A Sweet Transition From Passion to Profession

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Garland is blessed to be a city rich with the entrepreneurial spirit. In the past few years, our city has acquired a new industry, leading that spirit to be embodied in actual spirits – whiskey, wine and craft beer to be specific. Dallas Distilleries, which produces Herman Marshall Whiskey, Queen’s Winery and Lakewood Brewery are all located right here in Garland, and they’re making quite a name for themselves on the shelves. 

I recently had the opportunity to tour Queen’s Winery and sit down with the man behind the wine, Joe Southwell, to learn about his business and just what it takes to go from hobby enthusiast to industry professional. 

According to Southwell, broadly speaking, all wine and all alcohol is made the same way. You start off with a sugar source, add yeast, the yeast consumes the sugar and becomes alcohol. Wines range from sweet to dry depending on how much of that sugar was allowed to be consumed during the process. But if you think you know where this story is headed, don’t think so fast. Queen’s Winery has a unique twist. 

“All of our wine is made from honey, there are no grapes whatsoever,” Southwell said. 

This fact comes as quite a surprise to many consumers who believe grape juice and wine are nearly synonymous, but the truth is, honey wine is the oldest form of alcohol in the books. Southwell says it even pre-dates the wheel and axel, joking that our ancient ancestors were in fact drinking before they were driving. This age-old process of winemaking involves a few extra steps because honey is naturally too rich of a sugar and can’t be fermented on its own. One of the first things they have to do is blend the honey with well-filtered water to dilute the honey and properties of it that naturally prevent fermentation. 

If you’re wondering what attracted Southwell to this specific form of winemaking, you’re not alone. He gets that question a lot, and his answer may surprise you.

“Honey is better for the environment,” Southwell said. “It takes 1,500 gallons of water to make one bottle of grape wine because grapes need to be irrigated. Bees don’t need to be irrigated to make honey. In fact, they don’t even like to be irrigated!”

After a brief crash course in what making honey wine is all about, we started to talk business. When Southwell decided to take the risk of starting his own business, there was much more to think about than just the quality of his wine, starting with location. Southwell was living nearby in Dallas and looking for a place close to home. He’d found a small place in Dallas that he liked and immediately hit a snag in the process.

“We went to get all our permits and things and the Dallas zoning laws were insane,” Southwell said. “They considered alcohol production manufacturing and therefore wherever we were had to be zoned heavy industrial.”

Needing just a small warehouse, not a giant factory, the industrial areas just didn’t suit the winery’s operations. They had an option to file for a special use permit and go before City Council, but Southwell felt like by broadening their search beyond Dallas, they might have better luck. They found Garland soon after and in his words, “The difference was night and day.”

“The government here was ready and eager to help,” Southwell said. “We said this is what we’re doing and they were like, ‘Sure!’”

There were still some health code issues to overcome, as health codes in any city are primarily written for the restaurant industry. Things that traditionally promote sanitary food handling and healthy environments weren’t practical for a winery. For example, exposed wood violates most health codes, but in the wine making industry, wood barrels are a critical part of the production process. The requirement for quarried tile floors was another rule that would prove difficult to follow as Southwell knew they’d be running forklifts across the floors to move pallets and barrels, causing tile to shatter within days. Fortunately, the Garland government was eager to make things work, suggesting solutions that matched the intent of the codes, without compromising functionality or safety. This reasonable approach is essentially what allowed the alcohol production industry to survive in Garland.

“If you have the option between Dallas and Garland, I would do Garland for business,” Southwell said. “The government is way easier to work with and more eager to work with you.”

Before ever beginning operations, Queen’s Winery had months of paperwork and legal processes to work through in addition to preparing the location and finalizing strategies. If you’re not much of a history buff, you may not know that after prohibition, the legalization of alcohol was left up to each individual state, creating 50 separate sets of laws Southwell had to learn. Although he’s only manufacturing in Texas, there are specific regulations for how he can ship the wine to other states and who he can ship it to. Legal violations in any business can be quite costly, so this requires constant monitoring.

Careful attention to detail was a common theme in our conversation, particularly as we started to talk about calculating the risks and costs of starting a business. Southwell has seen a lot of start-up businesses lose everything because they looked at the numbers poorly and risked money they couldn’t afford to lose. His best advice – watch every cost. The team at Queen’s Winery looked at several areas where they could make trade-offs. They knew they didn’t want to compromise on anything that would affect the quality of their products, but they found some other ways to cut expenses.

The winery’s dairy tank is a perfect example of a practical trade off. Instead of a traditional, vertical wine tank, Southwell decided to use a horizontal dairy tank. This type of tank allows them to regulate temperature easily and they got it at a better price, but there are some disadvantages to using a piece of equipment that wasn’t intended for wine making. It’s a little awkward for determining volume and they don’t have a floating top to prevent oxygen from reacting with the wine. They’ve used a little ingenuity and creativity to find solutions, but he says it’s all about what trades you’re willing to make. One trade they wouldn’t make – the filter. It’s the most expensive piece of equipment in the winery, and to them, it’s worth the investment.

Three years after filling their first bottle of wine at Queen’s Winery, Southwell and his team are still working hard at building their following. As most people can recognize, the honey wine market isn’t necessarily as broad as grape wine, so Southwell and his team are really focusing on educating consumers while they reintroduce the idea. 

“We’re still tackling awareness,” Southwell said. “Some people still don’t realize that wine can even be made from honey.”

One thing’s for sure, no matter what business you’re in, entrepreneurship is a roller coaster, with high highs and low lows, but if you’ve got the stomach for it, Southwell says that with the high risk comes high reward. As we wrapped things up, he shared these lessons learned in the business’s first three years. 

  1. “You have to get thick skin. There are people who you’re not going to please.”
    In the early months, Southwell found it difficult to keep from getting offended when people tasted his wine and didn’t like it. After all the effort, time and money put into a product, it can be tough to not take criticism personally. Southwell encourages entrepreneurs, artists and craftsman of any kind to remember that you can’t be everything to everyone. Some people will love your product, some people won’t; and that’s ok.
  2. “Run your numbers all the way through.”
    Southwell emphasized the importance of thinking practically when looking at budgets, expenses and projected revenue. Think about how many people you’ll actually be able to approach in a day, how likely they are to make a purchase and how long it will be until they purchase again
  3. “Think about why somebody would want to spend what they have for what you’re offering.”
    Consumers have a lot of options in almost every product category. When starting your own business, make sure you understand what makes you unique. People work hard for their money. Is your product their best option?
  4. “Don’t be super worried about people stealing your idea.”
    Southwell says he knows lots of people with great ideas, but they won’t tell anyone. He reminds people considering entrepreneurship that talking to other people about your ideas, particularly people in the industry, is the only what you’ll find out whether it’s going to work. He says people are busy working and being successful at what they are doing and they’re probably not as interested in stealing your idea as you are paranoid that they will.
  5. “Above all, be honest.”
    Sometimes things might not be perfect. Maybe your projections were off, maybe an order didn’t get filled on time, but whether you’re talking to consumers, suppliers, distributors or anyone else, don’t deceive. You may not need to tell everybody everything, but don’t lie to anyone. Your credibility as a business owner is always more important.

Queen’s Winery wines can be purchased at Market Street, Perry’s Liquor, Dallas Farmers Market, Sigel’s and various other locations. Visit www.queenswinery.com to find a full list or to buy online.

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