Leesburg, VA

3 Lessons From My Family Launching a Vineyard in Leesburg

Sean Kernan

When my parents told me they were launching a vineyard, I was certain my inheritance would be a bunch of dead grape trees.

There’s no overstating how skeptical I was of this endeavor. It’s not that my parents aren’t good business folks, or smart and capable. Rather, well, this was an entirely different level. One doesn’t simply “launch” a vineyard. But they’ve proven me wrong—and the arc of their initiative contains several life lessons even for non-winos.

We had modest beginnings 

My dad was a junior officer in the Navy. In my early years, we lived in tiny base housing, with our bedrooms sandwiched close together. Because he was a SEAL, we moved almost every year. 

Most military wives are unable to maintain a traditional corporate career. A resume with a new job every year isn’t so helpful. Additionally, being a mother with a perpetually deployed husband didn’t make matters any easier. 

My dad was fortunate and did well, retiring as a vice admiral. I was out of the house and they were better off at this point. Mom, seemingly on a whim, decided she wanted to start a vineyard. Dad was taking a steadier corporate job in DC. He figured this was a way of giving back to her for her sacrifice over the years. So they bought a house on fifty acres of land. 

When I first arrived on their land five years ago, it was little more than a warzone. The dirt was torn up. There were tractors everywhere. I said to my parents, “Do you guys actually know what you’re doing? This seems like a lot.”

The first year was a glorified mud pit. The second year, there were some small vines coming in with the stakes. The third year was like one of those insane before-after photos. The vineyard went from a 3/10 to a 9/10.

Life on a Vineyard

Goals and reality tend to collide with each other in a spectacular explosion. I’d have tapped out early on this business venture.

The idea that owning a vineyard is a giant cocktail party, where you sip wine in your fancy brunch outfits, is distantly removed from reality.

Running a vineyard is unabated farm work. Vines are like children—they need to be monitored, checked on, and maintained. It helps to be physically capable. Any work you can’t do yourself requires employees.

Every time I call, there’s some new crazy thing happening. Their otherwise friendly dogs mauled a rodent. A deer jumped the fence and got stuck in the farm (it got out safe). There was a cold frost this year. It killed 25% of their vines. A neighboring vineyard lost 80% of theirs. My parents had to rush out and use a special coating and heaters to save the vines. Yes, heaters for a plant. 

It’s taken some getting used to. When I visit, there is no waking up and going down to see everyone talking in the living room. I usually can’t even find anyone. I’ll call mom, “Where the heck is everyone?”

“Oh, your father is on the tractor on the side of the barn. I’m out in the front with the dogs.” Other times they team up:

<img src="https://www.thevectorimpact.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/lessons-learned-spraying-for-weeds.jpg" style="width:100%;border-radius:10px;margin-top:0" data-caption="" data-credit="My parents, spraying for weeds" data-externalurl=""/>
Photo byMy parents, spraying for weeds

Now I can drive an industrial lawnmower that has the horsepower of a jet engine. I’ve been swarmed by bees when starting old construction equipment that had bees inside. I’ve become a part-time construction worker at their farm.

It’s incredible though. They have five dogs that are the happiest dogs on the planet.

Left to right: Bear, Dexter, Doc, Mouse, and Louis on the bottom.Photo byauthor

FYI, vines are like organic trash factories

You are always sweeping the sticks and cutting off the dead vines. But you still aren’t in a cubicle. There’s satisfaction in seeing your actual product as it develops. It’s like a really exciting style of gardening.

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Make no mistake, though—it’s busy and laborious work. If you’re buying a vineyard to pick up chicks, I can assure you, you’re taking the path of most resistance. That said, dropping the line, “So my parents own a vineyard…” never hurt the scorecard. 😉

Harvesting the grapes 

Each type of grape is sectioned off and they have six different types of wine right now. During harvest time, crews of five to ten workers come in and sweep through, working all day to pick the grapes and pile them into big crates.

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My parents treat their employees right with good pay and lots of perks. They also hook them up with food and coronas (not the virus…).

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There’s this big machine that grinds up the grapes and spits them down a slide into this big bucket. Larger stems are picked off as they go down this slide. 

At least one machine breaks somewhere during this timeline. You can count on seeing a bunch of people gathered around a machine, profane curse words flying. All before things resume.

Then, they send the crushed grapes to a nearby storage and processing facility.

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See that little pipe entrance at the bottom of the tank above? A tube connects to that, and the grape juice is pumped into it. 

If you’re allergic to bees, don’t work in the wine harvesting business—you’ll have lots of unwelcome company. The fermenting facility has bees swarming the entire scene. You can smell the sugar in the air and it isn’t subtle.

Then the wine goes to the barrels. A big cup of this yeast powder is added, which accelerates the fermentation process. Grapes can also ferment naturally in the wild. There are several anecdotes of monkeys and other animals accidentally, and intentionally, getting drunk from these fruits.  Humans just know how to master the chemistry:

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When you pop these open, mid-fermentation, you can hold your hand above the mucky grape juice and feel the heat coming out. It’s the chemical reaction of the yeast.

Lastly, a giant truck arrives. There’s a mini-factory inside and this is the big payoff—seeing all your hard work finished and compressed into wine. It’s kind of amazing at the conceptual level that you can start with dirt and turn it into wine.

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Lessons Learned from Starting and Running a Vineyard 

Today, their vineyard is one of the hottest wine spots in northern Virginia. My parents aren’t successful because of their expertise in wine. It’s how they went about building their business that enabled their success. Here are the lessons they learned along the way:

1. Maintain your natural curiosity in any business endeavor

Most people get caught off-guard by the workload of their new enterprise. They find themselves miserable, with no easy escape.

If the business already interests you, you’ll find a way to enjoy it, or at least get through the grind of it all. Starting a business, much like running a vineyard, isn’t a job—it’s a lifestyle. The people that don’t love it get washed out by the grind. Curiosity is fuel for your interest.

2. Always be aware of the risks your facing

Do an upfront analysis of the dangers to your wallet and your health. Proactively take steps to mitigate that risk, lest you lose your shirt. (“Unfortunately, the liquidation of your house and car were insufficient to cover our losses. We’re going to need that polo as well.”)

If it’s a new industry, don’t go in with cold feet. My parents benefited greatly by hiring a consultant. At a minimum, you should get a mentor to guide you. Each business requires us to dive deep and narrow. 

And remember that even if you do everything right, things can (and do) go wrong. Don’t put all the blame on yourself. There are so many externalities that affect outcomes. Sometimes, things just happen.

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Just remember—the world still turns. And in our case, the crops do come back, eventually.

3. Stay passionate and be patient 

If you enjoy learning, have an intrinsic drive, and are willing to wait for your payoffs, you’ll be far more likely to achieve success in any life pursuit. Keep going and you’ll get better and better as you go. 

A vineyard and a startup are surprisingly similar. You’re grinding and trying to improve and waiting. Timing is an optimization vector, in business and in farming. New customers are won over. You capitalize on your costs. You’re doing all you can to move your numbers over that beautiful, terrifying bottom line. 

And to those of you who don’t intend to start a business, my best advice is to always be working on a project. An idle mind is not a friend of happiness. Stay busy.

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