There are some things in life that just take guts. Starting a small business – a winery, no less – is certainly one of those. There are all the usual risks – will the customers come? How should we advertise? How will our product be received? What will the hours be?
But for winery owners, there is the added pressure of building a business around a product that is incredibly sensitive to even slight changes in weather, soil conditions, and a whole host of other environmental factors. Needless to say, opening a winery takes guts.
I wanted to better understand what would drive a person to take on that kind of risk and so I sat down and interviewed Kris Kane the young, up-and-coming winemaker and owner of 21 Brix Winery in Chautauqua County, NY. Kris, working with his family and friends has turned 21 Brix into a must stop in the Lake Erie Region – which is particularly impressive when you consider that just a few short years ago he was studying biology and planning to go to med-school.
Kris was kind enough to take some time in between checking on his vines, ordering new equipment, and running his brand new tasting room to answer my questions – below is the interview.
When did you decide that opening a winery was something you wanted to do?
Sometime around 2004-2005. I graduated from college in 2004 and decided to come back to the family grape farm and do the responsible oldest child thing. I worked on the farm for about a year and was still not sold on the decision to become a farmer. So I put some deep thought into how I would be able to keep the farm and be able utilize the fruit. So I leaned towards the winery decision. This would add value to the farm by utilizing the fruit and making another channel for the fruit to go to. I was also hoping that it would be more profitable to. (too early to tell on that one!!)
How does someone just crack into the wine industry?
In July of 2005 a local winery that my dad sells grapes to was looking for a new winemaker and asked my dad if he knew of anyone. He said he might and had me go in for an interview. I was hired by Presque Isle Wine Cellars (PIWC) in July of 2005. I was promoted to head winemaker in December of 2005. I worked diligently at PIWC until 2008 when an opportunity arose to go work in Australia for a harvest. It was upon returning from Australia that I knew I wanted to open a winery. It took a few years of convincing my parents that this was the right thing to do. In July of 2010 we broke ground and opened September of 2011.
What was the hardest part about setting up and starting the Winery?
Well you didn’t say to list just one thing. If I had to list just one thing I would say time management!! Just like starting any small family business its the amount of time in a day and the amount of people that you have to help. Luckily, I have a very supportive wife and family that I trust and are team oriented. I was able to divide tasks and everyone helped out.
Some of the more specific tasks that were difficult were writing and developing a strong business plan that covered everything. It took the largest amount of time but has really helped to guide us in our decision making as we now roll into year three. The other difficult thing was the actual construction itself. I worked as the general contractor for a brief stint and finally hired it out to someone I really trusted. Time management was difficult during construction because you needed to evaluate the budget, the design, the layout, and estimate how long it was going to take and then re-estimate how long it was really going to take.
A lot of the big wine producers have been around for decades, if not longer, what are some of the challenges win trying to get started?
I would say that most challenging thing is name recognition and brand awareness. It takes a while to gain a reputation and to build a loyal customer base. The second most challenging thing as a new winery is knowing what we need to track, report, file, etc. Nothing is all in one place, so we find out about the need to report something from a wine trail meeting. We want to follow the law but sometimes we have found that we were not doing something that we were supposed to do. At that time we have had to play catch up. I wish there was a master winery report that showed both on the state and federal level exactly what you have to do.
What about benefits – certainly there are things that as a new winery you think give you an advantage?
The benefits would be that we are located on a strong wine trail that fellow wineries have been part of for 20+ years marketing and advertising it. Just by joining the trail I have been able to jump on board with the work they have done and have 20,000+ visitors walk through my door. That is a huge benefit for a new winery to know they will have so many visitors to start.
The other benefit is that we can observe what the big wineries did and see what worked for them. We use that as a model and hope that we can duplicate and build upon what worked for them.
Speaking of the wine trail – Chautauqua County is one of America’s largest and oldest grape growing regions but it is not something that has always been synonymous with wine. What do you see as the future of the Chautauqua Wine Trail?
I really believe the Lake Erie Wine Country is at a tipping point. This is a good tipping point. We are now up to 25 wineries along the trail with a few breweries, cider houses, and distilleries coming on board soon. Our customers are no longer coming up for a partial day trip they are now coming up and staying the weekend. This is important as it is putting more money back into our local economy and bringing the quality of life up. We have had a few restaurants open up and a few more will be shortly, this allows travelers to stay and hang out. Other popular regions have all went through this growth phase and have really done well for their region. We are at that point. The true beauty is that we are in the country and this is where the grapes come from so when people visit they truly can appreciate the whole picture.
Here at 21 Brix we plan on sticking around. We want to be one of the must visits when coming to Chautauqua County. With our wide selection of grapes we produce we are able to always come up with something fresh and new that is high quality and good value. As time moves on we may look into the food and craft beer scene, but time will tell. At this point all efforts are towards making good wine.
The one thing we haven’t covered is the wine! How did you decide what varietals to grow?
The decision on what varietals to use has been shaped by what mother nature allows us to grow and what the market wants. With a long family history of growing grapes in the Lake Erie region (3 generations) we are familiar with our environment and our soil types and we have matched the right variety to the right location. So when I opened the winery I planned on sourcing my fruit from our 300 acre grape farm where we grow 17 different varieties. 75% of what I planned on producing as finished wine would come from our farm. The other 25 % would come from local growers located within 25 miles of our facility. With a majority of the fruit grown with in walking distance of the winery we are able to really control the quality of the fruit used for our wine production. This is a huge advantage over our competitors.
So there you have it – a 3rd generation grape growing family that worked together and has now broken into the wine world. I tasted a number of their wines when I stopped in and they were not only tasty, but great reflections of the Lake Erie region. If you want to learn more about 21 Brix check them out here: www.21brix.com and if you you are in the area, stop in and enjoy a glass.