“It was one of the scariest times of my life,” says Rick Black, ’71. It was seven years of uncertainty; waiting for the right moment to ripen. “All I wanted was the opportunity to fail.”
For several decades, Black was heavily involved with a variety of companies, earning a successful career in finance. However, in 1999 he knew that change was in the air. “I wanted to start something that was interesting and unique.”
At this time, he and his wife, Kathy, did not know what that would entail. To be sure, wine was not in their sights. “We were never into wine. Whatever wine we had, we had gotten from my parents. But we never drank it. When we finally opened it, we found out it had oxidized and we had to throw it out.” Black knew that he wanted a business that he could control vertically.
“We had an epiphany when we were in southern Indiana.” Upon visiting some local wineries, they realized that the wine industry posed an interesting challenge. After inquiring to several local wineries about setting up a tasting room of their own, which would feature another company’s wine, they were politely told no. He realized, “What kind of business would that be if I was just going to be a manager?”
The Blacks began doing their research to find out what they needed to get started making and selling their own wine. “That was all fun; making the business plan, until I realized I didn’t know how to make wine.” They started getting involved with local associations and attending various conferences. They knew on the outset they would need to find some land. “When we started, we thought finding the property would be the easiest and learning to make wine would be the hardest. In reality, the opposite was true.”
They began the process of property searching, while learning the fundamentals of winemaking. “It was something that was creative. It was so foreign to me” explained Black. They started to experiment. In their first attempt, they entered three wines into the Indiana amateur wine category and won a gold, silver, and bronze. They thought they were onto something. “It was damn good that I had the education and the experience. I was able to make decisions on the fly…It gave me the freedom to focus on the unfamiliar.”
Despite their progress, seven years into the endeavor they still didn’t have the land they needed to make a full scale production facility. Rick had left his job, and dedicated all of his uncompensated time bringing the plan to fruition. They were so desperate for property, they almost bought an old gas station, thinking it was the best they would be able to do. After that realization, Rick almost called it quits. “That was probably the blackest part of my life. I started sending out resumes.”
Finally, after seven years of waiting they stumbled upon the perfect place. Early in the business plan, Rick and his wife had already decided on the name of the business: Wildcat Creek Winery, a local landmark they thought would strongly identify them within the region. Sure enough, they found a plot of land a quarter mile from Wildcat Creek in the crook of the waterway. The entrance was right over the bridge that crossed it.
It was a struggle to make sure that this opportunity wasn’t passed up. “I felt like a man standing up in a canoe. I was trying to methodically move forward.” Some regulatory hurdles made the proverbial water a little choppy. Zoning laws required a winery to be on commercial property. After a stiff battle with local authorities, they were able to get agricultural zoning and get an exception for their winery.
When Rick was at Northwood, he remembered being really impacted by Orval Watts’ Free Markets or Famine. He remembers, “[It] was a series of essays that shows that time and again, when government stays away from the market, it flourishes.” True to his own story, once the hurdles were removed, he was able to fulfill a dream he had for many years.
Indeed, the cooperative nature of the market became obvious to him here. Wineries do better when there are other wineries around them; more wineries bring more visitors. Rick has begun paying it forward for those beginning their own path into wine making. “The people that I was bothering [when I first started], I have become that person.”
Now, in their fourth year of operation, Wildcat Creek Winery can boast of many accolades; they are highly respected by their peers and are the recipient of multiple awards.
And there is one thing of which they can be certain: this endeavor will only get better with age.
- Christopher Deming