Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Prone to Experiment

( Pinot Noir fermenting.)

I get asked all the time “when are you going to open your own winery?” Well, I’m not sure, and maybe never.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, launching your own winery is capital intensive, weather dependent with dynamic cash flows. You start (and start over if you work in another industry like me) poor and can’t expect to do better than be comfortable in the long run. Oh, and you work all the time. Those are the truths and realities that every small winery owner has shared with me when I ask about it. There are options in bringing investors on or ramping up production of average quality plonk and trying to grab market share with it, but neither offer the owner anymore true benefits and of course come with their own headaches. All of this amounts to a potentially scary leap, but one that I would take when and if the time was right.

The bigger reason, and it is one I have come to more recently, that I haven’t made this leap yet is because I tend to be very “creative” in my beverage making. I am prone to experiment, and that isn’t as bankable as developing a line of products that you can make consistently and develop a following for. That’s not to say my tendencies aren't bankable, but the path to growth is more difficult when you are mixing it up all the time. Right or wrong many potential customers want to become familiar with your products so that they may return to them frequently, and distribution channels are going to look to place orders for successful products consistently. With my experimental bent that isn’t going to be so easy.

( The krausen on a Wit beer. )

I’m not bothered by any of this. Why? Because I have fun doing what I do without the commercial hangups. Here is a perfect example. Every Spring I pick dandelions in Vermont. This year I have two experimental batches going, one a wine and the other a mead. Both batches were made with new or modified recipes so they are by no means sure things. The safety of the small batch is on my side, and I learn a lot this way; so I keep doing it. It is worth noting that dandelion wine isn’t as commercially viable as other types of both standard and non-standard wines due to labor intensive processes, and it isn’t a fan favorite either.

This wide open experimentation is simply me riffing on the inspiration I get form a variety of sources. Commercial tastings are great source of inspiration; new styles and flavors tend to stick with me. Any time spent with the homebrew club I joined in 2011 is guaranteed to expose me to new techniques, styles and provide lots of opportunity for feedback on my own creations. Tastings held at home or at friend’s houses provide even more opportunity to engage new people on what they like to drink and how they go about discovering new beverages. I am particularly excited for the WineMaker Magazine Annual Conference in a few weeks. We can drive this year which means we can cart along a whole lot of bottles to share. The feedback I will get, much of it brutally objective from people who are more talented than I, will be worth much more than the wine I will see disappear from my cellar.

( Dry Creek Chardonnay undergoing lees aging and battonage. )

This year will be littered with experiments, meads made with tea, hops and herbs, new styles of beer that we’ve (my wife is on the beer tangent with me) never made before and some wine, but what exactly hasn’t even been considered. Another great example can be found in the preceding sentence. I will make more beer and mead in 2012 than wine. My experimentation is taking me away from wine for a bit, something I couldn’t do as easily in a commercial setting. I am finding significant learning opportunities in these projects, both in the process of making them but also about how they are perceived when I share them. That learning is just too good to pass up by making the same things as I did last year.

( A room full of fermenters. More experiments that need attention! )

My thanks go out to all the people who ask me about going pro, and when this is the immediate reaction to tasting my wines it really does feel good, but I don’t think it is going to happen anytime soon. What I can tell you is that I am developing a treasure trove of information on how to successfully make good beverages at home, how to use them in your dining and entertaining and a lot about what people like and don’t like in a beverage. No matter what I end up doing I expect the knowledge I can develop from all of that will be a huge asset.



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