Living the dream
Boomers who made good on first career open many of state’s new wineries.
- September 28, 2010
Real estate broker Donna Evers decided on a lifestyle change while traveling in northern Italy 15 years ago. She awoke on a train from a deep sleep, and her eyes fell upon a sunbathed vineyard on a gentle slope. “I just couldn’t forget the sight,” she recalls. “I told myself, this is a view I want to be mine.”
Today, Evers and her husband, Bob, own Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont. It’s less than an hour’s drive northwest of Washington, D.C., where she founded Evers & Co. Real Estate in 1985. From the porch of the renovated 19th-century tavern on the winery property you can see a pristine, 2.5-acre vineyard on a gentle slope.
For Evers and many others like her, starting a winery in Virginia is an agrarian break from successful, fast-paced first careers.
Virginia licensed 60 wineries from 1975 to 2000, when the post-Prohibition farm winery industry was getting established in the state. In the past 10 years, 102 more wineries have opened. Very little of this recent growth can be attributed to people involved beforehand in agriculture or horticulture, or to college-trained winemakers, or to large wine corporations expanding into Virginia. “Most of the people who are becoming winery owners here had a very successful first career in something else,” says Annette Ringwood-Boyd, director of the state’s Wine Board Marketing Office.
Wineries have been started by land developers, information technology entrepreneurs, construction contractors, chemists, bankers, Fortune 500 company executives, surgeons and lawyers, as well as at least three celebrities — rock musician Dave Matthews, socialite Patricia Kluge and racecar driver Mike Canney. (See list on page 66.) Many of these entrepreneurs are baby boomers, that feisty generation of Americans born during the years after World War II, from 1946 to 1964.
Asked why people with experience in one field would want to start from scratch in another, Ringwood-Boyd laughs. “It takes a certain passion.”
“You don’t get into this business to make millions. That’s like saying, ‘I’m going to start painting pictures in order to make millions.’ On the other hand, nobody I know opens a winery to lose money. They have lots of reasons. Sometimes people want to start a winery because they think they can make better wine. Some have traveled a lot and fallen in love with wine regions around the world. Others want to be closer to the land or to preserve land for agriculture.”
This is nothing new, Ringwood-Boyd points out. “People all over and all through time have made money in one career and then bought a wine property. You remember the banking family that bought the chateaux in Bordeaux, the Rothschilds.”
Many recent winery startups in Virginia have cost $5 million or more, according to Ringwood-Boyd. This size investment usually provides a large tasting room and an events space that allows a winery to host weddings and receptions, pumping up revenues. But she also can point to recently launched Virginia wineries where the owners focus almost exclusively on vineyards and winemaking facilities, and still end up spending several million dollars to get up and running.
Once they make their investments, according to at least two domestic wine production studies, winery owners must wait an average of 10 years to break even. Still, averages can be deceiving.
Brian and Sharon Roeder, managing owners of Barrel Oak Winery just off Interstate 66 in Fauquier County, say they reached the break-even point late this summer, less than 30 months after opening. Brian, who has worked as a management consultant and housing developer, invested $3.3 million of his own and his partners’ money in the enterprise. He did it because he believed he could come up with a marketing plan unique in the Virginia industry. Also, Sharon became intrigued with winemaking about the time she got fed up with her office job. “She pictured herself taking her coffee and her dog out on misty mornings to check the vines,” Brian says.
His strategy has been to sell ultra-premium wines, mostly in the $25 to $30 per bottle range, exclusively on-site and with lots of help from social-media publicity. The winery property, according to the plan, had to be close to the heavily populated Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and be picnicker- and dog-friendly — note the winery’s initials, “BOW.” In August, Barrel Oak was averaging 1,000 visitors per weekend, and it planned to bump production from 7,500 to 8,000 cases per year because of brisk sales.
At the other end of the scale, Robert and Francesca Giardina began this summer to search for a buyer for their 900-case-per-year Bloxom Winery on the Eastern Shore. He was a building contractor and she a pastry chef in New York when they decided a decade ago to establish a vineyard and winery in Virginia. He wanted to pursue a winemaking hobby he had started years earlier in his basement. Francesca says both were work weary and wanted to slow down. But the winery was undercapitalized, preventing them from hiring help and forcing them to work harder than they’ve ever worked before. “Robert envisioned making wine and fishing,” she says. “But his boat is falling apart under the trees. He never went fishing.”
Evers, who now divides her time between the real estate and wine businesses, says her winery project has been 10 years in the making. Her cash outlays have been incremental and not too large. The commercial launch of the winery was in 2008 and, so far, production has been fewer than 200 cases a year. She uses part-time consultants for vineyard management and winemaking and is thrilled to do some of the chores herself. “When I see people making enormous investments, I think, “Wow! Everybody seems to be trying to figure out how to make money at this.’ It’s not easy, especially for a small winery.”
Despite the risks, she says her winery has increased the peace and beauty in her life. Does she regret not having opened her winery sooner? “No, I don’t think I could have done this any earlier. You have to have the time, and the money. When you’re younger, you never seem to have both of them simultaneously.”
European regions where wine has been made for thousands of years have long been an inspiration to Evers. She owns an apartment in Paris and often has traveled in the French wine district of Burgundy, which she describes as the “high altar of the wine religion.” She detects a reverence toward wine whenever she is in France, Italy or Croatia, where she has winemaking relatives. “There is no question; winemaking is an ancient idea that is appealing to me and my husband.”
The charm of Old World winemaking also captivated Stephen Mackey, who opened Notaviva Vineyards in Purcellville two years ago with his wife, Shannon. The Mackeys have worked in the professional audio and digital media industries. In 1992, Stephen was an audio engineer for the concert tour of Julio Iglesias, a dedicated wine fancier and collector. “While on the tour I was exposed to regional differences in wine while traveling around Spain, Europe and the world,” Mackey says.
Patrick Duffeler founded The Williamsburg Winery in 1985 and now it’s the state’s largest, producing 60,000 cases a year. He was born in Belgium and worked as a marketing executive in Europe for several corporations before becoming a Virginia vintner. Although he is fascinated by the wine tradition in France and was briefly involved in marketing Burgundy wines, his dream of opening a winery was shaped by his contact with American wine personalities, especially the late Robert Mondavi. “It was these people’s approach to the constant potential for wine improvements that was a trigger point for me,” he says.
Also, Duffeler says, anyone who has worked in the corporate world, especially in marketing, has experience that the wine industry needs. “This is a long-term-oriented industry requiring accurate forecasting of market demand, environmental issues, economic issues and otherwise. Ultimately, a solid understanding of consumer-pull and distribution-push marketing is essential.”
Barrel Oak’s Roeder agrees but adds that newcomers should not forget how much they owe to the industry’s early “pioneers, artisans and scientists.” He says these people have not been motivated so much by profit as by an intense desire to sort out the best vineyard and winemaking practices. “They made it possible for entrepreneurs from other walks of life to come in now and make a go of it.”