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Adams County couple makes post-retirement career in wine business

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John and Noemi Halbrendt in their winery and vineyard in Franklin Township, Adams County. The pair moved from careers at Penn State into retirement as vintners.
John and Noemi Halbrendt in their winery and vineyard in Franklin Township, Adams County. The pair moved from careers at Penn State into retirement as vintners. - (Photo / )

If you would have asked John and Noemi Halbrendt a decade ago about their plans for retirement, it's unlikely either would have predicted winemaking.

But that is the path they have taken.

The couple spent years in academia before launching Halbrendt Vineyard & Winery in Franklin Township, a five-acre, boutique winery located seven miles west of Gettysburg in the scenic foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It may seem as if the stars aligned to take them where they are today, but much more than luck was at play as they embarked on their ‘second act.’

A symbiotic relationship

John and Noemi’s lives intersected on the job as they pursued their respective careers. Noemi earned a doctorate in plant pathology in Japan, before embarking on post-doctorate work in Winnipeg, Canada.

Finding the frigid Canadian winters a bit too cold for her liking, she moved to the Philippines, accepting a job at the Philippine Rice Institute.

That is where she met John, who had earned a doctorate in the same field. He was working at the institute while on sabbatical from his job as an associate professor at Penn State. The couple met during the first week of work.

“That was 22 years ago,” said John, whose colleague later hired Noemi as a lab assistant at the Penn State Fruit Lab in Biglerville where John worked as a nematologist – studying worms. She oversaw research projects.

From busy to business

In 1997 the couple bought a 35-acre tract of Adams County in an area with less than 200 residents. They did so with the idea of enjoying nature, tending a garden and allowing their dog to run freely without bothering any neighbors.

But they knew that a portion of the land was good for agriculture, John said, and soon discovered there was a market for wine grapes, so the couple began cultivating a vineyard over a period of seven years.

Bit by bit, the couple planted vines, installed a trellis, and purchased a tractor, sprayer and other equipment necessary to take care of the vineyard. They also attended workshops on grape growing and learned from other growers.

The couple’s expertise in plant pathology also came in handy for controlling diseases. Using pesticides judiciously became a priority. “As plant pathologists, we understand disease cycles and infection periods. By paying attention to the weather, we try to apply pesticides only when they are needed,” John said.

Soon John was inspired to begin experimenting with his own wines.

“As a beginner, I knew very little about making wine, but I had plenty of grapes to practice with,” said the entrepreneur, who initially intended to make wine only for gift purposes.

Soon he found himself taking the hobby one step further by attending wine workshops, watching YouTube videos, reading books and networking with other winemakers.

Winning several medals in international amateur competitions convinced him that he was on the right track. As the couple neared retirement, they began seriously considering running a winery, but neither was fond of the idea of going into debt.

“In the beginning, the money from grape sales was used to cover the cost of establishing the vineyard and buying equipment. Later we decided that by converting our garage into the winery, we could get into the business without breaking the bank,” said John.

Attracting customers

The couple, who do all the work themselves, just ended their third year in business offering varietal wines and blends made from Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin, Cayuga White, Traminette, Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay, Niagara and local fruit. At the moment, the winery features 12 different wines and sales have been increasing, primarily through word of mouth. Last year the couple sold about 1,100 gallons, estimated at approximately 5,500 bottles.

The tasting room, which accommodates about a dozen customers, is most popular during the warmer months, but the couple also hosts events around the winter holidays.

Ensuring sustainability

The business has kept the couple active and productive after retirement. In that regard, it’s been rewarding, according to John.

“It’s not making us rich, but there are enough perks to make us feel good about the business,” said John, noting that income from the winery covers all costs associated with running it and they enjoy taking part in continuing education opportunities. “Last February we took part in a cider workshop in New Zealand,” he added.

The couple has overcome the initial learning curve and things are now down to a rhythm where they know what they need to do at each stage of the process. “I always say if we get a week behind, it takes us three weeks to catch up,” said John.

There’s also the business side, from accurate record keeping, to obtaining advice from a tax preparer and filing reports with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an arm of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Financial planner Anthony Conte says that people who embark upon a second act shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of recordkeeping. “We advise people to have a good accountant and make sure your CPA can get you the right deductions.”

Conte also advises entrepreneurs to build their businesses like they’re planning to sell them. “This enables them to view the operation dispassionately and if, in the end, they decide not to sell, the value is increased anyway,” said Conte, managing partner at Conte Wealth Advisors in Camp Hill.

The Halbrendts are pleased with the direction that the winery is taking, with year-over-year increase in sales and the exercise it provides for both body and brain. The winery also provides them with the opportunity to socialize with the public and the freedom to set their own schedules.

The compliments, which seem to flow as freely as the wine, are just icing on the cake. “When I hear someone say, ‘I like that,’ that’s a good feeling,” said John.

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