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Couple Stakes a Business in Backyard Vineyards

First comes the big new house on the hill, then the swimming pool and the tennis court. But that makes barely a dimple in the surrounding sea of weeds.

Put in a couple of acres of grape vines and the view improves. It’s practical, too: The wine cellar can be stocked from the backyard vineyard, and still there will be enough left to place a few self-labeled bottles at a favorite restaurant, ready for the next big business lunch.

All of this is easier said than done.

Eddy Szyjewicz and Nan Rosner, who are in the business of developing, managing and acting as consultants for what Rosner calls “custom estate vineyards,” say they get calls from people who have 10-year-old vineyards that still are not yielding.

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That’s when Szyjewicz and Rosner are asked to apply their expertise. It takes work, knowledge and money to make your mark, however small, in the winery world.

Szyjewicz reckons that between $15,000 and $25,000 an acre is required to bring a vineyard into production, and says anyone really serious about growing grapes needs about 20 acres. Owners of little one- or two-acre spreads “would make more money investing in a good stock or mutual fund--and probably with a little less risk.”

Still, it is a wonderful hobby, and it can be something more.

Arturo Klein, a businessman whose 2 1/2-acre vineyard Szyjewicz and Rosner manage, says he originally thought: “Instead of bushes, why not have something that makes more sense?” But his 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, which he bottles more for fun than with any thought of profit, turned out to be so good that he intends to sell the ’85, which will be bottled this month, to restaurants.

‘Timing Is Right’

Klein, a Swiss, hopes to sell about half of his wine to restaurateurs in Switzerland. He has already given them “sneak previews” of the ’84. “There is a lot of curiosity in Europe for something different,” he explains. “So the timing is right and the dollar exchange favorable.”

He will never produce enough to cause sleepless nights for Gallo, but Klein is optimistic that it will work out to be “a little commercial venture that will pay for itself and hopefully leave a profit at the end of the day.”

Unlike Klein, Szyjewicz and Rosner started out thinking big. They had received their masters degrees in horticulture, specializing in viticulture at the University of California, Davis.

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Szyjewicz says: “When we first arrived here, we had the Davis mentality--we were going to manage a large vineyard, but we are finding that there are advantages to small ones. We can know them vine by vine.”

The two met in 1971 when Rosner, 17, was just finishing school at Hamilton High in Los Angeles, and Szyjewicz, 19, was selling tires. Together they enrolled at West Los Angeles City College, and then went on to the University of California, Santa Cruz, and UC Davis. They were married in 1978.

Their introduction to wine came in a wine-tasting class at UC Santa Cruz.

“It was really a class for novices,” Rosner says. “The one we took at Davis was hard-core. Afterward, we would weave around on our bikes even though we never swallowed anything.”

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In fact, the couple drink very little. With dinner, Rosner generally drinks milk and Szyjewicz has Pepsi, except when they have guests.

While they were at UC Santa Cruz, they managed a small vineyard for one of their professors. Then, fresh out of Davis, they did a six-month feasibility study for a German fiberglass company that was looking for a vineyard site east of the Rocky Mountains. Later, Szyjewicz worked as a vineyard manager in Saratoga while Rosner took care of another one, and together they did some consulting jobs.

In 1982, they were asked by prospective buyers to do a feasibility study of an abandoned Christmas tree farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains to see if it was a suitable site for a vineyard.

It was, and the couple moved into an old house adjoining the property and spent two years developing a 20-acre vineyard for the owners. Then, in the summer of 1985, fire swept through the mountains, coming within five feet of their house and burning through the young vines.

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Now they had an obvious name for the property--Wildfire Vineyards--but unfortunately, although the vineyard floundered on for another year, “the owners went broke, for reasons unrelated to this place, and essentially disappeared,” Rosner says.

New Business Was Born

Meanwhile, people kept calling to say they wanted help in starting backyard vineyards and a new business was born. Most people find them through referrals or through the classes they teach at local junior colleges and at UC Davis.

Rosner and Szyjewicz call themselves DeVine Consultants because, as Szyjewicz points out, “there is no way anyone would do business with Szyjewicz.” When people concentrate, he says, they can spell Szyjewicz, but then as often as not they turn around and misspell Eddy.

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They still live next to what was to be Wildfire Vineyards--now rapidly returning to nature--in a rambling house the core of which was an old carriage house for a Victorian, which burned down long ago. Home is shared with three dogs, a King snake, a turtle and two tortoises, one found walking down the road after the 1985 fire.

Eventually, Szyjewicz and Rosner hope to have their own vineyard, but for now, they are “too busy to look actively,” Szyjewicz says.

A while back, they started to put together a limited partnership to buy Wildfire Vineyards, but found it was going to be too expensive, and then the fire hit. Now, “after dealing with the unpredictability of others, we have decided to rely only on ourselves,” Szyjewicz says.

Most of what they earn goes back into the business, which requires a lot of specialized and expensive equipment. Their Fiat tractor had to be customized so five-foot-tall Rosner could reach the clutch. Recently, they hired their first full-time employee.

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Their clients are a varied lot. Some simply want to produce enough wine to give away as Christmas presents, others don’t even get that far, selling off the grapes at the end of the season.

“There is a high demand for quality grapes,” Rosner says. “The local wineries will kill for the grapes here, because there are just not enough, and with the steep slopes, there never will be an excess.”

Some backyard vineyard owners just want advice from DeVine, and then prefer to do the work themselves, others will work along with them, while still others want them to do a very specific job, like spraying fungicide. For others, like Klein, they provide full service, even producing the wine.

“We prefer that,” Szyjewicz says, “because then we have the best control over the final product.”

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In developing a vineyard, they consider aesthetics as well as the functional aspects. “We try to reflect the owner’s taste,” Rosner says.

Sometimes they will paint the deer fence, other times cover it with vines. Or they will use split redwood stakes instead of metal ones to give a rustic look. After all, the vineyard often doubles as the view from the kitchen window--"a nice alternative to poison oak and ticks,” Szyjewicz says.

Szyjewicz points out that “what we do now doesn’t pay off for five or even 10 years from now. People have to have a lot of patience for this. The hardest news for them to accept is how long it is going to take.”

On the other hand, for Szyjewicz and Rosner one of the satisfactions of their work is that “we know it will be there past our lifetime.”

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