tying vises, half-built cane chairs and cobweb-matted golf bags attest to that. But when the wine bug hit David Schmeltzle, he went for broke, reorganizing his life and business around do-it-yourself vino. After tasting a homemade bottle of red at a dinner party, he began fermenting his own. "I brought home an oak barrel and 60 gallons of grape juice. It stunk up the house and blew up the kitchen," he remembers. "Finally, my wife asked, 'Isn't there a place you could go to do this?'"

That turned out to be the Schmeltzle family's future. Just one month and one bottling later, in November 2005, Schmeltzle, a technology consultant, had written up a business plan for Vintner's Circle, a storefront franchise where customers could make their own wine. By December, he'd set up a prototype in his basement and invited friends over to experiment. It was a holiday hit, and by May the locals in Hackettstown, N.J., were churning out their first batches of barolo, pinot and zin at the first Vintner's Circle.

Four years in, Vintner's Circle is aging nicely, with six locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and four expected in New York, North Carolina and South Carolina by the end of this year. In 2011, Schmeltzle hopes to open 15 more shops on the East Coast. We took a break from clinking glasses to ask how the top note of success tastes.

Why make your own wine?
It's about spending time together--80 percent of the store is a social winemaking area. Our typical customers are 35 to 60, like to entertain and love wine. We usually get groups of three to five couples, or church groups or community groups. We even have a local band coming in for a "make wine with the band" event. So it's mostly friends coming in to hang out, not collectors with 500 bottles in the cellar.

How does it work?
They come in for four visits. Fermentation takes one or two steps. We set up one of our 80 juices for fermentation and add oak chips and yeast to it. Some wines are fermented in heavily oaked barrels. Then they clear and stabilize the wine, and on the last visit they bottle it and design a label. We do small 6-gallon batches--that 28 bottles is manageable and averages $10 to $13 each.

Still, wine made in a strip mall?
The craftsmanship is fantastic. We have juices from Argentina, Germany, Italy, anywhere you find wine. I can get merlot juice from Stag's Leap; we have Sonoma Valley pinot; we can make the exact same wines you find at the store. We've had customers win awards at competitions.

What are the favorites?
Most start with a cabernet or merlot, wines they feel safe with. Once they make their first batch, they love expanding their palates and start making malbec or barolo.

Did your tech background help?
I founded an IT and marketing infrastructure company with Vintner's Circle called bizbudding Inc. I've tried to create a system that makes it easy for franchisees--they don't have to worry about how to order product and where to get it. They just click a button and create a purchase order from an approved supplier. It manages inventory, customers, the supply chain. They can see what's selling or press a button to generate royalties. We have more infrastructure at just six stores than some large franchise systems.

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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