How to Make it in the Wine Business

August 14, 2013

Market Watch

Nearly everyone who’s enjoyed a good glass of Chardonnay (or better yet, visited the vineyard that produced it) has fantasized about going into the wine business. After all, not only is wine one of life’s great pleasures, it’s also an increasingly marketable commodity: Sales of wine in the United States increased by 2% in 2012, hitting a new all-time high of $34.6 billion, according to wine industry consultant Jon Frederikson.

But as promising as that sounds, the glass may only be half full, so to speak. That’s because making wine is an expensive, time-consuming endeavor and returns on investment can take years, if not decades, to realize. “It’s a 10- to 20-year haul,” says famed actor and former “Saturday Night Live” star Dan Aykroyd, who’s invested in wineries based near his home in Canada. Moreover, the wine business has gotten super-competitive of late, especially for small-scale entrepreneurs trying to go up against the giants that have come to dominate the industry. Consider that Constellation Brands, an upstate New York company that started nearly 70 years ago selling bulk wine to bottlers, now encompasses such labels as Robert Mondavi, Kim Crawford, Clos du Bois and Arbor Mist — all prominent wine brands unto themselves.

You can’t make wine without grapes. And you can’t grow grapes without land. For most wine entrepreneurs, the big expense is the sheer acreage involved in the endeavor. And the more prestigious the place (or terroir, to use the wine-centric term), the higher the expense. In California’s celebrated Napa Valley, that can translate into a cost of up to $500,000 an acre (and it’s worth noting that a “small” vineyard can still run about five acres). Naturally, there are plenty of places beyond Napa, but prices can still be high — in California alone, figure up to $150,000 an acre for land in Sonoma and up to $80,000 an acre for land along the Central Coast, says Jeff Gutsch, a California accountant with the firm Moss Adams who specializes in the wine industry. Given that wine is now made in all 50 states, there are lots of options outside California. “I look at Washington and Oregon as sleeper markets,” says Gutsch.

Other industry insiders tout such states as Texas, Michigan, New York and Virginia as winemaking locales with plenty of potential (and land prices that can be as little as $10,000 per acre). Just keep in mind that location counts — both in terms of the bottom line (it’s rare to see $100-plus bottles coming out of anywhere in the U.S. besides California) and, yes, the glamour factor. “Having a winery in Michigan doesn’t have the sex and sizzle of having a winery in Napa and Sonoma,” says David L. Corsun, a professor at the University of Denver who specializes in the hospitality and beverage management industries.