by Steve Wagner
Questions like the one asked in the title force the would-be vintner to take stock, to self-assess and examine motivations; in short, to come to grips with an occupation or hobby that will require un-decanted chunks of time, and which will either cost you money or provide a profit. Maybe that is why vineyard consultant Joyce Rigby inserted the word ‘really’ into her topic title. Do you really want to undertake a project like this? Or are you simply flirting with a notion? Rigby’s life has centered mostly on viticulture but, being degreed as an industrial engineer as well, she also designs wineries.
Her first questions were “What is your vision? Why do you want a vineyard?” That being asked, Rigby confessed she always tries to talk people out of it because that’s how she discovers the actual level of their interest. More questions serve to make any wine wannabe truly think about it. “Are you going to be the one who is the laborer, or will you hire labor?”
From there, Rigby went on to explore your existing resources such as land and equipment. If you are in a similar business, that can be a plus. In other words it is easier to become a viticulturist if you have an orchard business, because you have an understanding of pruning and spraying. Do you have money or are you going to tap investors? And what about consultants: Will you use them, or not? All of these questions call for research and education. You must be aware of what is grown in your area, of what sells.
“You need also to have an attitude for quality and success,” Rigby stressed. “That starts with a passion for this business. The ones who make the best wines live it, they breathe it, it is always on their mind, and it’s a career, not a job.”
Rigby says it is always nice to get contracts and to create a long-term partnership with a winery. That is probably your main goal. If you want to own a winery, you get 100 percent of the dollar value of your wine at your outlet. If you have to sell it to a wholesaler, it’s going to be at 50 percent. “In Pennsylvania, we don’t even have that choice,” said Rigby, and went on to explain, “the PA Liquor Control Board pretty much determines everything. They don’t buy many Pennsylvania wines for resale because they are so huge; we don’t have huge Pennsylvania wines that can supply their market. In recent years, they have started to implement a more reasonable approach whereby a local PA winery can get their product into state stores.”
On the other side of the coin, you can have five retail outlets that you own which is more than in North Carolina. The adage ‘location, location, location,’ bears consideration. Are you near an interstate or what are known as wine trails (other wineries scattered or clustered in a doable proximity)? “You need to know how many frost-free days you’re going to have before you decide to plant cabernet sauvignon, Rigby cautions, recommending such topics as part of any homework or research you do.
In her capacity as a consultant, Rigby makes it clear that she refuses “to work with anyone who does not have a business plan. If they don’t know how to do it, I will help them. Once you do that, it is all on paper. You can see what your bottom line is and you can play with the numbers.” Aside from using a business plan to outline wine possibilities, you need the business plan to take to a bank. Examples of business plans are available online, a few of them at Cornell University. Former wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill often needed advice and would instruct those from whom he was seeking such insights to “tell me, on one side of a sheet of paper,” whatever he wanted to know. Rigby adds, “If you don’t catch your investor with that one page, they won’t read any further.”
If you decide that viticulture might be for you, another snippet of lore worth learning is that, like every other undertaking, there are seasons to all things. When winter freezes the ground, how are you expected to pound posts into it? “You’ve got to do it the year before,” Rigby advises, “or in early spring before you plant.” There; look at the money you just saved by paying attention to a consultant, instead of having to learn by trial and error.
“Pest management is how we take care of insects, diseases, deer, birds, all pests,” Rigby said, “and weeds. Weeds are pests as well. There is water management, if you choose to engage in some kind of irrigation. And there is nutritional management.” If you put these all together and manage it in such a way that you have good airflow in your trellises, you can truthfully call it Integrated Pest Management.
Are you really ready to start a vineyard?
by Steve Wagner
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