By Marcia Pledger, The Plain Dealer
April 12, 2016 at 8:05 AM, updated April 12, 2016 at 8:09 AM
GENEVA, Ohio – About six years ago, Tony Kosicek was all smiles when he got an offer to sell his grape farm in Harpersfield to someone who wanted to turn the land into a winery. Farming is hard work, especially when you’re working another job part-time.
Dreams of doing something totally different were short lived though, when the third generation grape farmer met with his accountant. With some deals, income you receive from the sale is often subject to taxes with even higher rates than capital gains. He turned down the deal and kept growing concord grapes and selling cars on the side.
For years Kosicek sold about 150 tons of grapes to Welch’s Food and beverage company each year. Then, what started as helping out a friend at his car sales business so he could go on vacation, ended up turning into an 18-year-gig as a car salesman.
Kosicek thought he was satisfied with having a paid off-house, working hard and living comfortably. But the thought of starting his own winery kept nagging at him. And even though he was in the heart of Geneva, with about a dozen wineries within 15 minutes of his farm, he decided to go for it. About five years ago he revamped his farming business model. He scaled back on his contract with Welch’s and started planting several different red and white varieties of grapes. Two years ago he opened Kocisek Vineyards.
Let him tell it and it’s no big deal to open a winery, grow most of his own grapes and offer 18 different wines in less than three years.
“We’re fast becoming a destination place for tourists in this area. Most people come in and do a tasting, and maybe buy a bottle of wine to go,” said Kosicek, 50. “They spend about an hour at each different winery. So on a typical weekend day, they might stop at four or five wineries – not drink a lot of wine – but hopefully buy quite a bit of wine to go home with.”
Kosicek is not one to open up easily about challenges. He prefers to talk about the present and future. But this is a man who built a winery from scratch after growing up on a farm that both his father and grandfather worked on first.
Growing up, his biggest dream was moving away from the area after getting a college degree in computer programming. But when his father got sick he came back home. At one point, he was running a bowling center his family owned in the area and working at the farm. That was too much. But after he sold the bowling center, he started enjoying living in the area more than ever.
These days, he generally works about 80 hours a week – 10 hours, seven days a week. And he’s happy about his decision to start a winery in the hills of the Grand River Valley, Ohio’s largest wine region.
Nationwide, there are wineries in every state. The state of California accounts for about 90 percent of the total U.S. wine production, and the state of Washington ranks second with 718 wineries, according to the Wine Institute. Ohio ranks number seven among the nation’s top 10 wine producing states, and No. 8 for wineries – with 143 wineries.
You can’t make wine without grapes. And you can’t grow grapes without land. For most wine entrepreneurs, the biggest expense is finding land. That wasn’t a problem for Kosicek. Some wine entrepreneurs just build wine “brands” instead of actual wineries — buying grapes or juice and, in some cases, even outsourcing the bottling. Kosicek makes all of his own wine and bottles it there too.
His biggest challenge was finding about a half-million dollars to get the venture started. First he got a second mortgage on his home. Next he went through savings. Then about three years ago when he couldn’t find a way to finish the building and no bank would give him a loan, he finally caught a break. He ran into a banker who came out and looked at his stalled plans. That’s when he got the $200,000 he needed to finish building the winery. Until then, he only had the basics: Equipment and a shell of a building, nothing decorative and inviting that draws in tourists.
“Getting capital was one of the biggest hurdles. We didn’t owe any money on our house or farm and the banks didn’t want to give us any more money after we borrowed against the house,” he said. “We had a building up, tanks, some inventory, and equipment but we needed to finish the building to get it open.”
“I ran into a banker at one of our local banks one night and he just wanted me to repeat my story again. He couldn’t believe the bank I was with wouldn’t lend us the money. He came out the next day and looked around and said I’ll take care of it. So that’s where we’re at.”
Here are some excerpts from my interview:
How many wines do you make?
We wanted to open with our wine. We started out with eight wines and now we’re at 18. We bring in some grapes, but we make our wine here. We grow seven varieties of grapes here on the farm.
How did you learn to make wine?
I made my first wine when I was about 14. My dad made concord wine for years. It’s an American variety of grape, but it doesn’t tend to make a great wine. People around here grew up on this wine, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. Much has changed since then. Now we primarily grow vinifera grapes, which are really European style grapes. And we use those to make the majority of our wine here including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
What is the biggest mistake you’ve made so far in building a winery?
We didn’t build the building big enough. We could have used more room in the wine cellar and the tasting room.
What is the best part of your job?
Meeting happy people. They come in happy and they leave happy.
Where or when do you do your best thinking?
When I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. I’m usually thinking about what I have to do for the day and who can help me get it done.
How do you relax?
I don’t…Watching my kids play sports is as close as I get to relaxing.
What are the top three apps you use?
Weather.com Weather is everything in the farming business. You plan your day around what the weather is going to do. If you have to spray the grapes, you have to do it when it’s not windy and you can’t do it when it’s going to rain. If it gets too cold your crop can freeze. The only other I really use is Facebook.. .We try to keep our customers engaged through Facebook.
How did you have to adjust your mindset in going from farming to dealing with people and focusing on customer service?
I was never a farmer exclusively. If I was, it would have been very difficult going from dealing with crops to trying to please people. But I sold cars for 18 years and ran my dad’s bowling center for 15 years, starting in my 20’s, so I’ve always been used to trying to please customers….If you’re strictly been a farmer and then decide to open a winery, you better hire people who are good with working with people…. You have to be able to go with the flow.