By Courtney Drake-McDonough
The secret’s out about Colorado’s wine scene. Its varietals, grown on some of the highest vineyards in the world and exposed to more than three hundred days of warm sunshine, cool nights, low humidity, and mountain runoff, are winning awards internationally. At the roots of many of those wineries are the couples who run them. With a business that ebbs and flows depending on weather and trends, these couples are combining long hours of living and working together, pouring their passion into each bottle.
Scott and Sherrie Hamilton had already worked together for thirteen years in other industries. For the next phase of their lives, they knew they wanted to own a business jointly while living in a rural area with a warm climate. "We looked at peach orchards and fruit stands but really liked the vineyard lifestyle," says Scott. They opened Red Fox Cellars in the Grand Valley area of western Colorado with a view of the Grand Mesa and Mount Garfield.
The Hamiltons have been married more than thirty-four years and say working together comes naturally for them. That doesn’t mean they never experience issues, though. “We have always argued, from the day we met,” says Scott, “and sometimes we can get pretty heated, but we always seem to settle down and meet in the middle.” After working together for so long, Scott and Sherrie feel the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages. “We both offer each other constructive criticism, and there is a huge trust factor because we’re both working toward the same goals,” he says.
Michael Hasler and his wife, Carolee Corey, of Decadent Saint Winery, never planned to work together, but a Christmas party set them on that path. As a winemaker during his youth in Australia, Michael was trying to figure out what to do with his new life in Colorado after he married Carolee, who had a childcare business. Michael received rave reviews for his spiced chocolate mulled wine at a holiday party, and afterward texted Carolee to say he wanted to go into the wine business—which led to creating a line of wine-based cocktail mixers. Carolee saved her husband’s text to remember that moment. “It’s one of those fun things when you set an intention,” she says. That intention became a successful business. As demand and sales increased, Carolee decided she would sell her company to join her husband in running Decadent Saint.
For Billie and Bob Witham, owning a winery wasn’t the business they had initially wanted to go into together. In the late 1990s, they bought land in Grand Junction with the intention of building a gated patio home community for seniors. They abandoned the idea, but that night, they shared a lackluster bottle of wine, which sparked the desire to learn more about the winemaking business. The land once meant for patio homes became the land upon which they started a vineyard and Two Rivers Winery and Chateau, their guest house/event center.
The land once meant for patio homes became the land upon which they started a vineyard and Two Rivers Winery and Chateau, their guest house/event center.
Each of these couples divvies up job responsibilities by their strengths and areas of interest. In many cases, the men handle winemaking, and the women manage the business activities. However, in the case of Nancy Janes and her husband, John Behrs, owners of Whitewater Hill Vineyards, those roles are reversed. “Nancy got the winemaker job,” says John. “She’s more outgoing, too, so it was natural for her to do more sales and tasting room duties.” Nancy agrees, adding, “John does more of the technical roles that are more suited to his personality and skills.” The couple, who have been married for twenty-six years, have their own winery but also supply grapes to many of the wineries in the region.
For other couples in the business, roles change depending on the need. Doug and Karen Kingman run Kingman Estates Winery in an industrial neighborhood in Denver, using grapes from the Western Slope. While they have their areas of specialty, they say wearing multiple hats goes with the territory, as does the need to remain flexible. “Our business is constantly evolving,” says Doug. “Maybe someday it will be constant, but so far, it’s not, and we each do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.”
Living and working together can make it difficult, if not impossible, to create a division between the two. “It’s twenty-four seven,” says Carolee. “I think that’s normal for entrepreneurs. You find a way of relating to each other that doesn’t just involve numbers or the next iteration of our marketing material.”
The winemaking business rarely takes a break, especially when there is a tasting room providing a year-round source of income. These couples often work seven days a week. “It takes planning, planning, planning,” says Scott, who gets away with his wife for a weekend three or four times per year.
“If we don’t take the time to put deposits into our marriage, we might end up with a successful business but without our marriage,” says Carolee. Her husband agrees.
“If we don’t take the time to put deposits into our marriage, we might end up with a successful business but without our marriage,” says Carolee. Her husband agrees. “It’s a matter of having our hallowed time,” says Michael. “It’s important to give yourself gaps with each other and by yourself.”
Working long hours together for a common goal has enabled these illustrious couples to learn things about each other they might not have otherwise. “We’ve gained increased respect for each other’s professional capabilities—something often not seen if you don’t work together in a business setting,” says Doug. “We have an opportunity to share the joys and frustrations of striving to make a business successful, and in doing so have come to rely on each other more than ever before.”
“Life working with my spouse has been both easier and more challenging than I ever imagined,” says Billie Witham. She credits her husband’s knowledge, leadership, and patience for making working together easier but adds that because they are so immersed and invested in the success of their business, they have to remind each other to step back and enjoy their accomplishments.
One of the dangers of living and working together is taking each other for granted. “Remember that you love each other and say it every day,” Doug advises. “Be prepared to walk away from the business if it becomes more important than your relationship.”
“Some days are better than others,” agrees Scott. “There’s no trick that I know of—running a small business is tough duty, but it sure helps when you’re doing something you like.”
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Denver native Courtney Drake-McDonough is a writer and editor specializing in arts, culture, and travel. She enjoys traveling to unlikely destinations that make people ask, “Why would you want to go there?” She enjoys responding, “That’s exactly what I’m going to go find out.”