Grape growers move into the wine business
When vineyardists own the winery, they can control grape prices.
Mike Miller is the owner of Airport Ranch outside of Sunnyside, where his family has been farming wine grapes since the late 1970s, and also the owner of Airfield Estates. Miller started the winery in 2005.
Dick Olsen and his brother Larry founded Olsen Estates in 2006. They started the winery to bring some recognition to their vineyards at Olsen Brothers Farm.
|Growing wine grapes isn't always easy, and many growers are finding the best way to get their just reward is not to sell their fruit to someone else. Instead, more and more growers are finding the best way to ensure their vineyards get the recognition they work hard for is by opening their own estate wineries.|
Of the 11 wineries that make up the Port of Benton's Vintner's Village in Prosser, Washington, nearly half of them were created by families with a long history in wine grape growing.
Brothers Dick and Larry Olsen, owners of Olsen Brothers Farm, have been growing their own grapes since 1972. It wasn't until 2006, more than 30 years later, that they started their own winery, Olsen Estates, and created their first vintage.
Dick Olsen, who is a founding member of the Washington Wine Commission, said the family has a long history with wine. His grandmother had a heart problem and was told by her doctor that drinking a glass of wine a day would help. So his grandfather, Martin Olsen, bought a book on winemaking and started making wine in the family's cellar.
"My dad said it was actually pretty good," Dick said.
So instead of the wine simply being a tonic for his grandmother, it quickly became a family favorite.
With that history in mind, they planted their first commercial vineyard in the early 1980s, starting with 36 acres of Riesling.
Originally, the family planted wine grapes as a way to make use of old apple orchard land because if new apple trees are planted where apple trees were previously grown, there's the risk of apple replant disease.
It wasn't long before six wineries were buying grapes from Olsen Brothers Farms, but it was just two and half years ago that the family started thinking about taking their own grapes, growing them their own way, and putting them into their own wine.
Olsen said they saw the winery as a way to gain recognition for Olsen Brothers Farm. Anything that the winery does brings attention to the farm and their grapes.
The winery started production in 2006 and opened a tasting room at Vintner's Village the following year. It bottles wine under two different labelsOlsen Hills and Olsen Estates. Dick said the Olsen Hills label offers quality wine to consumers at a reasonable price, while the Olsen Estates label is used for the winery's best offerings.
For Martin Olsen, the winery manager, having the family make the wine as well as grow the grapes has other benefits. It allows the vineyard manager and viticulturist, his cousin Leif Olsen, to work hand-in-hand with the winemaker to grow grapes that will produce the best flavor for Olsen Estates wines.
Martin said many growers have contracts with wineries based on tonnage, meaning the more fruit they grow on the vine, the more they get paid.
"We're only going to grow enough fruit on that plant to give us the highest quality fruit for the winery," Martin Olsen said. Since they own the winery and the vineyard, the tonnage doesn't matter as much as making sure they are growing the highest quality fruit they can, he added.
Martin said overseeing both operations also means that after they finish creating a vintage, they can taste it and try to figure out what they can do to make it betterboth in the winery and the vineyard.
Mike Miller, owner of Airport Ranch in Sunnyside and Prosser's Airfield Estates, also likes the control that comes with owning both a winery and the vineyard that serves it. For Miller, it's the financial control that means the most. He said being in charge of both the supply and demand side of the business means he controls the price he gets for the wine grapes he uses at his winery.
As a farmer, no matter what the product, you usually have no way of controlling what price you get, and there can be times you ultimately sell your product for below cost, he pointed out. Being both the grower and winery owner means he can control costs in his vineyard and the price of the end producta price he tries to keep reasonable to ensure his wines have a large audience.
Miller started his winery, located in the Port of Benton Vintner's Village, in 2005 with a small batch of red wines created by his son, winemaker Marcus Miller, using equipment at Willow Crest Winery. In 2006, they started making a full stable of wines, and in 2007, they created their first vintage at their current location on Merlot Drive in Prosser.
Miller said even though he owns the winery, he still thinks of himself as a farmer. That doesn't mean he isn't involved with happenings at the winery. In fact, he can often be found in his office at the Prosser facility.
Getting into the winery business has been nerve wracking, Miller said, adding that the start-up costs were huge and it's always stressful trying to get a business off the ground in an industry you're not entirely familiar with. But things have started evening out, and he's thankful his wines have been well received.
Ryan Pennington, spokesperson for the Washington Wine Commission, said that although the commission has no hard data on the number of wine grape growers who are venturing out into winery ownership, it's definitely something he sees happening more and more across the state.
As America's wine consumption continues to increase, he expects to see more and more wineries sprouting up, and he said it makes sense that a lot of those wineries will be owned by grape growers.
"It's a logical step for producers to expand vertically."
For Dave Minick of Willow Crest Winery, opening his winery was less of a business move and more of a lifelong dream. Minick said his father first planted wine grapes in 1982, when Minick was about 15 years old. By the time he was 17, he knew he wanted to make wine one day.
It took Minick a while to realize his ultimate dream. Instead, he continued his family's grape-growing tradition, growing fruit for various wineries. It wasn't until 1995 that Minick started Willow Crest Winery, using his own grapes to create wine.
"I do it more because I want people to enjoy what I'm doing," Minick said. When he first started, the winery took a lot of his time, he said. It was a huge risk, but it was a risk that has paid off.