by Sally Colby
Will and Ashlee Kimberley realize they don’t represent the average upstart vineyard and winery operation. But the young couple had a passion, created a plan and are now operating a successful winery and event center in Inwood, Iowa.
“The difference between our genesis and a lot of other wineries is that the average grower and winery is more of a fun, semi-retirement thing,” said Will. “For us, it’s about starting something when we’re fairly young.”
The couple met when they were horticulture majors at Iowa State University. Will’s first job out of college was in Palm Springs, CA, and Ashlee had an internship in Santa Barbara. “We started going to wineries and became obsessed with wine,” said Will. “Ashlee had the idea to eventually move home and start a vineyard – the idea is just a little older than our marriage.”
As obsessive researchers, Will and Ashlee purchased every book they could find on vineyard production. “Then we got serious about the idea,” said Will, adding that their research started in 2007 and included attending numerous industry conferences and trade shows. “We started working at a small vineyard and winery in Temecula, California, and the owners had us doing everything there. At the same time, we took classes through Des Moines Area Community College.” Will added that it was important to learn viticulture and enology for the area they’d eventually move back to.
As Will worked on a comprehensive business plan, he learned that there were 20 to 30 wine grape varieties that would thrive in the area. Planning the facility and equipment was also part of the couple’s extensive research. Will said their California winery experience helped determine the type and size of bottling equipment they’d need, as well as the size of tanks based on predicted crop yield. “It took us about two and a half years to do the business plan,” he said. “We had detailed equipment lists, variety comparison charts and sales numbers from other wineries willing to share information.” When it was time to present the concept to bankers, Will knew his plan inside and out and could discuss every aspect of it without hesitation.
Another important aspect of the plan for potential lenders was customers’ income levels. “Our core customer is a person who likes to have fun with their spare time,” said Will. “It isn’t that they pull up in a Corvette and spend a lot of money. They come and say ‘We’re going to bring our friends back.’ What we want is repeat, enthusiastic business, and we want people to feel as if we are established when they drive in.”
During the planning process, Will, Ashlee and Ashlee’s sister designed the facility. Will worked out the floor plan and made sure the rooms were sized properly for both drop-in wine tasters and events. “We wanted it all one floor, and I’ve always liked wineries where you can see the production from the tasting room,” said Will. “We figured out the floor plan, then Ashlee found a picture of a cabin in New York and we worked from that. There’s a lot of natural light and wood to make it feel inviting and warm.”
The center of the building is the tasting room and loft, with the event center on one side and the winery on the other. “The tasting room can be used for smaller events but it’s roomy enough for a large crowd,” said Will. “The bar is long and offers ample seating. If a lot of people are waiting in line at a bar, it’s is a turn-off, and we avoid that with a spacious bar.”
Shortly after purchasing the property in early 2010, the couple planted the first vines including Marquette, Brianna, La Crescent, Frontenac and Frontenac Gris. Building construction began in June, and Calico Skies opened for business in 2011.
Because Will and Ashlee wanted to start off immediately as a full-service winery, they had been purchasing juice of the grape varieties they were growing for wine making, along with juice for blueberry and raspberry wines. “We also bought Concord juice from New York,” said Will. “We didn’t want to grow fruit or Concord grapes – we’re buying it because we can get high-quality juice for a good price. We started with about 16,000 bottles.” The vineyard produced the first harvestable crop in 2012, or about half of a mature crop yield.
The couple’s business plan included offering Calico Skies as an event venue from the start. “In the first year, we had 18 weddings,” said Will. “We booked over half of those before the structure was finished.” Will said the event aspect was something they could present to be taken seriously by lenders. “We were trying to establish a living as soon as possible,” he said. “I knew this would never get off the ground if I found a job and we built it slowly until we could quit our jobs.”
The tasting room features wine on tap. “On the day we bottle, we fill kegs with the same wines,” said Will, adding that they started tap service two years ago. “Each keg holds 26 bottles, so we’ve saved well over 5,000 bottles corks and labels. It’s faster, and the quality is the same.” Part of the goal of kegging is to get Calico Skies’ wine into restaurants, which Will said can be challenging for small wineries.
Vineyard management includes diligent mowing to keep weeds down. “Close to veraison, we clean up and put bird netting on,” said Will. “We make the netting very tight and clip it to the middle wire.”
The high bilateral cordon training system works well for the region and varieties. “Vines are trained on the top wire, and the bilateral cordon means we have two trunks below the soil,” said Will. “If one trunk dies over winter, we cut it off at the base and can get a crop from it the next year. So if there are two trunks and one dies, we only lose one year of production from one trunk.”
Will explained that combing the vines is an important aspect of vineyard management. “As they grow, we comb, or detangle, the vines as we pull them down,” said Will. “I teach the workers to pull the vines down on the same side they’re already growing on for a good, defined fruiting zone. The rule of thumb for us is no more than two leaf layers of shade.” Will added that while he’ll remove some leaves, the goal is to be able to see every cluster in the fruiting zone.
While the Kimberleys could live on site, they’ve purposely chosen not to. With two small children, they believe it’s important to separate their home life from their business. “There’s no detachment if we’re here all the time,” said Will. “We’ve had brides who were supposed to show up at 10, but they’re at the gate at six in the morning.”
Some who visit Calico Skies ask Will about starting a winery, but he said he can tell most don’t know what questions to ask. “You have to know every little thing about it,” he said. “Even with that, it’s a hard business. I knew my plan in and out because we spent years on it.”
Visit Calico Skies Vineyard and Winery at www.calicoskieswine.com.
A passion and a plan
by Sally Colby