Wine - Making It Personal

Dig in and taste the winemaker’s life

Would-be winemakers harvest syrah grapes during a half-day workshop at Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles.

Even before he and his wife moved into their Palm Springs house a couple years ago, Dennis White planned a vineyard on the 3/4-acre property. Today he’s tending nearly 200 cabernet, merlot, barbera, and sangiovese vines and replacing the table grapes he first planted (for testing purposes) with zinfandel. “Within the next year, we will have a large garage built for barrel storage,” he says. “In about two years, we are wine tasting.”

Passionate about wine since a trip to Napa six years ago, White and his wife frequently visit the closer viticultural area of Temecula. “We meet and talk with winemakers and people who work the vineyards,” he says. Last summer, he worked with a viticulturalist at one winery for a month.

White bought rootstock on the Internet and invested a little less than $2,000 for the plants, trellis and watering systems, and shade cloth. He’s amazed at the depth of advice and support he’s received from people in the business. Wineries in Temecula and near Julian have offered to crush his grapes.

You don’t have to grow your own grapes to taste the romanticized winemaking lifestyle. If you want to play winemaker for a day, check with individual wineries. Many offer hands-on events (typically for wine club members) that include harvesting grapes and blending your own wine. Wine Boot Camp of Sebastapol offers daylong workshops in Paso Robles, Napa, and Sonoma.

Maybe you want to be a vineyard owner but want to keep your hands clean. Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma County allows you to buy a row of grapes in a vineyard adjacent to the winery. About 80 of the 100 rows have been sold at $2,000 a piece to people from as far away as France and Japan. The 11-acre vineyard is planted with syrah, grenache, mouvedre, counoise, and viognier grapes that will be made into a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-style blend. “It gives people access, and it also creates a very interesting network of people,” says Mary Colhoun, who owns Landmark with her husband, Michael. The Friends can view production and enjoy the harvest party, but harvest and blending responsibilities fall to the winemaker. “The winemaker is the one best suited to decide when the grapes are ripe and what makes for the best blend,” Colhoun says, pointing out that the Friends want top-quality wine by a recognized winemaker. Each member will be able to buy up to five cases, each bottle bearing a label with their name or other chosen designation. A dozen of the Friends will visit the Rhône region of France with the Colhouns in April.

Another opportunity comes with amenities such as a championship golf course, fruit and olive orchards, a state-of-the-art winery, and the picturesque Andes in view of your window. Algodon Wine Estates in Mendoza, Argentina, is selling 300 new home sites of approximately 2.5 acres for $50,000. Development plans include a polo field and equestrian center, tennis stadium, and luxury hotel. Buyers will own the wine produced on the land, with bottles personally labeled. Without purchasing property, however, you can buy a barrel of wine from Algodon. Prices start at $4,000, and barrel owners receive two complimentary nights at the estates to taste the wine after its initial aging.

By its fifth harvest this fall, San Francisco-based Crushpad had helped 5,000 people make wine — providing the grapes and all the equipment to crush, ferment, and bottle the wine. This year, Crushpad clients filled more than 1,600 barrels. Typically, families and friends share the cost, ranging from $5,700 to $10,900 per barrel (300 bottles). Crushpad sources grapes from 50 vineyards in California, Oregon, and Washington, and clients can choose their level of involvement in the winemaking process. They can even create a brand and sell it through Crushpad Commerce.

Temecula Valley Winery Management offers a different business model. Alternating proprietorship is the answer for people who want to produce and sell wine but don’t want to own a vineyard, open a winery and tasting room, or deal with regulatory issues, says Executive Director Patrick Bartlett. “Our building enables you to come in and use the coop program to license your winery as a sole entity,” he explains. “You are making your own wine through our program.”

Founded by Leonesse Cellars and Stage Ranch Farms of Temecula, TVWM assists winemakers with everything from grape growing to branding — and is developing a coop tasting room in Old Town Temecula. The company has almost 10 members and expects that number to double a year from now. “[Alternating proprietorship] is one of the fastest-growing businesses in the country,” Bartlett says. “It’s an affordable luxury.”

Affordability aside, Bartlett says that to be viable a winery of this type needs to produce between 400 and 500 cases. From inception to market, that costs between $90,000 and $100,000. “That’s where it starts breaking for them,” Bartlett says, adding that it typically takes three years to realize a profit.

All of these options cost a lot less than the millions it takes to open a traditional winery. And, as White succinctly puts it, “It’s fun.”

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