Last week, I invited myself to the last in-field class for the Spring 2013 semester, and I met the students and instructor of the VIN16000 course – Winery Equipment Operation – at Lakeview Wine Cellars in North East, PA. This course took to see winery equipment at large and small wineries around the Lake Erie Region. Over the course of the semester, the group visited two large wineries in NE Ohio – Debonné and Ferrante – and two small wineries – Lakehouse Inn (OH) and Lakeview Wine Cellars (PA). I decided to join the group during their final field class at Lakeview.
Owner and winemaker Sam Best was generous with his time and knowledge and cheerfully detailed his strategy when he was planning his business (which included a solid business plan, so take note, future entrepreneurs!). “I’ve been kicked out of more wineries than I can count because I asked a LOT of questions,” Sam told the group as he described his journey planning and building a small winery business. “Usually, though, once I told them what I was planning, most folks were more than happy to help and give a lot of advice about what to do…and what not to do.” Paying it forward, Sam did the same for the KSUA students in the class.
Lakeview Wine Cellars is a small operation – Sam and his wife Becky want to be able to run everything themselves, so they maintain an output of about 8,000-9,000 gallons/year. Their size is “just right” for now, and this was a good lesson for students to consider. How big is big enough? Big enough to pay the bills and to get everything done that needs to be done, all while selling an excellent product, right? If the plan is to start small, then start small with the possibility of expansion, so you are not left scrambling. Sam reiterated this lesson of thinking about the future – 10-20 years down the road. Most new winery businesses, and Lakeview is no exception, build wineries that can easily accommodate the growth of the business.
Sam also provided tips on setting up and maintaining the laboratory, from lab procedure manuals to an MSDS notebook to bookmarked websites on the computer to record-keeping binders (cellar log, cleaning log, etc.). I have to admit, I am impressed and a little in awe of Sam’s meticulous record keeping. Nothing gets by him. He emphasized the equipment he felt was most valuable in the lab, and when a student asked what the most important piece of equipment he had (in the whole winery), his response (without missing a beat) was, “My pH meter; I got a good one, and it’s worth every penny.” [Domenic Carisetti – the course instructor – pumped his fist and nearly did a backflip.] Another piece of equipment that Sam said is worth the expense is the Vinemtrica SC-100 sulfite analyzer. Sam’s philosophy: “If it’s easier to do, you’re more apt to do it and do it more often,” so from the beginning, he set himself up for success at every step, whether it meant finding ways to maximize efficiency or getting the best equipment for the job.
I asked one student what she learned from this class, and she said she really liked that everything was on wheels and how Sam emphasized shopping around for the best prices on equipment and supplies. Regarding the winery itself, she praised the view of Lake Erie: “Great view! It will go far for marketing and for the business.” [Hence, the name, Lakeview Wine Cellars.]
Another student especially liked the 10-inch membrane filter in the lab, which, paired with the single-bottle filler can be extremely useful – and more efficient than lugging the whole bottling line out of storage – for small batches of wine.
At the end of the day, after everyone had asked their questions and sampled Lakeview Wine Cellars wines, I asked Domenic what he thought of this class and how it went this semester. He replied, “This class has been phenomenal. We saw a contrasting series of wineries,” which emphasized the lesson that although there are many similar aspects to wineries, most of them do things differently. He summarized the semester with this simple statement: “Folks in the wine industry are great and willing to share information with you, regardless of [their] size. I hope to do it again next year.”
Happy trails and good luck, folks!