So you want to make your own wine? Everybody’s doing it. Look, that hip instagrammer over there has their own wine, why can’t I?
Well, you can. More and more young ambitious wine enthusiasts are breaking in their own pair of Blundstones, sourcing a ton or two of grapes and creating their own brand. Voila! But is it that simple?
There has been an increase in new wines and brands popping up as more and more people decide to try their hand. Technology and the increase in availability of custom crush facilities has made starting out more accessible for the small winemaker. The allure of striking out on your own and the romantic notion of the world of wine is a potent combination.
What is not so obvious is that making wine is a business. And while the process of making it and creating a brand might fuel one’s creative needs, the other 85% of it all is sales. Not quite so glamorous, right?
The idea of the starving artist is like a pile of misery, wrapped up in this pretty packaging that creatives are supposed to want. While the reality of living it just sucks. Regardless of how minimally you may choose to live, there needs to be a way to support your life and your work. And the stress of not having that means can sometimes be motivating, but is often damaging to the long term creative process. So the reality is: If you are going to make art, whatever form it takes, you are going to need to figure out how to sell it. Rare are the people who can afford to have a passion project that may or may not have a return.
A small business is generally a long term investment. You start out with initial capitol and credit, often going in to a planned amount of debt with an estimate on a rate of return. Often, a lot the money that goes into the business is your own sweat equity. Which means that you may put in a lot of hours, and a lot of your own money in addition to whatever you calculated as the business’s capitol, and not take a paycheck for a long time. When you do take that paycheck, it may not be comparable to what your income might have been if you were working the same position for someone else. Many businesses take at least 5-10 years before they can see black on the books. Some longer. Some never quite reach past the red, or are always flirting with it. Many fail. It’s an investment into a risk, not unlike a stock or a gamble.
In wine, this is true and may even get more complicated. While in a retail business, the stock you buy and where it comes from and what you can charge for it may stay steady from year to year- in wine, you cannot control the weather. Even if you are buying grapes rather than growing them yourself, the cost of goods from year to year may vary based on major events in the growing season or during harvest.
The demand of the consumer is one you have to anticipate 18 months or even several years ahead. But you only have one shot every year to make wine. So if the consumer demand has shifted one summer from the year before and suddenly less people want to buy the kind of wine that you chose to make, you can’t make a quick turn around on making a product that will satisfy the consumer. You have a wine that you have to figure out how to sell despite consumer demand.
If the opposite happens and suddenly what you have is popular, you can’t suddenly come up with more wine. What you have is what you have. It’s one shot.
One solution to this is to make the kind of product that you are going to care about. Make something that you are passionate enough about that selling it is a little easier. Care a little less about what’s popular. But there is a balance here. You still have to sell it somehow.
It’s a long game. Especially financially. There are expenses that go out of the business for the process of making wine. What the grapes cost, use of custom crush facilities, barrels, labels, labor, lab testing, glassware, tanks, etc. Then, don’t forget the cost of travel for sales trips and events. Once the product begins to sell, there is still a lag time for when the income will hit the bank. All of those upfront costs have to be taken care of somehow. And it isn’t from the money that is about to come in. It’s from the previous year, or more loans, or investments, etc. Not to mention that a business owner still needs to take care of their own personal bills. Theoretically, you still have to pay rent and buy groceries, and all of the other things you would be doing if some other guy was giving you a regular pay check. So in March, when you’re on the road, footing the bill for flights and hotel rooms on a sales route, and you haven’t yet seen any return on the wine you made last fall- and definitely paid for already, you have to have planned ahead from last year for the income you are going to need now. It’s not a paycheck to paycheck kind of business.
All of this isn’t to say that if you want to make your own wine that you shouldn’t give it a go. That’s not it. Making wine can be a lot of fun and can create a lot of joy. And the community that makes wine can be truly fantastic people to be around. Just don’t forget that it’s a business. A business where the fun stuff maybe takes up 30% of your time and then all of the mechanics that you need to do to make that fun happen take up the other 70%. So you have to really want it.
A lot of the small wineries that have been popping up in the last couple of years probably wont last that long. And not because they aren’t successful. There are likely going to be some wine makers who learn that they want to spend more time in the vineyard or in the cellar at someone else’s winery. Where they can make a more comfortable living, rather than continuing to grind it out on their own.
While it may look beautiful and glamorous to build a wine business, it is good to know that there a lot of moments along the way that aren’t so instagrammable. It can get dirty and gross, and tiring, and it can be hard to find the labor you need, or you can run into staff drama. It’s just like any other job in some ways. It can also be incredible and rewarding and just plain fun- if you love it. I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving their dream a try. I’ve certainly had the pleasure of imbibing many winemaker’s dreams. So tasty.
One of the things to consider then, is if having your own business in wine is going to be 100% of your focus, or if it is going to be something you might do as a passion project on the side. Are you going to work part time for another winemaker? Would that mean on missing out on other opportunities within that winery? Is making one ton of grapes at a time for a harvest going to be a fun thing for you and your friends? Are you going to expect to make a living from going out on your own? None of these is a right or wrong answer. You get to decide what’s right for you. And- you get to change your mind if it doesn’t work out.
So now, ask yourself, do you still want it? Would it be worth it to try and not have it work out the way you wanted? If the answer is still yes, I hope you make something that brings you joy, and that you can have fun throughout the whole process. And also, I will be happy to taste test it for you.