January 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

The Start-Up Winery, Part I: meet our subjects

by Jane Firstenfeld
The Start-Up Winery, Part I: meet our subjects
Winemaker Sarah Gottt and owner Marc Cohen celebrated the 2005 crush in decidedly temporary quarters at Cohen's Howell at the Moon Winery on Napa's Howell Mountain.
The allure of the wine country lifestyle is legendary around the world, and more than most, Wines & Vines readers are familiar with that siren call. To one degree or another, you've all succumbed to it and landed yourself in the wine industry. Yet when wannabes confess a burning desire to abandon their careers, move to the country, tend their vines and sell artisan wines out the cellar door, do you encourage them wholeheartedly to follow their dreams? Or do you discreetly roll your eyes and think, "You don't know what you're getting yourself into"?

Whether you inherited your acreage from generations of farming forebears, worked your way up from cellar-rat status or followed the "Green Acres" model of mid-life crisis and went searching for a rural existence you'd never known, you've got to feel a twinge of sympathy for anyone starting out in the wine business today. With land prices inflating to Hindenburg dimensions, government regulations becoming ever more Byzantine and competition from every compass point, starting a boutique winery today might be viewed as more than a trifle foolhardy.

Still, to quote Woody Allen, the heart wants what it wants. Passion will not be denied, and every year, more than a handful of brave souls take heart in hand, lay their money down and take their chances starting new wineries. With that in mind, Wine & Vines will share an in-depth look at two boutique producers just starting the process of constructing physical wineries. We'll follow them throughout the year in a six-part series, and learn their motivations, their challenges, their disappointments and their triumphs along the way.

We hope you'll enjoy this series, as we get to know the principals involved, and what exactly goes into a start-up winery these days. Will it be an inspiration, a cautionary tale or something in-between? We, and our generous subjects, will know in a year.

Meet The New Guys

Unlike casting a reality TV show, where hundreds or thousands of would-be stars compete for exposure, finding a couple of raw start-ups was not as simple as we'd expected. We'd hoped to find two wineries in different areas, but with similar game plans and goals. Our first likely candidate was a producing vineyard in Willamette Valley, Ore. The owners were game, but reluctantly dropped out when financing setbacks postponed their proposed construction.

Luckily, we did locate two that met our criteria, and were willing, even eager, to participate. Both will star construction within the next few months; both are already producing high-end Cabernet Sauvignon in very limited quantities. Both are owned by complete winemaking novices, and both are benefiting from the expertise of more experienced neighbors. One is located in the rapidly developing Woodinville area of Western Washington state; the other amid the elevated company of cult wineries in Napa Valley's Howell Mountain AVA, the valley's smallest appellation.

Howell At The Moon, Napa Valley

Dr. Marc Cohen had a successful urology practice in New York City when he first visited Napa Valley in 1977. "It was at this first visit, after having seen the physical beauty of the valley and vineyards, I felt that someday I could live here, grow grapes and make my own wine," he recalls. Cohen has already demonstrated the patience needed to become a grapegrower: It took more than two decades for his vision to bear fruit, but in August, 2000, he purchased 21 acres of agriculture-zoned land in Angwin, with the express intention of developing a vineyard and winery. In the meantime, Cohen had earned an MBA, the better to compose and execute a business plan for his new enterprise.

Although the property had a small walnut and apple orchard, it had no vineyard--but its neighbors were La Jota Vineyard and Bancroft Ranch. "The close proximity to these world-class vineyards gave me the inspiration to develop my vineyard on this site," says Cohen, who was still living in New York at the time. On the property were a small farmhouse built in 1930 and a house built in 1977. Cohen decided to refurbish the farmhouse for his own residence and rent out the other dwelling until his new venture began to generate income. The doctor did eventually get a bit impatient. Though he's actually released just 25 cases of his 2003 vintage, "I started renovation on the winery on Nov. 1," he reports. The former rental house has since been gutted.

That Howell At The Moon Vineyards and Winery has made it this far is a testament to Cohen's dogged persistence and the virtues of solid preparation. Before buying the property, Cohen hired Madrigal Vineyard Management to help him complete due diligence with water and soil analysis, and Oakville Pump, which performed a four-hour pump analysis that, following lab analysis, proved the property's water and soil were conducive to winegrape growing and free of Pierce's disease and nematodes.

Cohen purchased the property, then hired Albion Surveys to provide topographic mapping for vineyard development under the existing Napa County ordinances. Aerial photography supplemented ground surveys, a process which took several months. The existing 3 acres of orchard were found to be located on land with less than 5% slope, appropriate for immediate conversion to vineyards. A forested, 3-acre parcel on slopes up to 15% would require an Erosion Control and Timber Harvesting Plan, and since it is on the Lake Hennessy watershed, groundwork was forestalled until Apr. 15, 2001. In the meantime, Cohen contracted with Daniel Roberts, Ph.D., known to colleagues as "Dr. Dirt," to perform additional soil analysis and help design the vineyard planting. Roberts' assessment of the vineyard soils was reassuring.

"They are among the best he's seen in the Napa Valley," Cohen boasts. Roberts recommended planting Cabernet Sauvignon clones 191 and 337 on 3309C rootstock at 1.8 x 1m spacing in a northeast to southwest direction. After the seasonal moratorium ended in mid-April 2001, tree cutting and stump removal began. Cohen hired Pina Vineyard Management to oversee and provide all necessary farming services, and in June the vineyard was staked, planted and drip irrigation installed. Cohen had a vineyard.

Whether he would have a winery, however, remained problematic. To help him obtain his use permit, Cohen hired John Webb as his consultant and contracted Lail Design Group to help him through the process, which included hiring Montelli Construction to help design a compliant septic system. Kjeldson, a biological consulting company, was retained to classify the property's seasonal stream and evaluate botanicals and flora to meet established regulations; in March 2002, the application was submitted.

Three months later, the Napa County Board of Supervisors approved an emergency stream setback ordinance that placed a moratorium on projects near streams--including Cohen's. A public hearing on the proposed winery, set for October, drew negative reaction from residents fearing increased traffic. The pro-active Cohen personally invited his close neighbors to his home, with hopes of reassuring them, but only two showed up to learn that he planned no public tasting room and only very limited events. "I found (this) very frustrating and discourteous," he remarks.

Undeterred, he initiated permitting processes on other undeveloped areas of his property, hiring a consulting forester, Mark Stewart, to write a Timber Conversion Plan (TCP). Just after the TCP was submitted, "the rules changed again," Cohen says. Owners within designated watersheds were now required to conduct geotechnical evaluations of site stability. To comply, Cohen hired Fugro West, which completed the studies in May of 2003. A second, 4.5 acre plot was eventually planted in May, 2004.

Fast-forward to 2005. Howell at the Moon (its label features Cohen's Jack Russell terrier, Tyson, howling at the moon) now has 8 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. The first 3.5 acres yielded 2 tons of grapes in 2003, after consulting winemaker Aaron Pott (Quintessa) urged Cohen to drop 70% of the fruit for a more concentrated product. Just 25 cases of the 2003 Cabernet were bottled at nearby Clos Pegase. The 200 cases of 2004 Cabernet were crushed at Fantesca Winery, as were 550 cases in 2005, under the direction of Sarah Gott (ex-Joseph Phelps and Quintessa) who became Howell Mountain's consulting winemaker that year.

To date, development costs for Howell at the Moon surpass $100,000 per acre, not including the original purchase price. We'll break this down more in a future installment.

The Start-Up Winery, Part I: meet our subjects
Co-owner Patrick Smith takes a break at the rented warehouse space housing his yet-to-be named Washington winery, currently doing business as Old Field.
Is It Easier In Washington?

Woodinville, Washington, on the rainy side of the Cascades, is not (yet) known as a grapegrowing area, though it has been for decades the home base of the state's largest winery, St. Michelle Wine Estates, and now has 24 operating wineries. Its proximity to the Seattle metropolis makes it a desirable retail base and wine tourism destination.

Here, Patrick Smith, Kevin Taylor and Dan Farrelli plan to build a yet-to-be named 6,000 square-foot winery on 7.8 hilly acres, one mile south of DeLille Cellars and next door to the new Betz Family Winery. At this writing, the deal had not yet been finalized, although the partners expected to close the transaction by year-end. Smith, a construction contractor, and Taylor, a land developer, brokered the deal themselves. None of the partners has a winemaking background; they were, Smith says, inspired by a "great love of fine wines and good cuisines." Amateur winemakers for years, they share "the same passion and desire to create a winery producing quality wines."

Like Cohen, their focus is on high-end Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Syrah, and they started this year with approximately 2,500 cases, which they produced at a leased Woodinville warehouse, doing business as Old Field Cellars. They plan to increase production to 5,000 cases within the next two to three years, and ultimately to grow toward 10,000 cases, as demand warrants.

Also like Cohen, the Old Field partners have the advantage of helpful and knowledgeable neighbors. Christopher Upchurch, co-owner/partner, winemaker and vineyard manager at nearby DeLille Cellars and Doyenne Cellars, is their consulting enologist and vineyard manager.

The Start-Up Winery, Part I: meet our subjects
Volunteers hand sort purchased grapes for the 2005 crush at Old Field.
"Chris has secured grape contracts for us from some of the oldest and best vineyard sites in Washington's Red Mountain AVA and Yakima Valley AVA," Smith says. "This allows our initial wines to be made from not only the best grapes being grown in Washington, but also very, very mature vineyards, which will make outstanding wines." Although the Old Field team will plant its own vineyards "eventually," these long-term agreements will feed the start-up for the first few years.

Upchurch signed on in August 2005, as did assistant winemaker NaKenge Adisa, a recent graduate of the Walla Walla Community College School of Enology and Viticulture. For the 2005 crush, Old Field purchased about 8 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Sagemoor Farms' 36-year-old Old Block vines and another 8 tons of Cabernet from Kiona Vineyards' Old Block (30-year-old vines). For their Syrah, they purchased 12 tons each from Kiona and Klipson in the Red Mountain AVA and 8 tons from Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley. The wines will be released in late 2007 or early 2008, at prices "commensurate with market comparative values, perceived and real quality; probably around $48-50 for the Cabernet Sauvignon, $40-42 for the Syrah and $30 for the Cabernet/Syrah blend," according to Smith.

Choosing a brand name is high on the partners' agenda. The process has already begun, and should be concluded before our next installment. Marketing consultant Jay Soloff, also of neighboring DeLille Cellars, will work with the in-house staff on compliance filings.

Both of our start-ups plan to begin construction of their physical wineries this winter--Smith assures us that the Washington climate will not hinder the process--and we hope to share the first stages in our March issue. Stay tuned.
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