By sheer good fortune, my final assignment in the Navy was two years of shore duty in southern Spain, near Jerez de la Frontera, the center of all true sherry winemaking. “Jerez” is the Spanish translation of the Arabic “Xerez,” which translates into English as “Sherry.”
As young Seamen in the middle of such a rich wine-producing area, we naturally spent the rainy Saturdays in the winter going on winery tours. If we got up early and made the seven o’clock bus, we could go through three wineries before siesta time. They would give us free samples of all their finest wines and cognacs and as many sample bottles as we cared to carry away. I’ve always been enthralled by the way the lowly yeast can transform grape juice into alcohol and here I learned quite a bit more about winemaking.
Years later, I was living on the Jersey shore in a little town close enough to New York City that hordes of New Yorkers would pile into their old cars and come down to the shore, playing loud music, and throwing beer cans and hamburger wrappers out the windows. Unfortunately, our town depended on tourism dollars, so we had to put up with this summer invasion. (I wish we could figure out a way to have them just send their checks down instead of delivering the money in person.)
My brother’s bar/restaurant/marina kept us right in the center of all this madness. Every summer we would escape to Martha’s Vineyard whenever possible just to keep our sanity. The vineyard is an island off the coast of Cape Cod. Getting there involves a long drive and ferry ride, consequently, they get fewer casual tourists, which gives the place a much saner, laid-back atmosphere.
The island was discovered in the mid-1600s by a sea captain who had a young daughter named Martha. He saw some wild grapes on the island, so he named it “Martha’s Vineyard.”
At that time, I was working in the packaging industry selling caps and bottles and my job wasn’t going too well. I was looking for something else. In addition, my cousin was sales manager for Bully Hill Winery in upstate New York, so I learned a lot more about bottling wine and a good deal about marketing, sales, and distribution from her.
I put together a business plan:
1) Rent an old barn with some property.
2) Buy a bottling line at auction from some business that had gone defunct. (You can get them for pennies on the dollar).
3) Get a license to bottle wine.
4) Buy my wine in tank trucks from Carlo Rossi or Gallo or anyone else who would sell it to us.
5) Get my bottles, labels and cartons from a local distributor.
6) Hire some locals to do the actual filling.
Et voila! “Mad Martha’s Wine,” bottled on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts!
My crew could plant a bunch of grapevines along the entranceway, place a number of wine barrels around for the ambience and put together a slide show about how the grapes were cultivated and picked and how the wine was made (this was long before “PowerPoint”). We would offer tours of the bottling operation and finally “Exit through the Tasting Room and Gift Shoppe” where we would accept Visa, Master Card and American Express … also cash!
If we were successful, we could plant grapevines in earnest and eventually make our own wine.
Another selling point for locating a winery on the vineyard is the fact that on rainy days there is not much to do. A visit to a local winery is a perfect rainy-day outing (I learned that in Spain!)
In the off-season, I would travel around to all the ski areas in New England convincing local bars and restaurants to feature “Mad Martha’s” as their house wine and get in some skiing while I was at it. (The same class of people who go to the vineyard in the summer go skiing in the winter).
Unfortunately, I talked about my plan in too many bars and restaurants around New England and three years later a winery opened using my exact business model! So much for me and my big mouth!
What brings all this to mind is that around Lake Lanier we are within an hour or two of some of the finest wineries in the South. The climate and soil of north Georgia is conducive to growing wine grapes and a myriad of good small wineries have taken advantage of it.
For anyone interested in the proper way to start a winery, I recently enjoyed a book called “In Second Bud” by Martha Ezzard (no relation to “Mad Martha”) on how she and her husband turned their family farm in Tiger, Ga. into a winery. They started by researching the type of wine grapes that would thrive in their area and planting cuttings. They also hired some people with the knowledge of how to properly ferment and bottle the wine. They suffered setbacks such as a late frost which destroyed much of a harvest but eventually, they were producing Gold Medal winning wines right here in north Georgia! Their winery is called “Tiger Mountain Vineyards” and is located about an hour north of Lake Lanier on Old GA 441. It’s definitely worth the trip whether on a rainy day or not.