Sick of her day job in corporate America, Angela Zuba one day found herself scrolling through franchise websites when Waters Edge Winery popped up. “I made the phone call. And then the rest is history.” Zuba, who spends most of her time in Montana, though she’s originally from Canada, opened Waters Edge Winery of Kalispell last year. She won’t say how much her initial investment was but estimates she’ll be profitable by the time the winery is five years old.
She’s one of a growing number of would-be winemakers who are making wine without owning vineyards, by participating in a franchise model.
Zuba sells bottles ranging from $20-$40. If she imported the wine as with a traditional restaurant model, Zuba says she’d have to charge $100 a bottle. She’s thrilled to be able to offer Montana locals and visitors good, global wines, something which Zuba says was missing prior to her winery/restaurant. “You couldn’t go anywhere and have wine and food at the same time if it wasn’t dinner hour,” and the restaurants that were open in off hours, didn’t have good wine, Zuba explains.
A new pathway into wine
It’s a process, opening a wine franchise, to the tune of some $500,000 to $800,000, but it’s also a quick and dirty way to become a winemaker.
Waters Edge Wineries offers up the opportunity to own a winery anywhere in the country by opening a franchise. There are currently 15 Waters Edge Winery locations, including three in Oklahoma and three opening imminently across Florida.
With this upfront outlay, a franchise owner chooses from grapes sourced internationally, from Italy, New Zealand, Australia, South America, and Germany, taking, explains founder Ken Lineberger, agricultural risk out of the equation. The grape must — freshly crushed juice, including the skins, stems, and seeds — goes through a process known as thermovinification, where it’s exposed to high temperatures to rid it of bacteria and yeasts. It’s then shipped to Waters Edge’s facilities and kept until needed; it’s then sent to each franchise location and turned into wine.
Experimentation also doesn’t enter into the equation, says Lineberger, as franchise owners are given a specific set of instructions on how to make the wine in their facilities, using equipment provided by Waters Edge. “If our owners follow the process that we train them on and have documented in our manuals, there is zero chance that the wine won’t turn out exactly the way it is supposed to,” Lineberger says.
Wine without land
Working harvest is standard in a winemaker’s career trajectory. Marked by 12-plus hour days, seven days a week, for six or more consecutive weeks, harvest work is demanding, rigorous, and rewarding — and that’s assuming you can land an internship at a winery in the first place. But learning about the land, the farming methods, and why the success of certain grapes is dependent on the climate — the agriculture component of winemaking — has historically been a core part of winemaking.
Waters Edge Winery owners skip the viticulture part and focus on the viniculture — a workflow Jeff Cole, the winemaker at Sullivan Rutherford Estate Winery in Napa Valley, describes as being “similar to hiring a consulting firm to make those viticulture and production decisions so that the clients can focus on selecting the components to produce the wine style they desire.”
Cole is unsurprisingly deeply invested in the agriculture aspect of producing wine since the wines they’re “producing are the best of the best in Napa.” Plus, he points out, “We’re planting and farming our vineyards based on the kind of wines we’d like to make.” For Sullivan’s purposes, “the viticulture aspect is really important, but for enthusiasts just exploring,” then a service like Waters Edge could be ideal. “It is like Blue Apron for winemaking!” the winemaker says.
Mailynh Phan, CEO for RD Winery, however, sees the agricultural component as integral, and says, “Winemaking is as much chemistry, plant biology, and farming as it is an art form.” Phan adds, “Good winemaking is a skill derived from practice and that requires resources, time, and relationships with those who are willing to share their knowledge.”
For wine franchise owners, being a successful winemaker may be less about the practice and more about the party. Lineberger says one of the most common things he hears from franchise owners is, “I feel like a rock star.”
Lineberger says he’s closely involved in each franchise from the get-go. Waters Edge does all the heavy lifting — construction permits, licensing, marketing — and provides customer support, and this may appeal to a certain type of person.
“It’s really a complete circle from the moment they sign up with the franchise agreement all the way to lay open their doors and get things running smoothly,” Lineberger says. To his knowledge, there’s no one else doing what Waters Edge is doing.
There are other options for would-be winemakers, like custom crush wineries — wineries that offer as little or as much involvement in winemaking as people desire. The Wine Foundry, for example, can do everything from source grapes to work with customers to help craft wines with the desired taste.
Owned by Valerie Von Burg, Wine Foundry provides all manner of customized wine services, from a program that results in a couple barrels of wine made with as much or as little involvement as customers wish to one that leads aspiring winemakers to create their own premium, direct-to-consumer wine label.
Wine enthusiasts who go through The Wine Foundry’s winemaking program can get more up close and personal with the process, from sorting grapes, to crushing, blending, and bottling. Many who make wine with The Wine Foundry go on to open their own wineries.
“We are getting an increasing number of people who really are interested in having their own commercial wine brands,” Von Burg says, adding that it’s a relatively accessible entry point.
Emily Trout and her husband Mark Ellenberger are two such people. The Texas-based couple began making wine in Napa Valley in 2007, and Ellenberger went back to school to become a certified winemaker. They engaged in some direct-to-consumer sales before officially partnering with Von Burg and eventually opening up Mutiny Wine Room in Houston.
The idea was to bring a taste of Napa to Texas. Trout and Ellenberger sell their own wine, Kagan Cellars, and their friends’ wines, also made through The Wine Foundry, to a Texas crowd. “It was a hobby that spun out of control pretty badly,” Trout says.
Zuba’s hobby, if it can be referred to as such, has also spun out in a way. The winery/restaurant hosts private events, has live music every weekend, and hosts trivia nights and shopping markets in the space that can seat up to 80 people. It’s a lot of hustle and a lot of fun. And her ultimate dream? “To own a vineyard in Italy. Wouldn’t that be anyone’s dream?” Zuba asks, not waiting for an answer.