Growing & Winemaking


Wannabe Winemaker Thinks Ahead

February 2009
by Cari Noga
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Ira Kreft (right) helps load clusters of Chardonnay into the press at L. Mawby Vineyards.

  • At age 50, a Chicago man is working to realize his dream of becoming a winemaker.
  • In addition to taking classes and completing internships, Kreft hopes to buy vineyard land this year.
  • While some say winery ownership is a stretch for a relatively new winemaker, this entrepreneur thinks his experience is a good platform for financial success.
While the financial industry was awash in bad news last fall, Chicago investment manager Ira Kreft found himself washing lugs 300 miles from his office. At age 50, he was participating in an internship of sorts--two unpaid, self-solicited weeks of hard harvest labor in two northern Michigan wineries--experiences intended to help him transition from the world of finance to vineyards and wineries.

Kreft is a wannabe winemaker. At age 12, he put a bottle of wine on his Christmas list. (Santa obliged, and Kreft was allowed supervised sips.) Years ago, working as an accountant, when it fell to him to organize a company tour of a production plant, he picked St. Julian, Michigan's largest winery. A friend formerly in finance now owns a winery in Oregon. And a few years ago Kreft and his wife, Anne, started considering opening a winery as both a way to return to their native Michigan and build a desirable second career.

"I'm a high-energy guy and not the total retiring type. I don't want to just be an investor/owner. I like the hands-on aspect of it and trying to create something," said Kreft, who's now managing director and regional manager for RBS Business Capital.

With CPA and MBA credentials, plus more than two decades working in finance and accounting, Kreft feels well-prepared on the business front. Now in the second year of a five-year plan designed to transition him into winemaking, however, he needs to ratchet up his technical skills. The October 2008 internships at two Leelanau County, Mich., wineries were key pieces in his self-designed winemaker curriculum.

"We're giving him all the scut work," joked Larry Mawby of L. Mawby Vineyards, where Kreft spent one of his weeks. To that end, Kreft washed out lugs. At his other internship site, Shady Lane Cellars, just a mile down the road from Mawby, he made the lunchtime pizza run for the picking crew, drove a forklift--and washed out more lugs.

But he also sampled juice for pH, Brix, and TA. He prepared yeast for fermentation. He racked white wines and inoculated them with yeast. He completed tasting "homework," offering his opinions on Shady Lane's Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. He did some labeling and tracked inventory movement.

His supervising winemakers, both veterans, praised his work. In the business for 30 years, Mawby now specializes exclusively in sparkling wines, producing about 8,000 cases annually.

"It's a very rewarding occupation to grow grapes and make wine, but it's work, too," he said. "You don't want people to go into it without some real sense of what they're getting into."

After a week of observing, Mawby thinks Kreft will do fine.

"He's interested in wine, engaged in the process, willing to do what it takes to get things done," Mawby said.

Shady Lane winemaker Adam Satchwell also praised Kreft as being "incredibly bright, incredibly eager and passionate." But he thinks going from greenhorn to head winemaker and owner in five years will be a challenge.

"Ira is probably better prepared than most people to make that transition," said Satchwell, who's been a head winemaker since 1991 and is now making his ninth vintage at Shady Lane.

After five years, Satchwell--who watched three other more traditional interns "wash out" of the field--said he'd be happy to hire Kreft as part of a winemaking team. After a few more years, he would be well positioned to lead one. But jumping into owner/winemaker is another thing entirely.

"He'll have his work cut out for him. Anybody would. You need time in the trenches," said Satchwell, who earned a bachelor's degree in enology in 1984 from the University of California, Davis, where Kreft now is pursuing an online program. Taking one class per semester, he's on track to earn his winemaking certificate in spring 2010.

Perhaps giving him a leg up in the trenches is the fact that preparation and deliberation are instinctive to Kreft. Foreseeing a lot of heavy lifting during his two weeks of harvest work, last July he increased the weightlifting portion of his regular workout. When he found out there was a waiting list for the critical wine production class in the Davis program, he passed the time by taking a college chemistry course in Chicago. He reads constantly, signing up for industry e-mail newsletters, Googling grape press manufacturers.

He networks tirelessly. Though he was barely acquainted with Mawby and had never even met Satchwell, he still proposed the internships. A conversation with the operating partner at Two Lads, a Michigan winery that just opened in 2007, led him to a business plan written by a Cornell graduate student, from which Kreft can sift ideas.

Another connection led to a conversation with the president of Michigan's Chateau Chantal, who suggested Kreft start making wine pronto, rather than wait until after his wine production class at UC Davis. Kreft took the advice. He bottled his first wine from a kit in July 2008 and took the next step, starting from grapes in October, at a do-it-yourself Chicago winemaking and brewing supplier.

"I like to learn from as many people as I can," he said.

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Ira Kreft (left) works sulfur dioxide through Pinot Noir must under the guidance of Jay Briggs, vineyard manager for Suttons Bay, Mich.-based Shady Lane Cellars.
He's also endlessly posit ive. When the Chicago DIY winemaking supplier mistakenly sold some of his grape varieties to another customer, requiring him to settle for frozen must instead, he shrugged it off. Nor has he let his Chicago location daunt him. He travels frequently to Michigan and looks for other opportunities, like a wine chemistry workshop at Missouri State University that he tacked onto a business trip to St. Louis.

"It's just trying to adapt, be flexible and find ways to do this," he said.

If he's really going to do it, however, and achieve his goal of a 4,000-5,000 case winery, Kreft needs to start applying his knowledge and begin making decisions. Getting some grapes in the ground is key, since winegrape demand currently outpaces supply in Michigan.

"It will be important to get some acreage and get some fruit planted," Kreft said. "You're going to need the fruit before you can do anything."

Once he has the land, Kreft must decide what kind of grapes to plant. He also needs to decide on a business model. Among the choices: a "classic" like both Shady Lane and Mawby, where grapes and tasting room are on-site. An urban winery, where he would contract with a grower for the grapes, is another choice. A mixed model, where he would own a vineyard that would be off-site from the winery, is a third.

"It's not going to be analysis paralysis, but you really have to think things through," Kreft said.

Right now, Kreft knows he prefers not to live at the winery site. This year he hopes to buy vineyard property and a home for himself and Anne. They're contemplating selling their suburban Chicago home--they also have a downtown condo--and buying one in northern Michigan to establish a local base.

Kreft has potential investors lined up, as well as some of his own savings. He figures it would take at least $750,000 to get up and running.

"You can always spend more money on things," he said.

Also this year, he will intern at two Oregon wineries and continue his UC Davis classes.

Cari Noga is a freelance writer based in Traverse City, Mich. She has covered Michigan's wine industry since 1999. Contact her through
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