There is an enormous amount of thought that must go into your decision before building and developing an estate vineyard and winery. Doing so in Sonoita, Arizona is even more difficult than most areas. Don't rush your decision. Make sure you are asking yourself the really hard questions - we did not. We often wish we had spent more time doing so. Many questions may not have been answerable at the time, but it's important to establish those expectations going into the endeavor.
Location, location, location - it applies in so many ways. There are many opinions (and science) supporting the importance of geographical locations (soils, water, terrain and cold air flow just to mention a few). In Sonoita, you might consider one or two more. Many wineries are clustered together on Elgin Road. This has an enormous marketing effect due to the fact you'll have 100's of cars driving by your winery every weekend. I believe there are more ideal locations but off-the-beaten-path. This will require you to be creative about directing traffic to your location. I'll discuss this topic in later posts.
To venue or not to venue. We over-looked this very important aspect of the business model. Wine is a social event. Additionally, vineyards & wineries are considered very romantic. These factors have a very unique niche and you must consider this in your planning. If you do not, you'll spend significant time and money retrofitting your establishment to support large group events, festivals, dinners, weddings and potential corporate functions. We are now developing areas on site to support these functions at our winery and in our vineyard.
Grow, buy or sell? Vineyards are now producing volumes of high-quality fruit. All three markets are easily supported and welcomed. As we started, the Arizona wine-grape market was non-existent. Wineries were struggling to get the vineyard up and running while supporting the huge capital requirement of establishing your operation. Nowadays, I believe you can build your winery and develop your wine program (by purchasing grapes) while you develop your vineyard. You may even consider remaining in that model once you discover the difficult path of building, growing and maintaining a vineyard in Sonoita, Arizona.
I had no idea! I considered myself to be very savvy about farming and the work associated with it. My family owned and operated very large farms in Colorado. It was back-breaking work as a young man. Large equipment and automation have drastically improved a farmer’s lifestyle…but still very long days: 16-18 hours a day is not uncommon. I once read that 1 acre of grapes equates to 500 acres of traditional farming. That was probably the most accurate statement I came across during my research, but I have determined it to be under-estimated. So just remember, a 15-20 acre vineyard is an enormous undertaking.
Who’s doing the work? Be careful of what you except of yourself. The labor force in Sonoita is extremely limited,you might even say non-existent. Throw into your calculations the needed skilled laborer to run equipment, prune vines, mix and spray herbicides, fungicides and maybe pesticides…and you quickly run out of options. Based on your budget and ‘other’ revenue streams, you’ll find yourself needing to do the work yourself. Although it’s extremely rewarding, it’s the most back-breaking work you’ll probably ever accomplish. Be careful about your expectations. Operating 2-3 acres, producing about 500 gallons of wine and running the business (and all of its facets) can be very doable by yourself. Just beware, if you throw in a vineyard manager, winemaker, tasting room staff, marketing, sales (the list goes on), you'll find your adjusted bottom line unpalatable.
Karyl and I met in Desert Storm. We've been happily married now for 28 years. We are definitely partners in this operation. Karyl is arguably one of the best winemakers and is completely self-taught. She attended the U.C. Davis Winemaking Accreditation course to better her understanding of the intricate details of winemaking. Her engineering degree with loads of chemistry has been very valuable. Although her heart is her best asset, her nose, pallet and creativity has built a respected brand in homes and around dinner tables. She produces a variety of wine styles and, I promise, she has a wine that will satisfy anyone's pallet. She is the heart and soul of WFV having never met a stranger. She feels comfortable talking about anything to anyone.
As for me, I'm a 4th generation farmer. I grew up in Colorado farming with my father, grandfather and for a short period of time, my great grandfather. My father and mother taught me everything I needed to succeed in life - and none of it from a textbook, cell phone or computer. Later, I learned I had a knack with 0's & 1's, so in addition to the farming and manual labor, I've assumed the IT roles around the business as well. You rarely will see me. I like to remain behind the curtain doing my own thing - I guess I'm more of a listener then a talker. My biggest mental stimulation is going to bed physically exhausted excited to start again the next day.
If I was to pinpoint things that Karyl and I lack, it would be understanding the trench work of business marketing and the psychological influences that effect the wine industry. You can't sell wine with just a good product and a smile. There are thousands of brands that are equally as good (and probably less expensive) than a owner-operated boutique farm winery like ours. We have discovered it's all about relationships - a bond between us and our valued customers and members.
We have been asked to document our lessons learned. Hopefully our posts will guide others in making better decisions and avoiding the pitfalls of others. The last 15 years of developing a vineyard and winery has been chocked full of unimaginable experiences. As a family, we've learned a lot about ourselves and the resolve of our character. You gotta have passion! You'll need it to motivate you through every day's good and bad. Like anything else in life, your mistakes will be expenses lessons. Oh yeah, a heavy dose of humor comes in handy from time to time. Just remember, it takes a family to build & operate a farm. It's not a task, it's a process. You pay into the process to reap the rewards of patience, wisdom and success - however you decide to measure it.