Sunday, September 21, 2008

Black Walnut owners can see the end in sight

From left, Lance and Valerie Castle and Jack and Karen Kuhn

There are four owners – two couples more specifically – wringing the hours out of their weeks with their eyes on mid- to late November as the goal for opening Black Walnut Winery. Once it opens, the Sadsburyville, Pa., winery would become the seventh member of the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail.

Lance and Valerie Castle and good friends Jack and Karen Kuhn all are immersed in day jobs that require plenty of hours. “And then oddly enough we all look forward to coming here and working 12 to 15 hours a day,” Lance Castle said during a phone conversation earlier today. “We have a great time and we have a lot of family and friends that comes and help us. Right now I have two crews; one is doing pressing that I’m helping with. Another crew is doing bottling. They’re all friends . . . all smiling and laughing and having a good time, and working here for free. And when they leave, they’ll thank me. It’s the neatest thing about this business so far. So many people go, ‘Thank you for letting us come and bust our butt for 10 hours.’” He laughed.

Hey, what are friend for than to lean on them for a project of this magnitude that began as a home winemaking hobby nine years ago? Castle said that he started making so much that “I told my wife, ‘We either have to cut it back or go to that next level.’ and oddly enough she agreed with me. It took us about 18 months took us to find this building.”

The almost 200-year-old bank barn is a 10,000-square-foot structure in which half of it is wedged underground; that perfectly controls the temperatures downstairs where Castle has his tanks and bottles. Upstairs, once an antique shop, is split up into a number of interesting rooms. Out back are a deck and a patio underneath overlooking a Koi pond. Castle figures to have parking for 40 or 50 cars on a lot that will be accessed off Octorara Road, just off business Route 30 and about 2 miles east of the intersection with Route 10. It’s about 5 miles down the road from Twin Brook Winery
, another member of the Brandywine trail.

Once the winery opens, Castle figures on selling somewhere between a dozen and 15 wines. No vines are growing on the property at present; he buys some from a couple members of the trail and the rest from a grape grower near Oxford, Pa., in southern Chester County. While he’s bottling inside, he’s working on hooking up sewer outside. It’s all been part of a large learning curve that Castle, who works for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said he couldn’t have expected when he began.

“I guess it’s all the different agencies,” he responded to a question about what has most surprised him in the process of becoming a winery. “I recognized you needed to be licensed by the state to have a winery; I recognized the ATF would needed to know about you from a tax perspective. But a 40- or 50- or 60-page submittal with I don’t know how many attachments for the federal government and interview and criminal background checks and you name it to make wine. Same with the state. And then having to be registered with the FDA. And the county and the township, the rules and regs about just being setting up a business, not necessarily a winery, was far more complicated I guess than I thought it was going to be.”

We were finished then and ended our conversation, but a half-hour or so later Castle sent an e-mail with information about his experiences that he felt were as important as the lessons about dealing with government’s red tape.

“I told you about all of the agencies we had to deal with during the process,” he wrote. “However, I missed the answer that I normally tell people, the amazing support that the other wineries provided to us during our start-up has been unbelievable. Normally businesses in the same area do not help each other, but the wineries seem to march to a different drummer. Each of the owners and winemakers can not do enough to help us get the information or contacts that we need to be a success. I do not know how I missed that, but it is really the most amazing thing about this whole process that I have seen.”

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