Lessons Learned in the Texas Wine Industry

After tremendous growth in recent years, winery owners reflect on what worked

by Andrew Adams
wine vineyard texas conference
Patrick Whitehead of Blue Ostrich Winery & Vineyard said events are a great way to get visitors to remote locations.

Irving, Texas—When Meredith Eaton and her husband, George, opened Firelight Vineyards, a small winery in the tiny town of Valley View, Texas, in 2015, she described it as a “leap of faith.”

Located on the sleepy plaza of a town with around 750 residents, one might think the small winery had a slim chance of finding success. But the Eatons had joined the fast-growing Texas wine industry, which has enjoyed tremendous support from state residents who remain eager to enjoy local wines made by fellow Texans. It also helped that Valley View is right off a highway leading from the Dallas metro area to a large casino. A billboard has proved quite effective in convincing folks heading to the casino to stop and try some Firelight wines.

Eaton was one of the winery owners selected to share what they’ve learned in the years since opening their wineries for a panel discussion at the recent annual conference of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association held at the Irving Convention Center.

More business school would have helped
Before opening Firelight, Meredith Eaton earned a degree in winemaking and viticulture from Grayson College in Denison, Texas. Had she known then what she now knows about running a wine business, she said should would have taken more business classes that would have helped her when wearing the many hats of small winery owner including tasting room management, accounting and sales.

She said of all the marketing strategies she tried, the billboard and Facebook continue to prove the most important. Eaton also stressed the need to capture email addresses of any one who comes in to the tasting room. She added that events have also proved particularly successful. “It will bring people to your tasting room, more than you expect,” she said.

Food is also “vitally” important, as customers expect it, and offering it helps ensure they stick around and buy some wine. Eaton initially worked with food trucks to park nearby and will open a bistro soon. “I’ll tell you, people want food; they want to stay,” she said.

A steep learning curve
Patrick Whitehead came to the wine industry after a long career in radio. He said his wife’s family owned some ranchland near the small town of St. Jo, west of Gainesville, Texas, that is  in the Red River Valley AVA. At one time, the property had been used as an ostrich farm, but it had been unused for years when the Whiteheads decided to open an estate winery.

Blue Ostrich Winery & Vineyard opened in 2011 with the goal of reaching 5,000 cases, and the winery is nearly there today—although Whitehead admitted it has not been easy. “We had no idea the amount of work it would take to get to 5,000 cases,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges was the steep learning curve to get a grip on the myriad tasks of owning a winery. Whitehead also studied at Grayson, but he came to rely on a network of other winery owners for practical advice.

He, too, stressed the importance of events, especially as a way to draw people to a remote location. “Our neighbors thought we were nuts,” he said about opening a destination winery in a place few tourists had ever considered worth visiting. “Nothing works like word of mouth.”

The first event was a simple cake and wine-tasting party to celebrate the winery’s second anniversary of business. Even Whitehead was taken aback by how popular it proved with consumers. “You couldn’t even move in the tasting room,” he said. “Events and special days at your winery really pay off.”

Now the winery takes advantage of the property’s wide-open vistas of the Texas countryside, and sunset parties are a popular event for the 1,500 active wine club members. He said he uses Wine Direct to help manage the club, which remains the No. 1 priority, as about 90% of Blue Ostrich’s total production is sold direct to consumer.

Whitehead also advised others to purchase a music licensing plan from the start, saying of the performing rights organizations, “they’ll find you eventually.” He also said to hire and retain good workers with a passion for wine. Employees who drive more than 20 minutes to get to the winery are paid for travel time, he added.

From the beginning
Sporting his usual bright red cap, an equally attention-grabbing shirt and sequined slippers, Paul V. Bonarrigo, the founder, winemaker and chairman of Messina Hof Winery & Resort, said when he started in 1977, Messina Hof was one of just three wineries in the state, and conventional wisdom was that “grapes did not grow in Texas.”

A few years later, Bonarrigo was running the winery out of a mobile home and remembers trying to hold tastings in the middle of a Texas summer, when the tiny air conditioner couldn’t get the “tasting room” any cooler than 97° F. “If someone came back, we knew they were a good customer,” he said.

Messina Hof is now one of the largest wineries in the state, making around 100,000 cases a year.

Bonarrigo provided the audience with a detailed, bullet-point list of how to succeed in the first 10 years, second 20 years and next 20 years in the wine business. Key to early success, he said, is location. Bonarrigo said vines should be planted where they can flourish and produce quality grapes, but wineries will find more consistent success with consumers if customers can reach them easily. He used Woodinville, Wash., as an example. He said some of Messina Hof’s satellite tasting rooms that opened in the popular tourist towns of Grapevine, Texas, and Fredericksburg, Texas, did as much business in a few months as the original tasting room in Bryan, Texas, did in a year.

He also stressed not taking on too much debt in the early years and warned people from thinking they can manage a few acres of vines in addition to running a winery by themselves. Other tips for the first 10 years include buying quality equipment that retains its value for the resale market; never let sanitary practices slip in the cellar, and find reliable and professional grapegrowers. He also said new wineries shouldn’t “undersize” themselves but plan for growth so they’re not short on space when faced with extra demand.

Bonarrigo also said when winery growth reaches a certain point and surpasses local and regional distribution, owners will find just how hard it is to compete or even find a company willing to distribute their wines. “Constellation tells my distributor how much to sell,” he said.

In the 40-plus years since Bonarrigo launched his winery, the number of Texas wineries has grown to 319, and the state has the fifth-highest number of wineries in the United States, according to Wines Vines Analytics. Bonarrigo said the state’s industry will only succeed further if wineries and growers support each other. “It’s extremely important we never say anything bad about another winery,” he said. “It’s really critical we all support each other.”



Posted on 03.16.2018 - 07:25:38 PST
Many Pearls of Wisdom in this article. Thank you!

Posted on 02.28.2018 - 09:59:46 PST
Thank you for a well written article.