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Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Recipe and a Dream...

An Inside Look into the Unicorn Wine Guild

Dreams are not always easy to follow. As sad as that is to say, people usually have some conflict, be it financial issues or just sheer improbability of success, which prevents them from ever getting the opportunity to fulfill their ambitions. However, for a couple in Belpre, Ohio, nothing was going to stand in their way as they strived to make their longtime dream become a tangible reality.

In March 2009, Barbara and Joel Whitaker opened the Unicorn Wine Guild. The couple had been talking about opening their own winery for years, but it wasn’t until recently that they took the initiative to go out and do it. After traveling to vineyards and sampling wines from all over the world, the couple decided that it was their turn to give something back to the world of wine.

Located at 1816 Washington Boulevard (right across from the Hardee’s), the establishment itself is very different from the conventional winery. Set-up inside an old drug store, the neutral colors and homelike features (i.e. couches and an aquarium) make the Unicorn Wine Guild seem more like someone’s house than a wine manufactory.

Inside this old drugstore, the couple produces all of their own wines and they even teach courses on how to create homemade wine.

The whole process began one Christmas several years ago when the couple was given the supplies needed to make their own wine.

“My nephew would always give us books on wine, or wine appreciation guides, and then one Christmas he gave us a three gallon glass carboy and a fermenting pail,” says Joel.

Joel admits that he had a basic idea of the winemaking process, but had never actually tried to make wine himself.

“Let me note, I didn’t have an actual wine making kit when I first started,” says Joel. “I had a wine recipe."

That proved to be all he needed.

Despite knowing little about the winemaking procedure, Joel says that the first batch he ever made turned out to be delectable. So good, in fact, that he bottled some of it up and gave it away to friends as gifts.

“When I heard that my friends actually enjoyed the wine I made, that’s when I began thinking that this could be more than just a simple hobby."

The couple has spent the last few years trying to figure out what they want to do when they retire. Joel is currently a Dentist while his wife, Barbara, works as a nurse anesthetist, but the two felt they wanted to do more once they retired from their jobs.

This is how the idea to create the wine guild began. A little inspiration from some friends and some self-determination was all the couple needed to follow their passion.

-A shelf displaying several of the wines produced
at the Unicorn Wine Guild

Barbara says that the hardest part about starting up was finding a reasonable location to open the business.

“We looked everywhere in and around Belpre,” she said. “I could tell you any vacancy in the area and exactly how much it cost.”

But finding an empty lot to place their business into wasn’t their only problem.

It is actually illegal to sell alcohol in Belpre ever since prohibition began in 1920. The reason why Barbara and Joel are able to maintain their store is because their business permits them to be labeled as a manufactory.

According to Belpre Area Chamber of Commerce president Teresa Turner, manufactories in Belpre are allowed to sell alcohol within a commercial zone under the condition that they produce all of the alcohol themselves within the establishment.

Knowing this, Joel thought that it would be a great idea to set up several winemaking stations, not only to make wine to sell to customers, but also so that customers can come in and make their own wine.

- Several of the winemaking stations.

“It was actually my wife’s idea to come in here and take a shot at making some wine,” says David Mallitz. “We just finished making a merlot and are currently waiting for our pinot grigio to ferment.”

Mallitz is one of many people excited about the wine that they’ve been able to create here.

“We really had no idea just how many people would be interested in making there own wine,” says Joel. “But as more people began showing up, we knew that we had to start setting up more stations.”

While Joel and Barbara teach the patrons how to make their own wine, they say that it is completely up to the customer how much involvement they want to have in the process.

“There is only one stipulation that we cannot help our patrons with,” says Barbara. “The customers are only allowed to take their finished product home if they sprinkle the yeast in themselves. It’s a legal requirement in all dry counties.”

But, why unicorns?

Well, it’s a mixture of Joel’s first effort at making wine and Barbara’s childhood infatuation.

As a child, Barbara Whitaker loved unicorns. She grew up on a farm and was constantly surrounded by horses, but it was the aspect of fantasy that attracted her to the mystical creature. Her love for unicorns eventually proved to be an instrumental part in helping the couples wine find its’ own identity.

“When we were first starting out, the wine would always overflow and get all over my kitchen,” says Barbara. “We eventually decided to put the carboys in the bathtub so that if they did happen to flood, they could easily drain out.”

As the wine spilled into the bathtub it stained the bathtub with a hue that resembled blood. Because of this, the couple frequently referred to the wine as “unicorn blood”. They both chuckled as they explained the reason for calling it this was because the first batch was “oh, so magical.”

Though initially just a joke, the name stuck around and that’s how the couple came up with the name of their business.

-Image courtesy of

The Unicorn Wine Guild has only been open for a year, yet the business is beginning to blossom. At this rate, the couple may be able to retire a bit sooner than they had thought.

"Even if it isn't the greatest winery in the world, we took a risk and I can't explain how happy I am that we did," says Joel. "The future of the Unicorn Wine Guild is hard to predict, but I'm excited for the ride."

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