There is a joke in the wine industry about the economic prospects of anyone who decides to buy a vineyard and make wine for a living: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?
You start with a large fortune.
David Benzing laughed at that joke when he sat down recently for a dinner of pizza, apples, cheese, and cabernet franc at the tasting house of Vermilion Valley Vineyards here. Mr. Benzing, a retired and beloved professor of biology at Oberlin College, had sunk a chunk of his own savings, and money from a couple of friends, into this winery in northern Ohio. Whatever the risks, he says, this is his new calling: to satisfy a longtime interest in grapes and winemaking, and to show that even a small venture like this can provide new ways to interact with the land and with the people who live here.
"I never got into this business thinking I was going to make any money—I wanted something that was going to keep me alive," he says. Besides, he adds, the venture would keep him out of his wife's hair during retirement.
But he also has a more serious motivation: He is disturbed to see so few Americans actually walking the land as farmers, and he wants to create opportunities for people who may not be cut out for college yet have a need for intellectually challenging and meaningful work. Viticulture could be it.
"I would like this to be a model of how a family without a lot of land and without tremendous capitalization can create something that is quite satisfying and sustaining, good for the environment and good for society," he says. "This is a way to combine a lot of things: my love of plants, making wine, being creative, and creating something. I don't know if my business partners share all my views, but they go along with me."
Mr. Benzing's friends say you can drive out to Vermilion Valley and find the 74-year-old biologist off in the distance of his seven acres of vineyards, pruning each of the vines by hand. He says he likes being alone in the fields. He vaguely resembles Clint Eastwood, but he doesn't have the snarl or swagger of the classic Eastwood characters. It's with a gentle smile and a subdued voice that he rattles off facts about fungal diseases, freezing tolerances, and the photosynthetic processes of grape vines.
When I met him on a wet, late-September evening, he was dressed in jeans, a denim jacket, and tall rubber boots, with his white hair swept boyishly to the left. He and Joe Fowler, his assistant, were reaching into the back of a pickup truck to unload plastic bins full of chardonnay grapes, while yellowjackets buzzed menacingly.
Thomas Jefferson repeatedly tried and failed to grow European wine grapes in America, Mr. Benzing notes, but modern technology, including the judicious application of fungicides and other chemicals, has finally made it possible.
Mr. Benzing has been at it for a while, though. He became fascinated with wine as a teenager in Mansfield, Ohio, when a friend's father put homemade vintages in soda bottles. The boys took some into the woods.
"It must have been awful stuff—I can't remember tasting it," he says. "We got ourselves a little high, and it was just intriguing to think that you could take a natural product and manipulate it like this. It was a magical sort of thing."
On autumn nights, they went around the neighborhood, stealing grapes from vines in neighbors' gardens (occasionally fleeing from an irate homeowner with a flashlight), and started making wine from the plunder. Many of the bottles exploded, he recalls.
His friends moved on to other pursuits, but Mr. Benzing remained interested in winemaking. In graduate school at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, he made fruit wines from whatever he could get his hands on, like pears or dried figs.
He landed at Oberlin, where he spent almost all of his 40-year academic career and became a specialist in tropical epiphytes, flora that include ferns and orchids. On the campus he had access to a greenhouse, a misting bench (used for propagation), and a machine that could notch grape rootstocks and fit them with scions, or shoots, which he ordered from the viticulture program at the University of California at Davis. With trellises set up in his backyard, he spent decades learning to raise wine grapes, even experimenting with varieties that are almost impossible to grow in northern Ohio's climate, like syrah and sauvignon blanc.
"I just gradually got into it more and more," he says. "It was always a sideline until this opportunity came up."
Mr. Benzing, a longtime friend, who had 23 acres of family farmland, and a former administrator from Oberlin put together $400,000 to build the tasting house with a production facility and to set up the vineyard, which includes varieties like pinot gris, riesling, cabernet franc, and pinot noir.
'Scared the Hell Out of Me'
After dinner, Mr. Benzing walked to the vineyards at sunset, through a light rain. He pointed to the sharp-tasting chambourcin and the milder lemberger, and he explained how he used a plow to carefully bury the bottoms of the vines every autumn so they would survive the winter. In the spring, he will have to clear the dirt away from each one by hand.
Mr. Benzing moved on to a row of muscat ottonel, a variety he had worked on for years in his back yard. The row had already been picked, but he found a few green-gold grapes that had been missed at the bottom of a vine. They were subtly sweet and richly floral.
The vineyard continues to grow. Across the driveway, where a farmer had rented land to grow corn, Mr. Benzing will plant more riesling next spring; it's more popular than he had expected. The seven acres of vineyards can produce about 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of wine per year, he estimates, but the winery will have to produce 10,000 to 15,000 gallons to be financially viable.
When he and his partners took out the mortgage for the vineyard, on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse, "it scared the hell out of me," Mr. Benzing says. "And it still does, occasionally. Someone else can replace me making the wine much more easily than finding someone to take care of the vineyards, which is considerably more complicated. We haven't got that kind of redundancy in our ownership. That worries me. What happens when I can't do these things?"
The answer may lie in one of Mr. Benzing's central motivations for founding the winery: finding meaningful work for, and even becoming the teacher of, people not traditionally collegebound, particularly people like 20-year-old Mr. Fowler. We walked up from the vineyards to the garagelike production area at the tasting house, where Mr. Fowler, in dirty jeans, a T-shirt, and a straw hat, was running the chardonnay grapes through a big wine press, while fruit flies floated around him in the fluorescent light. Kristi Gribben, whom Mr. Fowler describes without exaggeration as his "loyal girlfriend," stooped to help catch the sticky, foamy juice that ran out of the press. It would soon be transferred to barrels of stainless steel and plastic in the basement for fermentation.
Mr. Fowler, who comes from a lower-middle-class family in Sandusky, Ohio, has been interested in viticulture and wine since he was 10. He got his first job at an Ohio winery where his mother works as a server. A couple of years ago, he found out about Mr. Benzing and offered to work for him for nothing. Mr. Benzing hired him last year and started teaching him about grapes and wine.
The lessons have turned out to be a true liberal education, delivered out in the field, Mr. Fowler says: "He is on one side of the trellis and I am on the other. Every day is pretty much like a lecture, a wonderful lecture about everything—philosophy, religion, political views." Mr. Benzing even corrects some of his student's rough grammar in casual conversation.
The young man, who has been estranged from his father since he was 9, says he has come to think of Mr. Benzing as "the father I never had." And although he has gotten offers to work at other wineries in the region, he has turned them down. He is taking online courses in viticulture and oenology from Michigan State University, and he hopes to buy out Mr. Benzing's share in the winery someday.
Mr. Benzing, for his part, looks to a future that may be quite different from the way he spent the past 40 years. He will soon have a book about epiphytes published by Cornell University Press, and that will be the end of his scholarly work, he says. "I don't have a lot more to say. I was competitive as an academic, but that opportunity is gone now."
From here on, he wants to apply that disciplined, competitive nature to producing the best cabernet franc in the region. But the teacher in him is unlikely to keep the techniques a secret for long. "I would be perfectly happy to share what I know with anybody else," he says. "I don't want to be selfish about it."