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Marketing,Wine,Wine Business,Wine Making,Winemaker

What’s Wrong With Just Being a Home Winemaker?

While Jose and I were driving to UC Davis to help Rusty Eddy with his PR in Small Wineries extension class, we were thinking about our experiences with home winemakers who have stepped out of their garages to create a brand ~ with just a passion and no marketing plan…

Jose thought out loud, “What’s wrong with just being a home winemaker?” And I thought, then said, “That’s a great blog topic.”

Why?

Because we seem to have seen it all in the past nearly 20 years… People who come from diverse backgrounds, where they’ve been able to achieve great things, and then – all of a sudden – they want their own wine brand. They’ve fallen in love with making wine, and have decided to make a career change.

I’m not talking about the rich guys here, who want a trophy brand so that when they go into the city, their wine is on a prestigious wine list. I know of one instance where the owner all but gave his wine to a very high profile restaurant just to get it on the list, so he’d have bragging rights to impress his friends over dinner.

I’m talking about hard working people who have achieved some success in another profession, and have a passion for turning grape juice into a fermented beverage that they can enjoy at dinner… Much like a great knitter who loves to turn out sweaters.

One 60-gallon barrel of wine produces 24 cases of wine. That’s… 24 cases X 12 bottles/case = 288 bottles.

That’s less than one bottle a day for a 365 days in a year, so that should do it for what you, your immediate family, and friends will consume. So, let’s make two barrels of wine – a red and a white wine. That’s 576 cases a year. What you don’t personally enjoy, you can gift for special occasions. You’re still not losing an arm or a leg, and you’re still having a blast.

I’ve got a friend who only makes wine to give away to his friends… one barrel each year, and it’s worked for him for all the years I’ve known him. He’s also one of the most happy, upbeat people I know. He’s always smiling, always loving life, and his glass is always half full, if not completely full.

For those wanting to segue into the wine business, create a marketing plan b-e-f-o-r-e you jump off the diving board; because for you, the pool’s only got about six inches of water in it. Unless you know the trick for landing in a hydroplaning way, you’re going to hit bottom pretty hard and very fast.

Jose and I have seen it over-and-over again… The passion’s there, they’re making great wine, but the playing field for their new brand just isn’t level.

Unless you’ve got a super-duper sales person connected to the oligopoly Big Three superpower wholesalers, you’ve now become a one-man-band (against those odds)… After you’ve made your wine, you need to visit every single restaurant and wine shop in your area, work each account diligently, and get them all placed.

Then, once that’s done, you’ve got to spread out your circle of influence with each new wine placement. Be prepared to work that five days a week, dining at their establishments over the weekends (pouring the money you’ve made from this account right back into them), while still attending to all your wine’s needs in your cellar/garage. The odds are heavily stacked against you; but then, I was told by many an interviewer that I’d never make it in the wine business, too.

Why I made it is because I was willing to do anything, and I mean anything legally honest and humble, to make it in this industry. If you’re not tenacious to a fault, you’ve not got the stamina; unless if you have the resources, because money can buy (almost) anything.

No amount of PR is going to solve your problems, because it’s not the PR that ultimately counts (however good it may be, and it may be really good). It’s in the ability to get the wine sold into on and off-premise accounts.

  • On-premise is where the wine is consumed on the premises.
  • Off-premise is when the wine is purchased to go home or to a party to be enjoyed.

My PR and marketing advice to you home winemakers, who want to take your hobby into the world of mercantilism:

  • W-r-i-t-e that marketing plan, before you do anything else.
    • Hire someone in the wine business, if you haven’t studied marketing extensively.
    • Marketing 101 doesn’t qualify you to see all of the upcoming challenges you’ll face; but, someone in the business knows where the pitfalls and the potholes lie.
  • Stick with your plan, no matter what…
    • Even if it means throwing in the towel, because it’s just not working after three, four, or five years…
    • Go back to making it for fun… Where it all got started.
  • Be prepared to spend a large fortune to have it return as only a small one.
    • Yes, you’re going to have tremendous losses.
    • So, you’d better have great reserves.
  • Be prepared to be patient to a fault, because you’re going to need more fortitude than you ever imagined.

Turning any hobby into a business takes a lot of passion and time; and in the wine business, it also takes a boatload of money to actually pull it off… So, think about that one really hard. And put away some peanut butter and jelly in your food pantry, along with some humble pie, because you’re going to be eating a lot of both in the first few years.

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8 Responses to “What’s Wrong With Just Being a Home Winemaker?”

  1. Chris says:

    Great Article Jo, and since you survived drinking one of my homemade wines, I appreciate you covering this topic.

    One thing I’ll mention is that your unit of a 60 gallon barrel is much larger than most home winemakers start with, at least the ones I know. We’re all using 5 gallon glass carboys as a standard “lot” size, some times as low as one gallon jugs. I have a blend of a half dozen 5’s, a 6, a couple of 3’s, and a couple of 1’s.

    I’m on my third vintage and next year hope to diversify to 3-4 varietals, reds and whites, and will vinify in 5-15 gallon lots. Oaking is done via chips when desired. They also make smaller, though still expensive, charred oak barrels as small as a few gallons. For me, glass carboys are easier for sanitation, transportation and racking purposes.

    I’ve considered doing oak barrels, but for home winemaking the philosophy I follow is its better to ruin a 5 gallon batch than your whole vintage if in one pot.

    I don’t ever have any real desire to ever go commercial, but if I did I agree wholeheartedly that doing the market research and having a solid plan AHEAD of the investment is paramount.

  2. What I’d like to see happen is commercial winemakers get away from being so uptight about home winemakers. We work with them all at Thomson Vineyards and it gets on my last nerve when commercial winemakers make disparaging remarks about the “seriousness” of home winemakers, or question home winemakers chemistry analysis. The Farmer’s favorite clients for the past 10 years have been a batch of home winemakers out of Orinda called The Ferminators. These guys are all pharma/chemical engineers and could tap dance around most commercial winemakers in the labs. They are also French, Algerian, Spanish and the like so they’ve got that going for themselves as well – for what it’s worth, if you subscribe to the French and Spanish have been doing it for a hell of a lot longer than we have in California.

    I’ve started putting the homewinemakers wine in as ringers at blind tastings and in spring barrel sample tastings amongst our commercial clients and it’s fascinating to see what goes on…

    It is discouraging to attend events like the SF Vintners Market, be talking to a vintner and learn that their homewinemaking hobby turned into a business. 99.9% answer with a furrowed brow that they sadly are not making any money and in fact loosing money – when I ask, “So, how’s it REALLY going – are you profitable?”

    I personally think there are too many custom crush mongers out there devaluing the process of what it takes to make wine, giving people the wrong impression about just how hard it is to make and sell your own wine. Here, let my designer design you a label. Here let this “consulting winemaker” one of four we have on staff “consult” with you on your wine. Here, look at how many of our “winemakers” have 92 points and have sold out of their 24 cases.

    Appreciative of the post – gosh, isn’t I-80 such a great road to come up with blog topics on? I particularly love the causeway…

  3. Jo Diaz says:

    Great weighing in, Chris. Your wine was delicious, as I remember it.

  4. Jo Diaz says:

    Thomson Vineyards,

    Very fascinating… I love when someone with your background has continuing opinions from learned facts.

    Yes, it is discouraging to see these home winemakers trying so hard to sell their cases. It should be easy, given the love they’ve put into it.

    I-80 is a great place to come up with topics… LOL

  5. Chris says:

    As a ChemE, I appreciate Thomson Vineyards comments too.

    As it relates to marketing and wineselling, I’m reminded of a joke about engineers.

    What do engineers use for birth control?

    Their personality!

  6. Jo Diaz says:

    Chris… love it!

    Sorry all you nerdies… I’m probably one, too, so I totally get it.

  7. Arthur says:

    Being a home wine maker allows you to extract from the project a fortune roughly equal to the one you put into it.

  8. Jo Diaz says:

    Arthur… As mom used to say, you’ll get out of it what you put into it… ;^)

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