By MAUREEN PICHÉ
PARISHVILLE – A 26-year-old St. Lawrence Central grad has joined a growing number of young entrepreneurs who are taking on an occupation once reserved for retired, landed tycoons—winemaking.
In a 300-square-foot annex of a friend’s old horse barn on Rt. 72 in Parishville, Matt Whalen is making his dream come alive, one cask at a time.
His High Peaks Winery bottles can be found on shelves in liquor stores all over St. Lawrence County, and now in Franklin County, Watertown, and Lake Placid. A handful of restaurants also offer it to customers.
“I like the endless possibilities,” he said. “I really love making something people enjoy.”
The 2008 SUNY Brockport marketing grad currently experiments with recipes to make the wine, loads his creations into steel vats, watches over the fermenting and aging process for up to a year, bottles, labels, packages and delivers the finished products, mostly on his own, but with some help from family and friends.
He says, at present, his fledgling business is making just enough profit to cover the bills and pay the single employee—himself—but he’s already expanding his repertoire of wines and plans to have a retail license sometime next year.
Whalen says he fell into the winemaking business. After he graduated from college, he was unable to find a decent job because of the nose-diving economy. He ended up moving back to his parents Chris and Shelia Whalen’s North Lawrence home to figure out what to do next.
While he and his friends were primarily beer drinkers, Whalen said they eventually became interested in trying out wines. “It was something different,” he said. “A lot of younger people are used to drinking beer, but I think wine is tastier.”
Matt and his parents started experimenting with their own small batches. Matt liked the “chance” factor of adding just a little of this and that to create something unique and enjoyable.
His friends liked the end result—a lot—and they encouraged Whalen to think about starting his own business.
“It was time to take my passion for winemaking and make it a career,” he said. “I wanted to try to do it my own style.”
Whalen got help with his business plan from Michelle Collins from the Small Business Development Center at SUNY Canton. She also connected him with the Reh Center for Entrepreneurship at Clarkson University.
“Marc Compeau and Eric Draper energized me to move forward with the plan,” he said. They also provided him with a student intern, Allison DeVoe, who helped create the labels for his wine varieties.
Whalen had a temporary job from which he saved all he could to get started, plus what he had scraped together over the years. “My life savings—a little scary,” he admitted.
Winemaking is an expensive enterprise. Whalen’s operation uses two 600-liter stainless steel vats from Italy and several other smaller containers, a bottling machine, a corking machine, a label machine and pallets of cardboard boxes, labels, bottles and corks. Add to that the rent he pays for the production space, utilities and travel expenses.
He was lucky enough to secure a $2,500 Community Supported Business Startup grant (based in Potsdam), which helped him pay for a lot of the equipment.
He also took classes at Thousand Islands Winery to learn about the business.
Wineries in the North Country aren’t as plentiful as other agri-businesses, so winemakers are quick to befriend each other and compare notes.
Whalen said he was shown the ropes at Clayton’s Coyote Moon winery, where he made friends with another young entrepreneur, Kristina Randazzo, daughter of the owners and part of the family business.
“There are a lot more young people out there doing this now,” he said.
In the fall of 2009, he acquired a wholesale liquor license allowing him to distribute wine to liquor stores for sale. It also gives him permission to make wine with juices from throughout the country and the world. He primarily uses California grape juice right now, although he would like to try out New Zealand and New York state juices.
He was able to produce 500 cases of wine by the end of the first year, but he wants to double that next year.
Whalen offers a collection of four wines—semi-sweet table wines Mountain View Red and Wilderness White, and a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. He’s hard at work on a couple of dry white wines that should be available next year.
And when he finally receives his retail license, he wants to expand the winery into the main barn, about 750 square feet, and use his current space as a tasting area for customers.
Then, there’s the matter of the vineyard. Whelan wants to one day produce his own grapes, so he purchased hardy Frontenac vines and has planted a few next to his winery and at his parents’ home. If they make the winter, he plans to plant at least 300 more. They take about five years to mature.
He’s also trying out some other potent potables that are derived from local products. He and friends at Parishville Orchards pressed apples this fall, and several jugs of apple wine are in the aging process. And Sunfeather soapmaker Sandy Maine provided the honey he needed to make his first batch of mead.
To read more about the winery, place a retail order or see a list of local liquor stores that carry it, visit www.highpeakswinery.com. The winery also has a Facebook page.