How to Start a Vineyard
The Famici Wine Company
by Terry Lidral
Start a vineyard. . .? The question for some people is how to start your own vineyard. For CJ Northrup and his wife Janet, it began as a dream to be vineyard owners that grew into hands-on learning, research, financial and physical investment, a producing vineyard, and finally entering the wine business with Famici wines. The Northrups are the proprietors, viticulturists, and managers of Famici Wine Company. This boutique winery is located in Caldwell, Idaho in the Sunnyslope Wine Region of the Snake River Valley.
The Famici vineyards began as CJ’s project when he bought the winery property in Caldwell, Idaho in 2012. Janet joined CJ 5 years ago in his dream to grow wine grapes and make his own wine. Today, that dream has grown to include opening an on-site tasting room and obtaining a commercial license to sell wine.
Table of Contents
The Dream to Start a Vineyard
For CJ Northrup, the dream developed from an appreciation of Italian culture. His job as a professor of Geology at Boise State University had taken Northrup to Sardinia, Italy where he found himself drawn to the Italian lifestyle.
“Spending time in Italy brought me an appreciation of the wine, food, and culture of the country,” CJ told us. “I didn’t know much about wine, but I liked drinking it and it was part of the culture that I had been charmed by.”
Finding the Right Place to Produce Grapes
“My interest in winemaking came about by chance,” continued CJ. “I was on a college business trip to Nevada and drove by a little green winery sign in the Sunnyslope region here in Idaho. “I followed it up to find myself at Koenig Winery, tasting amazing wines made by the very talented winemaker Greg Koenig.”
“I was intrigued,” he went on to say. “This man was making fantastic wine from local fruit that was native to the region. I proceeded to visit other wineries in the Sunnyslope region and discovered more fantastic wines and talented winemakers. I found myself dreaming about having my own vineyard and making my own wines in my own winery.”
Janet’s Dream to Start a Vineyard
For Janet Northrup, who grew up In Idaho, her dream came from her appreciation for the wines of the Snake River Valley.
“Like most people who enjoy wine, I was fascinated by the winemaking process. In fact, there was a time not that long ago that I had wanted to quit my teaching job, use the money I had saved, and purchase a plot of land near the Nampa sugar beet factory and plant a vineyard,” Janet told us about her own dream of being a vintner.
CJ Northrup is a geologist and researching the soil and terrain of the Sunnyslope wine region was a natural fit. The more he learned about what goes into the success of winemaking – the terroir – the more interested he became in having his own vineyard. Deciding to take a course in winemaking with the very experienced vintner Martin Fujishin was the first step to making his dream become a reality.
Terroir is a word that encompasses all the factors that go into wine – grapes, climate, soil, elevation, moisture, etc. The word is most frequently used to refer to the vineyard’s natural environment.
Learning How to Start a Vineyard
“Martin Fujishin was teaching a course in winemaking at Treasure Valley Community College (in Caldwell, Idaho) and I signed up,” Northrup told us. “I was able to schedule the class around my day job. Martin is a fantastic teacher and gifted in all aspects of the process. He taught me the basics of viticulture and I got hands-on experience through an internship in the class. After the class was done, Martin hooked me up to work with local winegrowers and other viticulturists in the area.”
CJ not only enjoyed his time working in the vineyards, he was finding that he liked spending time in the local wineries and talking with the people who ran them.
“I’ve made a lot of friends here in the Sunnyslope wine region. The vineyard owners – the grape growers of Idaho – have shared their knowledge and love of making Idaho wine. I couldn’t have made this all happen without their advice and help,” Northrup said, waving his hand across the expanse of his producing vineyard.
The Northrup’s Plan
The Northrups’ plan was simple: Grow – Make – Sell. What they found was that each of the three parts of their plan was a job in itself.
The Physical and Financial Investment
The first major financial investment was buying a property that would support a vineyard.
“I bought this place in 2012,” said CJ of the property that is now the site of Famici Wine Company. “I had done enough analysis about good sites for vineyards so I could make the right choice. I had to find a place with the right terroir for growing grapes for wine. It had to have the right slope, the right soil, and the right climate.”
How many vines did he start with? “In 2014, I started out with 20 vine cuttings that I got from Foundation Plant Services, University of California, Davis,” he continued. “It takes a minimum of 3 years of vine growth and a lot of loving care for vines to produce a crop. Vineyards are more work than anyone understands until they do it. It really matters how things are done when you are working with grapes. It’s TLC all the time.”
Becoming a Vineyard Owner
Janet’s introduction to the vineyard was an eye-opening experience. It was an immediate wake-up call to how much physical labor was involved in the process of managing a vineyard.
“When CJ brought me to the vineyard for the first time, he had been out of the country for several weeks and the vines were out of control,” Janet explained of her first view of what was to become their joint dream. “I remember being a bit shocked because it was so overgrown and weed infested. I was not really sure what to think. Our date turned into a workday. The workday turned into a project, and then eventually a plan to expand the vineyard. Over the following few years, we continued to expand the vineyard and start to dream of opening a winery and tasting room.”
The Financial and Physical Investment
A winery takes substantial financial and physical investment. Northrup knew from the beginning that to be successful, there had to be a long-range vision and a controlled start-up. He created a business plan and got started. With expenses of irrigation, viticulture, winemaking supplies, and the costs involved in running a farming operation, the growth of the operation had to be carefully managed.
When the Northrups made the decision to double their vineyards, they knew they were taking a big step. Not only has the workload doubled, but the expenses also expanded as well.
“Winemaking is extremely expensive! Just the cost associated with doubling our vineyard last year was astronomical,” Janet explained about the expanding costs. “PVC pipe, poles, line posts, rods, drip lines, and all the little parts and pieces that no one thinks about add up. Luckily, CJ has 10 green thumbs! Over half of the 1600 vines we planted last year came from cuttings we took from our vineyard, but even that process requires special equipment to grow properly.”
The Producing Vineyard
Over the past 5 years, with the help of friends and family, the Northrups have been gradually increasing the number of vines and the types of varietals they are growing. Now that the number of grape vines has doubled, the workload has become extremely demanding.
“The reality of the work is insane,” CJ said of the operation that has now moved into a commercial venture into the wine industry. “We have friends and family who have helped us build our dream and, we have had people from other wineries lend us equipment to tend our vineyards. We’ve shared the wine we’ve made and we’ve become a family.”
Famici Wine Business
Now that the vineyards are producing a sufficient harvest, the Northrups have launched a commercial winery. With the growth into a wine industry business comes more work and added expenses.
“There is both federal and state licensing for selling wine which comes with a cost. There are strict requirements for record-keeping and reporting of sales for sales tax purposes,” explained Northrup. “To sell wine, besides licensing, we have to have Famici Wine labels that have to be put on each bottle we produce for sale.”
Working the Wine Business
To sell and serve wine, the Northrups had to create an attractive space that would be inviting for potential customers. Also, to serve and sell, they had to acquire customer service personnel.
“We put up an open structure for the fall opening of the wine tasting room. Keeping cost in mind, it was built simply with the potential for walls to be installed when the weather became colder,” said Northrup, describing the country-style serving patio. “We have future plans that we can hopefully build a barn to house the business and tasting room.”
Famici Wines – The winery name blends the Italian words for family and friends (famiglia + amici).
The Business Venture and Wine Production
“We are very fortunate to have such great friends,” he continued. “They have been with us through the growing process and now some of them are working in our tasting room. We wouldn’t have gotten to this stage without them.”
CJ and Janet Northrup are in no way finished with their vision. Although it is a successful winery, it is still a work in progress.
“Our shared vision was to create a small boutique winery where we could harvest our fruit and produce our wine on-site,” said Janet of the dream that became Famici Wine Company. “It included expanding our vineyard over several years, purchasing farm equipment to be more efficient, and slowly collecting the wine-making equipment we need to be able to make our wine in the pole barn. We’re still collecting and we are expanding on our vision.”
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About the Author
Terry Lidral grew up as a country girl who always loved reading and writing She has had a wide-ranging career in journalism, writing for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online publications. It was her work with Buckin’ Stock Magazine, Humps ‘N Horns, and the Real American Cowboy Magazine that kindled her passion for everything western. She is the founder, publisher, and editor of Bucking Stock Magazine, an online publication for those in the bucking stock industry and for those who just plain love bucking stock. Western Living Journal is her latest venture and she is thrilled to be able to promote the great American Western lifestyle on the world wide web. She lives in the Treasure Valley of Southwest Idaho with her husband Karl where she is an Associate Board Member for the Caldwell Night Rodeo. Her free time is spent with her husband Karl, and their son, daughter-in-law, and grandson.
Her website: https://westernlivingjournal.com/