Wine and the Rebirth of Niagara Falls: He Won the Indy Prize, and She Got a Vineyard

It wasn’t exactly your normal marital spat. Still, there was some disagreement.

Duncan Ross was working in IT and wanted a winery “when we retire.” His wife, Robin, had grown up on a Youngstown, N.Y., farm and knew how much work was involved — and how long it took for a vineyard to become commercially productive. It’s not something one does in retirement, she said.

So she thought she would bring the discussion to a close by issuing an ultimatum: We’ll do it, but only if you prove that you can make great wine — not you saying it’s quality wine, but a recognized outside authority.

So Duncan entered the Indy International Wine Competition, the largest amateur wine competition in the world, and won a Double Gold, Gold, Silver and two Bronze medals as well as a crystal trophy as “National Amateur Champion of the Year” in 2005.

Soon after, they bought the 25 acres that comprise Arrowhead Spring Vineyards in Cambria, N.Y., and got their wine license. And Robin, who has a B.S. in mathematics and computer science, began contemplating raising grapes 30 years after she last was on a farm.

Planting on Mother’s Day

She spent Mothers Day 2006 planting vines. They started by producing two dry red wines and a Riesling. “I had a vision that we’d sell all of these out in one day,” she said. She quickly learned it doesn’t work that way.

Of the three wineries we visited, Arrowhead Spring does the largest share of its business through a wholesaler. But it wasn’t always that way. Initially, Robin not only ran the vineyard and tasting room, but also delivered wine to about 100 retail accounts.

She turned those 100 accounts over to a distributor, but Arrowhead is now back to handling its own distribution in Western New York with a dedicated salesman. But BMP Distributors handles Metro New York City and New Jersey.

The fact the largest part of their production goes through wholesalers might suggest they plan to grow — and they do. Currently, their production and tasting room total about 6,000 square feet on a ridge overlooking a wide plain.

Arrowhead Spring’s winery is dug into the ridge, which is nice in terms of temperature control. The tasting room sits on top. Finished wines are warehoused in Buffalo, 30 miles away.

Expansion Plans

They plan to expand their facility to 14,000 square feet, production still will be tucked into the ground and they will have onsite warehouse capacity. They currently produce about 5,000 cases a year. The expanded facility will let them produce 10,000 or more.

We asked about lessons learned. The first was “We pushed ourselves too hard in 2008” to produce the first vintage. “It’s really hard to work full time, have three kids and make wine,” she said.

The second was getting a loan now is almost impossible. It cost about $15,000 an acre to put in the vineyard, she said. “We could have gotten a loan to build our house that would have covered much of that. But we didn’t. Instead, we exhausted our savings. And we can’t take the equity from our house to put in a vineyard.”

The Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service says the vast majority of new farmers rely on off-farm income to support themselves.

Quick Commute

In some respects, the Ross’s had it easier than many in starting their venture. Robin was a consultant for Audiocodes, an Israeli producer of advanced VOIP and data networking products, and worked from her home office. Duncan was offsite, running his IT Consulting business.

So Robin’s day began early. After getting the kids up and ready for school, she’d head to the vineyard for about three hours, return to her office for work, and then head back to the vineyards. Since the vineyards were out her back door, she saved about an hour in commuting time.

The third was “the only way you can fail is to give up.” Sometimes things went very wrong, but they persevered.

They produce Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Sirah. They plan on planting an additional 10 acres, which should ultimately produce about an additional 25,000 cases. But not immediately. The immediate goal is to have 10,000 to 15,000 cases.

“You can’t grow a category without growing the market,” she said. And you can’t overexpand, outrunning your market, without risking financial disaster.

More cases, more opportunity for wholesalers.


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