Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Dreams are not always easy to follow. As sad as that is to say, people tend to always have some conflict, be it financial issues or just sheer improbability of success, which prevents them from ever getting the opportunity to fulfill their ambitions. However, for a couple in Belpre, Ohio, nothing was going to stand in their path of turning a longtime dream into a tangible reality.
In March 2009, Barbara and Joel Whitaker opened the Unicorn Wine Guild. The couple had been talking about opening their own winery for years, but it wasn’t until recently that all the pieces fell into place and the opportunity came knocking. After traveling to many vineyards and sampling wines from all over the world, the couple decided that it was their turn to give something back to the world of wine.
“Both of us are very passionate about wine,” says Joel. “Ever since our honeymoon, which was at a vineyard, we’ve been itching to eventually produce our own wine.”
The couple has spent the last few years trying to figure out what they want to do when they retire. Joel is currently a dentist while his wife, Barbara, works as a nurse anesthetist, but the two always felt that they wanted to do more once they retired from their jobs.
Opening a winery has always been a topic lingering around Joel’s mind and his wife’s always been supportive of the idea, but it just never seemed plausible. As the economy began to fall, the dream of owning a winery seemed to be slipping further and further away from them.
“We knew what we wanted to do…but our goal seemed unthinkable with the way things were going,” says Joel. “I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to retire, let alone start up my own business!”
So, how did a collapsing economy and a fading dream eventually blossom into a business? Well, it all started with a gift.
The whole process began one Christmas several years ago when the couple was given the supplies needed to make their own wine. One three-gallon carboy, one fermenting pale and a list of ingredients turned out to be the best gift that Joel Whitaker ever received.
“My nephew would always give us books on wine, or wine appreciation guides, and then one Christmas he gave us these things that I hardly knew what to do with, and said ‘go ahead, now you can make your own wine’,” says Joel. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I appreciated it and everything but I had always been slightly hesitant about making my own wine.”
Joel admits that he had a basic idea of the winemaking process, but had never actually tried to make wine himself; he had only seen it done before at the various vineyards and wineries.
“Let me note, I didn’t have an actual winemaking kit when I first started,” says Joel. “I had a wine recipe.”
That proved to be all he needed.
Despite knowing little about the winemaking procedure, Joel says that the first batch he ever made turned out to be quite delectable. So good, in fact, that he bottled some of it up and gave it away to friends as gifts.
The wine turned out to be very popular amongst the people who tried it and it wasn’t long before people started asking when the next batch was to be ready. Some of Joel’s friends even asked if he had any spare bottles that he would be willing to sell.
“When I heard that my friends actually enjoyed the wine I made, that’s when I began thinking that this could be more than just a simple hobby.”
It was on this day that Joel and Barbara Whitaker decided to do something bold. Some might even call their decision crazy or irrational, trying to start a business in a crumbling economy and in such a small town, but this couple had the courage to take a long shot at an improbable goal, which is a lot more than most people can say.
“We had been saving up for two things, retirement and a new car,” says Barbara. “But Joel wanted to take a chance and try to make it out there in the world. I know that some people in this town think I’m mad to agree with him, but you know, I couldn’t be any prouder of our final decision.”
But like any business in the making, it needs to be associated with a name. This name and logo could be the driving force which takes this business from small town winery to mass vineyard, supplying the world with only the finest of wines.
As a child, Barbara Whitaker always loved unicorns. She grew up on a farm and was constantly surrounded by horses, but it was the aspect of fantasy that attracted her to the mystical creature. Her love for unicorns eventually proved to be an instrumental part in helping the couples wine find its’ own identity.
“When we were first starting out, the wine would always overflow and get all over my kitchen,” says Barbara. “We eventually decided to put the carboys in the bathtub so that if they did happen to flood, they could easily drain out.”
Because of the wine’s hue, the couple frequently referred to the wine as “unicorn blood”. They both chuckled as they explained this because they added that another reason why the wine was deemed with such a somber and mystical name was because that first batch was “oh, so magical.”
Though initially just a joke, the name stuck around and that’s how the couple came up with the name of their business. But even a clever name cannot always suffice for a dead-end location.
The story continues with the town of Belpre. With fewer than 7,000 residents, Belpre is a small town, very small in fact, and not exactly the ideal location to open up a winery. There is a single main strip that fosters most of the commercial stores and restaurants in the area and that is about the extent of the town. While the people are lively, everybody still knows everybody in this town and for an up-and-coming business that does not always spell success.
“We hoped various residents of the area would come in, maybe sample some wines and then hopefully be swayed enough to tell their friends and neighbors about us,” says Barbara. “But it’s tough. While we love the customers we have, we do not get to see too many new faces.”
The couple admits that business has not been what they have hoped so far but are optimistic for the future. Barbara has just created a website and is even using various forms of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to help get the name out to the masses.
The couple has even aspired to make the winery unlike any other that people have ever been to.
Located at 1816 Washington Boulevard (right across from the Hardee’s), the establishment itself is very different from the conventional winery. Set-up inside an old drug store, the neutral colors and homelike features (i.e. couches, coffee tables, even an aquarium) make the Unicorn Wine Guild seem more like someone’s house than a wine manufactory. It’s a very comforting setting and if you just so happen to sit down in Joel’s recliner, you’ll seldom image going anywhere else for wine.
“We want our customers to be very comfortable as soon as they walk in,” says Barbara. “We’re hoping that in the future we can build a conference room so that people can come in for meetings.”
Inside this old drugstore, the couple produces all of their own wines and they even teach courses on how to create homemade wine.
This is how the idea to create the wine guild began. A little inspiration from some friends and some self-determination was all the couple needed to proceed down the path to their dream.
But, like any good triumph, bitter conflict and defeat is constantly nagging around, just biting at the heels.
Barbara says that the hardest part about starting the business for her was finding a reasonable location to open up.
“We looked everywhere in and around Belpre,” she said. “I could tell you any vacancy in the area and exactly how much it cost.”
But finding an empty lot to place their business into wasn’t their only problem
It was actually illegal to sell alcohol in Belpre up until November. Voters in Belpre nearly always split the votes on this topic of alcohol sales, says Joel, however, keeping Belpre dry as opposed to wet would always win by the margin of a single vote or two.
“It was really one of the most interesting issues I’ve ever seen,” says Barbara. “The votes were always so close, yet staying dry would always win just by a hair.”
Come November the people of Belpre voted again and, this time, the vote won to convert Belpre to a wet county. For the first time since prohibition began in 1920, it was legal to sell alcohol within the town.
Joel says he thinks it’s great that the vote finally passed. A sign that reads, “It’s good to see Belpre has joined the rest of the 21st century,” hangs upon the windowsill.
But, wait. The Unicorn Wine Guild has been selling its’ wine since they opened in March, that’s nearly eight months before it was legal to sell alcohol in Belpre. The reason why Barbara and Joel were able to maintain their business before November is because their business permits them to be labeled as a manufactory.
According to Belpre Area Chamber of Commerce president Teresa Turner, manufactories in Belpre are allowed to sell alcohol within a commercial zone under the condition that they produce all of the alcohol themselves within the establishment.
Knowing this, Joel thought that it would be a great idea to set up several winemaking stations, not only to make wine to sell to customers, but also so that customers can come in and make their own wine.
Mallitz is one of many people excited about the wine that they’ve been able to create here.
“We really had no idea just how many people would be interested in making there own wine,” says Joel. “But as more people began showing up, we knew that we had to start setting up more stations.”
While Joel and Barbara teach the patrons how to make their own wine, they say that it is completely up to the customer how much involvement they want to have in the process.
“There is only one stipulation that we cannot help our patrons with,” says Barbara. “The customers are only allowed to take their finished product home if they sprinkle the yeast in themselves. It’s a legal requirement in all dry counties.”
While anyone can go in and make their own wine, it’s Joel and Barbara who have perfected the craft. Belpre is not exactly an ideal location to grow grapes so Joel has been utilizing a very alterative to keep the wine a-flowin’.
Most vineyards are willing to sell off the juices that they produce to smaller wineries for a profit. So, smaller wineries are able to buy gallon jugs in bulk of the certain grape juices that they wish to make the wine out of.
According to Douglas Moorhead, president of Moorhead Vineyards Inc, a gallon of juice can cost anywhere between $4 and $8 per gallon, depending on the grape.
Joel says that he buys juices from all over the world to try out for his wines.
“We use juices here from France, Italy, Napa Valley, you name it. A lot of the time it just depends on what’s in season.”
So, still a work in progress, but the Unicorn Wine Guild is bringing more life into the small town of Belpre, Ohio. This couple took a risk. Despite the somber times, they reached out and made their own dream a reality.
“Just like a fine wine,” says Joel. “Our business can only get better with time.”