Phil, Anne, and son, Jack Starr are the triumvirate that own and operate Sierra Starr Vineyard and Winery in Grass Valley.
Anyone watching the local wine scene over the last few years knows they have aggressively plunged their flag deep into the ground, staking out their turf for the long haul.
It is safe to say that when Phil and Anne Starr bought their vineyard property in 1995 it was a significant mid-life career change.
But they didn’t stop there.
A few years later, they purchased a building in downtown Grass Valley that houses their tasting room. More recently, they started a massive expansion of the winery facility out at the vineyard. All the while, they have continued to expand the original five-acre vineyard to its current size of 12 acres and are currently in the process of preparing to plant another hillside of vines.
In addition, they have purchased adjoining parcels to the vineyard property, both with houses on them. The combined properties have created quite a compound that now includes 25 acres, three houses, a vineyard, tasting room, and the brand new winery building.
It’s all perfect planning for the future, or is it?
If you watch certain commercials on TV or listen to some whimsical thinking, then you might think that owning a vineyard and winery is a great way to ease into retirement.
While that is certainly possible, is it likely?
I remember hearing two pieces of advice early on, when I first got into the wine business.
The first came in the way of a joke. How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large one.
The second was a little more serious but no less real.
It came from a farm advisor at a wine and vineyard seminar. A middle-aged man asked the presenter if starting his own vineyard and winery was a good idea.
The presenter responded, “When you look in the mirror, do you see more grey hair than any other color?”
Then he asked, “When you’re sitting at your dinner table, do you see a workforce of people who are willing and capable of helping you?”
If the answers are “mostly grey” and “no”, then you had better start with a large fortune because you are not likely to get your money out of it in the time you have to put into it.
There is no underestimating a passionate entrepreneurial spirit, especially when it is soaked in wine. We have seen a huge surge in small, family wineries over the last 40 years.
In 1975, there were 330 wineries in California and 579 in the entire country. At the end of 2012, there were 3,754 wineries in California and 8,806 across the country.
The vast majority of those wineries are small family businesses producing less than 10,000 cases per year, with most producing less than 3,000 cases annually.
There is a serious aging issue at stake here. According to a study sponsored by Silicon Valley Bank, a large lender to the wine industry, 88 percent of the wineries formed in California since 1975 are still in business.
Of those wineries, 82 percent are still operated by the founding generation. So far, only 11 percent of the wineries have been taken over by a second generation.
The concern is that many of those wineries don’t have a second generation in sight. What happens then?
It’s clear from the research that the founding generation wishes to pass the family label on to their heirs. It is much less clear that the second generation has any interest in receiving it.
Phil Starr is quick to admit that he would not have done most of the capital investment had his son Jack not entered the family business in 2006.
“We approached Jack with the idea of coming to work for the winery,” Starr said. “It gave us a sense of long distance vision we could never have had without him.”
Jack took to wine like the proverbial duck to water and now shares or handles all the winemaking and vineyard chores.
It’s a bit of a twist of fate that Phil and Anne Starr are in the wine business at all. Before moving to Nevada County, they had spent the previous 20 years growing ornamental flowers in Monterey.
They bought the vineyard not because they wanted to grow grapes or make wine but because they thought they could use the remainder of the property to grow flowers.
When the greenhouse they built collapsed during their first winter, they realized it was too wet and cold for their flower business to survive.
Turning his attention to the vineyard, Starr quickly recognized he couldn’t possibly make a living on the proceeds derived from growing five acres of grapes. He needed to turn those grapes into wine.
“It was primitive in the beginning,” Anne remembered. “We used a pitch fork to shovel grapes into the crusher. The basket press we used was tiny. It took forever to press a vat of wine.”
By the grace of the wine gods, that first vintage in 1996 turned out great, and they have continued to make terrific wine ever since.
It has been challenging, involving an immense amount of hard work, almost all of which they have done themselves.
Phil Starr looks to the future and feels that not only does Nevada County have huge potential as a premier viticultural area but also that the future of Sierra Starr is well in hand.
He’s proud, knowing that he is building something solid and secure and that 50 years from now Jack can turn it over to his son, Ben, who at age 2 was already helping with the crush.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about his upcoming Sierra College Kaleidoscope Wine Classes at www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-273-2856.