The Dirty Truth About Winemaking

Some days I think I am insane to move from straight winemaking into the business side of things … I believe if you keep moving forward with your passion, eventually you will reach your goal. At least I hope so! Kevin Panagapka, Owner/Winemaker 2027 Cellars

Just imagine making your own wine. Sip and savour it while you gaze out over your very own expanse of vineyards. Host parties, eat great food, be one with the land. It’s certainly an idyllic thought. Winemaker Adam Delorme at The Grange of Prince Edward Vineyards and Estate Winery concurs. “Every spring you get to witness the miracle of life in the vineyard.” But reality isn’t always so picture perfect. Unpredictable weather, fickle consumers, the cost of equipment … all of these and more can wreak havoc on so noble a pursuit as winemaking. From an outsider’s point of view, it might seem that passion is all you need to make it work. Yet, John Bookwalter, Owner/Winemaker of Bookwalter Winery, admits that knowing how to make money might indeed be as necessary a talent.

So, should you throw caution to the wind and open your own winery? Do you have what it takes to succeed? I asked 12 wine producers to spill the nitty gritty truth about the wine biz.

What does someone really need to know before they jump in and start making wine commercially? 

Doug Whitty Owner, 13th Street Winery, St Catharines, Ontario

In 2008, 10 years after its inception, Doug and Karen Whitty and John Mann bought 13th Street from its original owners. The winery’s products are made mostly from Gamay, Chardonnay and Riesling.

• A winery is a unique and fascinating place where art, science, business and nature intersect and flow together in creative, inspirational and ever-changing ways.
• Although owning a winery can be a very enjoyable and fulfilling experience, it is very important to ensure that those around you share, or at least understand, your vision, your passion and your commitment.
• Above all, make sure that you are in a position to finish the journey before you start.

Guido Orzalesi Marketing and Sales Director, Altesino, Tuscany, Italy

In operation since 1972, Altesino grows mostly Sangiovese di Montalcino grapes for its Brunello di Montalcino, but will also use Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Trebbiano, Malvasia, Vermentino, Chardonnay and Viognier for its other wines.

• The money invested in the wine business will have a much smaller gain than in many other businesses. Passion is essential.

Nik Weis Owner/Winemaker, St Urbans-Hof, Mosel, Germany

Nik tends 33 hectares of Riesling spread over some of the most sought-after terrain in Germany. St Urbans-Hof was founded in 1947 by Nik’s grandfather.

• Find good, well-experienced and enthusiastic people who will help you in the vineyard, cellar and sales.

What do you love about winemaking? 

Randall Grahm Owner/Winemaker, Bonny Doon Vineyard, California, USA

Located in Santa Cruz, California, Bonny Doon Vineyard has been in operation since 1983. Although the winery was one of the first to grow Rhône grape varieties in California, it has since expanded its operation to include an eclectic mix of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese varieties.

• Thinking about complex systems, like ecosystems; attempting to solve complex problems creatively.
• Learning how to cultivate one’s powers of observation: trying to figure out when a vineyard is ripe, or trying to figure out which part of a vineyard is ripe and which part is not.
• Working on the creation of wine labels. I never knew I had any aptitude for it, go figure!
• The opportunity to spend time with like-minded people … those that are maniacally obsessive about wine, perfectionists, people who are able to fashion experiences from the humble grape that are just breathtaking, awe-inspiring.

Pierangelo Tommasi Marketing and Export Manager, Tommasi Viticoltori, Tuscany, Italy

Founded in 1902, Tommasi Viticoltori is operated today by the fourth generation of the Tommasi family. The winery owns 135 hectares of vineyards in Verona and 66 hectares in southern Tuscany, and produces Amarone Classico, Valpolicella Classico Superiore and Recioto della Valpolicella.

• I love it because it belongs to me. It is my life even if there are difficult days every now and then.
• The long process, from the vineyards to the drying process, to the fermentation and the ageing, to the bottling and bottle refinement — it takes a long time; but it is a kind of magic.

Kevin Panagapka Owner/Winemaker, 2027 Cellars, Niagara, Ontario

Kevin and his wife, Jodie, founded 2027 Cellars in 2007 as a virtual winery. By renting space at Featherstone Estate Winery, Kevin doesn’t have to worry about building and equipment expenses. He can focus entirely on perfecting his Riesling- and Pinot Noir-based wines.

•I love the creativity of winemaking. Every winemaker has a different style.
• Every season presents a different challenge — no recipes in Niagara.

What do you hate about it?

Michèle Bosc Director of Marketing, Château des Charmes, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

Although the Château opened in 1994, the Bosc family has been making wine in Niagara since at least 1978. Actually, their roots in winemaking take them back six generations and halfway across the world to the vineyards of French Algeria.

• It’s the most vertically integrated type of business I have ever encountered. We are farmers, plant managers, sales people, export directors, retailers, tourism professionals, event professionals, association members and political activists.
• The functions of running a business, like financial management, HR, facility management, handyman, etc.
• Wine has become a commodity marketplace, so you have to be marketing savvy but still make a good product with a story that resonates with consumers.
• The influx of inexpensive wine from warm climates has conditioned consumers’ palates to want big fruit bombs.

Grégory Patriat Winemaker, Maison Jean-Claude Boisset, Nuits-Saint-Georges, France

Grégory loves “atypical wines which fly in the face of tradition and conventional wisdom.” He has been crafting wines at J-C Boisset since 2002. The winery, in operation since 1961, is known not only for its Burgundy-style wines, but also for helping to create Ontario’s Le Clos Jordanne winery.

• Papers … administration. In France, [the bureaucratic red tape] is very complicated and boring. I’m sure it’s easier in the new world.

John Bookwalter Owner/Winemaker, Bookwalter Winery/J. Bookwalter Wines, Washington, USA

John’s parents, Jerrold and Jean, founded Bookwalter Winery in 1983. In an effort to keep producing premium red wines, John has collaborated with expert wine consultants Zelda Long (until 2009) and Claude Gros (currently).

• That you need a third party to determine whether or not your wine is of high quality or not — the ratings system, for example.

Tell me an anecdote about your life with wine.

Karen Enright Owner, Annapolis Highland Vineyards, Nova Scotia

Karen and husband, Brendan, planted over 10,000 vines in the four years before the winery opened in 2009. Preferring to take the road less travelled, the Enrights are growing some uncommon grape varieties, like Geisenheim Riesling, New York Muscat and De Chaunac.

• It was strongly advised that we do not grow French (vinifera) varieties, but we went against the advice and planted out 25 per cent of our vineyards with Pinot Gris. On our Grand Opening weekend, we won a Silver Medal at the Atlantic Canadian Wine Competition for the Pinot Gris, and this year we won a Gold Medal at the All Canadian Wine Competition for it. It truly goes to show that with hard work and perseverance you can succeed and achieve your goals.

Sebastiano Cossia Castiglione Owner, Querciabella, Tuscany, Italy

Founded in 1974 by Sebastiano’s father, Giuseppe, Querciabella has always been on the cusp of innovation. Although first recognized as a producer of Chianti Classico, it quickly morphed into a winery producing premium Super Tuscan wines. In the last few years, the winery has succeeded in becoming fully biodynamic.

• I find someone asking me how many harvests we have per year funny. I also find it sad and frustrating to know that most producers still spray chemicals in their fields, killing the soil, plants and animals, polluting the water and poisoning people.

Adam Delorme Winemaker, The Grange of Prince Edward Vineyards and Estate Winery, Prince Edward County, Ontario

Adam has been “perfecting his craft since the age of 11 when he … tried adding milk to wine.” The Grange opened its doors in 2004, and in the last three years, Adam has helped tend the 24 hectares of vineyards and produce wine from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

• For my very first harvest, I was in charge of the press. As we loaded it, I didn’t realize the press door was open, and within 30 seconds half a ton of Chardonnay was on the floor! ‘Is this normal?’ I asked.

Previously published in Tidings Magazine.

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