Among the most important questions a start-up winery owner needs to ponder is who will make the wine. Should it be the winery owner or investor? A hired winemaker? Or a consultant?
Those were the questions posed by Caleb Foster, co-owner and winemaker at Buty Winery, Walla Walla, Washington, during the recent annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
Foster knows a bit about all three strategies. He’s an owner/winemaker, has hired a consultant, and has worked as a hired winemaker for other wineries. Since most start-up wineries begin at the 500-case level, Foster limited his remarks to the smaller enterprise. Buty (pronounced "beauty"), for example, started with 20 barrels at a custom-crush facility and grew slowly to 100 barrels. Today, Foster has a part-time assistant winemaker, and Buty Winery sells about 2,200 cases a year.
Winemakers understand fruit quality; they know the chemistry involved in the process, and the equipment needed. For small winemakers, it’s all very hands on and time consuming, but small wineries also have to figure out how to sell their product, Foster said.
"It’s a cold world out there," he said. "Competition is huge worldwide. Your mission is to make a great wine as your first wine."
Selling in a tasting room is easier than selling over the Internet, in wine shops, restaurants, or other locations, Foster said. In some cases, another wine has to get bumped in order to find shelf space for a newcomer, and that can be tough.
Small winemakers often find there’s not enough time in the day to make wine and make all the other decisions necessary for the winery to move forward. Foster estimated that 50 percent of his time is spent on sales. As a winery grows, the owner-winemaker often needs to give up some responsibilities, and sometimes dislikes decisions made by others. "Good winemakers are artists," said Foster, explaining that that opens the door for disagreements on quality. So even with agreed-upon goals, an owner needs a winemaker who can deliver, he said. Today, winemakers are scarce, and sometimes a winery will have to hire someone else’s winemaker, which, in turn, means that a hired winemaker could leave for another winery.
Foster recommended using a custom-crush facility at start-up, even with a hired winemaker. He also recommended finding a mentor. In Foster’s case, he turned to industry veteran Zelma Long of Healdsburg, California, to consult with Buty. Long has helped by providing honest assessments, from vineyard to sales, which have helped him set priorities, Foster said.
Foster believes the time is right for the Washington wine industry. The state still has relatively inexpensive vineyard land, compared with other wine-producing regions of the world. The state has good growers who produce some of the finest fruit in the world, and, despite some tough international competition, there is good access to customers. The state is attracting attention for premium wines. Foster said. "There are good opportunities in Washington State’s wine industry."