Posted Apr 28, 2005 08:52 am CDT
After her son left for school in 1998, she decided the time was right to apply her business acumen to something new–beyond her comfort zone yet close to home. A year later, she founded Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard on her 1,800-acre farm outside Charlottesville, Va.
It’s a good thing she didn’t sit down to write down the pros and cons of a midlife career switch, or she might have called it quits based solely on the number of negatives.
First, there was the issue of practical experience: She had none. And she would be entering a marketplace dominated by men and by brand names boasting hundreds of years of history.
There were subtle barriers as well. “People thought I couldn’t do it, or that I wouldn’t be able to do it well,” she recalls. “They didn’t take me seriously because I had means. They thought I was just playing.”
So, Kluge developed a multipart strategy for success. The first elements of Kluge’s business plan focused on developing her business. She would learn everything she could, then assemble a top-notch team to help ensure the best grapes and the best wines.
Also integral was boosting the wine industry throughout the state. Making Virginia’s agricultural and commercial infrastructures more wine-friendly, she reasoned, could only help her own product become more marketable. “You can’t be a great winery from nowhere,” notes William J. Moses, Kluge’s husband and the company’s CEO. “You have to be from a region that is recognized for its potential.”
Plus, the notion of giving back appealed to her. “It’s about more than money,” she says. “It’s about setting standards, about giving Virginia a wine-making legacy.”
The strategy worked. Just six years out, Kluge has 100 acres under vine, with plans to increase that number to between 250 and 300. She has already produced a Bordeaux blend, a sparkling wine and a dessert wine. Last year, Kluge Estate won its first awards. The 2001 New World Red was one of only 52 wines selected from a field of more than 2,300 for a “Double Gold” medal at the International Eastern Wine Competition, and Kluge’s sparkling wine took home a bronze.
Kluge’s efforts also have borne fruit for the Virginia wine industry. She and Moses helped change regulations restricting distribution and out-of-state shipping, and they spearheaded the establishment of the Virginia Governor’s Wine Study Group to bolster wine production, marketing and appellation identity.
Kluge recently subdivided a portion of her farm into “mini-estates,” allowing buyers to build gracious homes, grow grapes and make their own wine with the help of Kluge Estate’s expertise and equipment. “What we’re doing–creating a community around an industry–is what has evolved over generations in Europe. It’s what helps make the industry viable,” she says.
Indeed, Kluge and Moses have brought “a new level of vineyard and wine production to Virginia,” says state agriculture official Robins Buck.
“They have brought national and international exposure to the state’s fast-growing wine industry,” Buck says.
Despite all she set out to accomplish, Kluge says she never felt she was being too ambitious. “My husband calls me the visionary who sees too much,” she jokes.
“But once I decided I wanted to make wine, I knew I needed to do this.”