Building a Vineyard

Posted: November 17, 2015

Zach Wilson, a 2011 agribusiness management graduate from the College of Agricultural Sciences, started building a vineyard on his family’s farmland in his sophomore year. This year, he's making 16,000 to 20,000 bottles of wine. Wilson tells the story of his Journey from Student to Vineyard Founder during Penn State's Global Entrepreneurship Week, Tuesday, Nov. 17 at 11:15 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. (303 Wagner Building), and 1 - 2:15 p.m. (104 Forest Resources Building).

Zach Wilson grew up loving to build things. As a kid, he built forts in the woods but before actually playing in them he was on to the next building project.

Wilson, who graduated from the College of Agricultural Sciences in 2011 with a degree in agribusiness management, started building a vineyard on his family’s farmland in his sophomore year at Penn State.

“We’re just trying to grow the best-quality grapes,” says Wilson, among his rows and rows of grapevines in late September during the harvest season.

This year, he expects to make five varieties of red and three varieties of white under the Wilson Vineyards label.

“I just believe that 80 percent of it comes from these grapes in the vineyard,” says Wilson. “We bring them right in, process them right away, within an hour. There are no lag times. No time for the quality of the grapes to go down. We pay attention to detail and keep everything sanitized and clean. We haven’t had a bad batch of wine yet.”

Zach Wilson, a 2011 agribusiness management graduate from the College of Agricultural Sciences, started building a vineyard on his family’s farmland in his sophomore year. He explains plans for Wilson Vineyard in Nottingham, Pa., to Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Scholar and Coordinator for the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Planting a Vision

As a student, Wilson had already envisioned his family vineyard and started planting grapevines. He connected with Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Scholar & Entrepreneurship Coordinator for the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program at the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Wilson explained his vision to Gagnon and the two have continued to check-in every few months, on Wilson’s next round of plans and projects.

“A lot of it was just motivation,” says Wilson of his earliest talks with Gagnon. “I like to get his opinion on things.”

Wilson’s next project is a new building to serve as an events space for weddings and other special events, and a wine-making facility.

Somehow, Wilson has been able to handle all the steps of winemaking well the first time. The only way he can explain it, he says is: “It’s been a lot of trial and error with very little error.”

Once he has planted grapevines on 20 acres and they are fully mature, Wilson expects to make about 75,000 bottles a year.

New Enterprise for Family Farmland

The vineyard started as a solution to a problem.

“We were driving down the road – me and my dad – talking about ‘What can we do with all this land?’ ” says Wilson.

The family at one time had operated a dairy farm on the land in Nottingham, in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The family faced pressure to sell its 260 acres of farmland to be developed into 300 houses, but decided to keep it as farmland.

“After that he mentioned a vineyard one day and I just ran with it. I told him I’m ordering 3,000 vines. He’s like ‘You’re crazy.’ It’s just worked for us. We work really hard,” says Wilson.

He started by securing 10 acres and planting 90 vines in 2009 as a test. The next year, he planted 3,000, learning about cultivating and trellising grapevines as he went.

The next year, there were grapes to harvest and it was time to make wine. Wilson learned the basics from a home winemaker, then read everything he could find about making wine on a commercial scale. In 2011, he made a barrel of Cabernet Savignon and a barrel of Carmine.

The next year, there were enough grapes to make eight barrels, about 2,000 bottles, of wine. But he was short on the capital to buy the proper equipment and the barrels, which cost about $1,000 each.

Wilson wanted to avoid a bank loan, so he approached family and friends and offered a case of wine at a future date if they could contribute some money. He was successful, raised $10,000 - $12,000 from 10 different people and was off and running.

He stretched the funds by finding discarded, but usable wine-making equipment at other vineyards and repairing it and restoring it. He’s done the same for farm machinery. “That’s where I’m saving a lot of money,” says Wilson.

In 2013, he made 5,000 bottles and in 2014 he made about 9,000 bottles.

People seem to want to be a part of what Wilson is building and want to help him and his family.

More than 30 volunteers turned out on a Saturday in late September to pick grapes all day. “Guess what they do when they leave?” says Wilson, marveling. “They thank me.”

Bringing the Crowd

That’s the mark of a successful entrepreneur and successful enterprise, says Gagnon.

“When you’re an entrepreneur it’s all about bringing in the crowd,” says Gagnon. “There’s an affiliation with you and your story and the people who are coming here. When you have that you’re doing something right, something extraordinarily right.”

The trick for entrepreneurs, says Gagnon, is to recognize that magic will last for a finite window of time, and to be sure to “convert” — to engage the crowd and deliver the value they want from the enterprise, which builds value in the enterprise. “The crowd is at the door saying ‘Bring us more.’ You have to convert,” says Gagnon.

Success has not come without challenges. Severe winters in the last couple of years took their toll on some of the grapevines in low-lying areas of the first planted field. “That’s made me realize how important site selection is,” says Wilson.

He works incredibly hard on every aspect of the business, from growing to harvesting to bottling, packaging, marketing, accounting. In the summertime, many workdays don’t end until 2 a.m.

Zach Wilson, a 2011 agribusiness management graduate from the College of Agricultural Sciences, chats with guests in the tasting room at Wilson Vineyard in Nottingham, Pennsylvania.When it All Comes Together

But during harvest season it all comes together and is exceptionally rewarding, he says.

Now, he is building out the vineyard, continuously perfecting his processes and building the business. His parents work in the business and his brother is a partner. They’ve converted a former garage into a wine-tasting room and art gallery and are planning a new building project. This year, Wilson turned away 12 requests for weddings due to lack of an event space — but that could soon change.

He envisions a building that can accommodate weddings, and other special events, and also serve as a wine-making facility. In his head, he’s already building it.