Uncorking a Family Business

At first it was a flight of fancy, but when the Wilson clan talked it over, the notion of going into the wine business proved irresistible

By Rachael King

When the Wilson children suggested that their parents retire in Santa Ynez, the Central California wine country, they briefly considered the idea. The kids painted an enticing picture of living on a large ranch, surrounded by the requisite white fence, and growing a few grapes. Yet, it seemed to be one of those ideas better in theory than practice, like sailing around the world in a yacht. Besides, in retirement, Rosie Wilson, 73, and husband Gerry, 74, really wanted to spend as much time with their family as possible.

They shelved the idea and it didn't surface again until Gerry and Rosie's son, Bill, skidded directly into a midlife crisis. Bill, now 42, had worked in the financial industry for 13 years, and when he finally paused to think about it, realized he didn't like one thing about his job. Bill turned to his best friend, who had just returned from an anniversary trip to Temecula, Calif., for advice. He happened to mention a nearby winery for sale.

STRONGEST TIES.

  Excited about the prospect, Bill called Gerry and Rosie, who thought the whole notion was a little crazy. After all, retirement is not usually the time for taking risks. Undeterred, Bill called his brother, Mick, a minister who lived in Sacramento, who thought the idea sounded fun. Ditto their sister, Libby, a flight attendant for American Airlines. They all agreed to take a trip to Temecula to look at the winery. "Then it was 100% buy-in," says Bill, "and it got a little scary."

After visiting the vineyard, the Wilsons were smitten. "We went down and looked at it and got hooked on the whole concept," says Gerry Wilson, a former regional mutual-fund wholesaler. It seemed like a perfect fit for the family. Although, Rosie was a native of Iowa and her parents raised dairy cattle, the Wilsons' only wine-making experience consisted of churning out dandelion and rhubarb wine in the basement of their Minnesota home, where they lived when the children were small.

Still, they began to envision themselves running a winery and dreaming about what life would be like if they worked together as a family. After all, Rosie and Gerry had imparted an important lesson to their children: family is as important as work. When the children were growing up, Gerry had always made it a priority to attend sporting and other school events. With three children now eager to work together, the lesson appeared to have stuck pretty well.

MASS MIGRATION.

  Even so, Wilson Inc. soon experienced its first disappointment: After about a year of negotiations, the owner of the winery decided that he didn't want to sell after all. Having already bought into the idea, the Wilsons began looking for another property. The family became discouraged early on because the price of wineries in Temecula was prohibitively high. Then, in 1996 they found the vineyard equivalent of a fixer upper. Although there were healthy mature vines on the property, it lacked essential infrastructure, including buildings, power, a septic system, and phone service. The family took a gamble and purchased the 20-acre vineyard, with the goal of building their own winery.

Of course, building a winery in Temecula requires living in Temecula. And like many entrepreneurs, the Wilsons put their personal assets on the line. During the summer of 1996, Gerry and Rosie Wilson sold their house in South Pasadena and moved to Temecula, living in rented houses until they could build their own on the property. A few weeks later, Libby and Craig Johns pulled up stakes and moved nearby. A year later, in the summer of 1997, Bill and Jenifer Wilson sold their house in Mission Viejo and moved into a mobile home on the property. By 1999, Mick and his wife Deanna Wilson, had also moved into a mobile home on the property.

Together, by selling their homes and borrowing money from family and friends, the Wilsons amassed $1.2 million, which helped them build the winery and open its doors in 2000. Today, the company sells 25,000 cases of wine per year. They have bought more land, taking the spread to a total of and now they've got 86 acres, of which 60 are under cultivation.By Rachael King

JAZZED UP.

  Gerry serves as the director of finance, also greeting guests at the winery and pouring glasses at the tasting bar. Rosie, a former home economics teacher and TV cooking-show host, develops the landscaping at the winery and handles daily meals for the staff. Bill Wilson took over the general management of the vineyard, supervising the wine making, building projects, and all special events. Bill's wife, Jenifer, 39, formerly a sales rep for a line of women's swimsuits and beachwear, now supervises weddings at the winery and buys for the gift shop.

Mick Wilson, 41, gave up his job as a pastor in Sacramento to become the winery's marketing director. Mick's wife, Deanna, 38, left her career as a sales rep for a dental supply company and is in charge of distribution. Mick's sister, Libby Wilson Johns, 39, turned in her flight attendant wings to become human resources director. Her husband, Craig Johns, still holds an outside position, working in sales for Johnson & Johnson, but also oversees sponsorships for the "Sunset Jazz in the Vines" concert series.

Like any family business, the Wilsons admit that they sometimes have different ideas on the best course of action. A division of labor has helped. "The biggest key to a family business is to stay out of the other person's area of responsibility," says Bill Wilson. Another important thing is to try and match jobs to each family member's expertise and interests. So far, they've been able to do that. Personal interests have even helped the business grow. "My wife and I are jazz nuts, and we pour wine at jazz concerts down in San Diego," says Bill.

SAILOR'S TIPPLE.

  In addition, Mick has nurtured a connection with the U.S. Navy. As a result, Wilson Creek has found its way aboard many ships, including seven aircraft carriers. Wilson Creek bottles Captain's Private Reserve, which captains and officers purchase with their own money and present to local dignitaries when the carrier battle group visits foreign ports. In fact, after selling 80 cases of wine to the U.S.S. Constellation, the Navy airlifted Mick, Rosie, and Gerry aboard the carrier while it was at sea. Mick is also a pastor and is starting his own church that meets at the winery. And, yes, Wilson Creek wine is used for communion. Mick also occasionally presides over weddings at the winery, as does his father-in-law, also a minister.

The Wilson family motto has always been, "family first." "We have to make sure that Wilson Creek provides for the family," says Bill Wilson. Pulling in $6 million in revenue last year, it has done just that. Need more proof? Mick Wilson recently traded up to a double-wide mobile home.

King writes about business and technology for BusinessWeek Small Biz and other publications

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