In 2012 I made a pivotal road trip to the Guadalupe Valley in Baja California. I call it my “reconnaissance” trip. You see, I found treasure off a narrow dusty dirt road. And this adventure I owe to the qualities of fierceness and grit, for which without, I never would have made it this far in the wine business.
I live for great experiences. I worked with live reptiles, was a full time companion and English teacher to the new bride of a Hungarian Count, worked in real estate, purchased art for a small gallery in Calgary, and basically gypsied my way around Latin America and other parts of the world.
It was after I attended a Sommelier course, that I knew my love for wine. Everything about it! Wine culture-wine history-the art-science-poetry-grand romance-of wine. And I loved the conviviality of wine- how it warms the senses, opens the heart, and brings people together. Too, I was smitten with the Mediterranean climates and the charming, picturesque locales where the grapes are grown and the heavenly elixirs are vinified.
Since 1998, I lived outside of the United States and found myself more comfortable and at ease in Latin America. I believed I had a better chance of thriving and creating my own business south of the border rather than stay in the US. I’ve had some great bosses, but I really wanted to work for myself.
And I did. I researched this little wine valley just an hour and a half south of the border in Mexico, and I drove my little 1998 Honda CRV to my future home. The valley was everything I imagined it would be and more: A feast for my senses! I fell instantly in love and without a doubt I knew it was where I wanted to be. I didn’t know a single soul but I had the insatiable desire to make it work. I talked to everyone I encountered in the rustic villages. My “reconnaissance”, a four day trip by myself, turned into a small two bedroom house, on a half-acre, with a citrus grove, and surrounded by mature olive trees for $125 USD/month. It had a fireplace too.
My initiation into the wine business
With few possessions, nothing but my car and my dog, and a modest amount of cash; I had a year to figure it out and get something going. First, I set out to make friends and learn about Mexican wines. There were fewer wineries back then, but they were often hard to find. Many didn’t have signs. Most were off the beaten path on winding, gravel, dirt roads and not all kept regular hours open to the public. I kept a detailed notebook and eagerly wrote down my impressions everywhere I went. I learned how climate, soil, water, and sea breezes influenced the wines. I pestered the winemakers about their craft and their passion, making a general nuisance of myself. I made friends with the tasting bar staff and became a lusty advocate of Mexican wine.
Honestly, my first three months I wanted to cry a lot! I was alone in my vision-an entrepreneur-and I didn’t exactly know what to do. Eventually, the idea of taking people on tours of the valley began to take shape. I wanted to share what I was learning and so Valley Girl Wine Tours began. At the time, there were a few Mexican tour buses that took nationals to a couple of the larger wineries, but there were no tours hosting English speakers, and no small, boutique, family owned, artisanal wine tours. I found a niche, collaborated with local business owners, and started a small company.
Valley Girl Wine Tours was the seed of an ambitious goal that I am working hard to achieve. Since the founding of my wine tours I connected with a local winemaker community here in the valley. Many of the local winemakers studied their craft at “la escuelita” where a visionary Mexican, who studied winemaking in Bordeaux, decided to teach anyone who was interested. In short, I saw an opportunity and I moved two blocks from the school, in my adopted village of Porvenir. I wanted to make wine and sell my product as a woman winemaker! It was nothing short of an epiphany.
But I didn’t have the money for a start-up business. My tour business was not large enough to support my goal. I simply didn’t have the income. I crunched some numbers and decided that with six barrels of wine I could earn enough to stay alive for one more year in the Guadalupe Valley. But how was I going to prove my credibility and raise the money? I cobbled together a 30 page business plan (which makes me laugh now) and borrowed from several friends by selling wine futures. In retrospect, it was through sheer will power that I scraped together enough capital to buy my first 3 tons of grapes and six barrels. I’ll never forget that first harvest-exhilarating and crazy. I learned on the fly and with determination. I lost weight because I was too busy to eat, there was only one of me and I wanted to do it ALL. Actually, I had to do it all. There was no other option. But I was in love with life and I knew what I wanted to do. What’s better than that?
Of course there are always hiccups along the way, some hilarious … like the time I brought my first barrels home realizing much too late that they wouldn’t fit through the front door. I had to take a window out and haul them in that way. In my second harvest I even lost 500 liters of wine due to a leaky tank.
The wine business agrees with me. I went from crushing 3 tons to crushing 23 tons over the course of four harvests. I attracted modest investment in my business, and I work with an amazing team. My daughter and her best friend moved to Mexico last year and took over my tours business. I have a rock star marketing man and this year I’m collaborating with several notable winemakers.
My goals are closer than before. Well, I want to build a successful winery. I can’t make wine on my back porch anymore. Not if I’m building a real business. I am scaling the business sustainably and strategically. And it is working. I’m making wine with other winemakers. My business benefits with access to state-of-the art equipment and the experience of seasoned winemakers. The only hurdle is that I have to work on their schedules and have less contact with my product. I’m very hands-on and ultimately need to have the wines with me so that I can work with them whenever I want to. And I want a winery that people can come to where they can meet the winemaker, learn about winemaking, and can sample and buy my elixirs.
One of the things I love about the wine business is its complexity. Wine can be both artistic and intellectually challenging. Education is essential to advance as a successful winemaker. I require mentors and I want to expand my palette. I figure I can accomplish this by spending a month, every year, as an intern to other winemakers around the world. This way, I can learn new methods, new varietals, new wine styles, and better understand how Mexican wine, and in particular, my wine, stacks up to other wines around the globe. I learned that wine is a competitive global market and to make any headway in this industry, one needs a repertoire of science to take the wines to the next level. Besides, it’s beneficial to develop a network of friends and colleagues in the business.
So that’s it in a nutshell. My start-up story. Thank you for your interest. Connect with me for more details about Valley Girl Wines. Looking forward to your comments!