AS THE ADAGE GOES, “If you want to make a small fortune from a winery, start with a large one.” Such has been the case for many a second-career entrepreneur. Just ask Patricia Kluge, who reportedly received upward of $25 million from her ex-husband, media mogul John Kluge, and sank it and quite a bit more into a Charlottesville, Va., winery that declared bankruptcy two years ago. It’s now Trump Vineyard Estates, owned by none other than the Donald. So how does he expect to make money from this rather risky, capital-intensive business? To gain some insight, I tasted some of the newly released wines and chatted with Eric Trump, a son of the Donald, who is now in charge of the project for his family.
While Eric has no formal training in the wine business, he has developed a modest collection with a great interest in the history of each bottle that he purchases. He particularly enjoys bottles from smaller, undiscovered areas. With responsibility for other projects, like development of the Seven Springs property in Bedford, he’s not planning to live in Virginia but visits frequently and says that he’s “loving” the opportunity and challenge.
Currently, the amount of wine being produced at the facility is about 45,000 cases, which is about the same amount as produced by Château Lafite Rothschild in France and less than 1 percent of what the Robert Mondavi Winery in California produces.
“We have the capacity to put out over 100,000 cases of wine, but we need to increase our production gradually so that we maintain the quality,” Eric says. “Also, if we’re successful here it would not be out of the question to purchase another winemaking property.”
When I asked why he thought the Trump family could make a go of it when Patricia Kluge – who probably spent upward of $100 million over the past 12 years – couldn’t, his answer was both upbeat and comprehensive, showing more than a passing knowledge of the business.
“It takes quite a while to develop a world-class winery from scratch and when she was here, Patricia Kluge and her staff did an excellent job at developing the site. But the vineyards and rest of the property are finally maturing and now should be able to consistently produce what we think is exceptional wine. Importantly, we feel that a quality product is the key to our success. Also, we have many natural marketing avenues open to us like our country clubs, casinos and hotels that can serve as outlets for the wines. And while we do not have direct experience in the wine business, we have a great staff, top-class consultants like world-famous winemaker Michel Rolland and we certainly understand marketing and sales dynamics and what it takes to excel in any business, which again means putting out a high-quality product that will develop customer loyalty.”
So, are the wines any good? Let me say that before I tasted them, even with the Trump hype and a classy label, I was not expecting much from recent vintages from this bankrupt property in Virginia – not regarded as a winemaking mecca even though the area has been well-known for growing grapes and winemaking since the time of Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, the last Trump foray into the licensed beverage market, with a rather harsh-tasting vodka at a premium price, was unsuccessful. Surprisingly overall, I thought that the wines were quite good, especially the reds, with the sparkling and whites showing promise – all far exceeding my expectations.
So to Eric, the Donald and the rest of the Trump family, I raise my glass in a toast to your continued success at newfound careers in the wine business.