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Q&A with Mike Wilson, partner of The Vineyard at Hershey

As a partner of The Vineyard at Hershey, "Merlot Mike" Wilson has been instrumental in growing the Londonderry Township-based winery. From left, Mike Wilson, Meron Yemane, Renée Custer and Amy Zentz, Wilson's wife. - (Photo / VisitHersheyHarrisburg.org)

By day, Mike Wilson is vice president of relationship management at Members 1st Federal Credit Union. After hours, he’s a partner of The Vineyard at Hershey LLC in Londonderry Township, whose brands also include The Brewery at Hershey and The DeCider.

Better known to adoring wine fans as “Merlot Mike,” Wilson is one of five partners who have grown the vineyard since 2012, adding brewery operations in 2013. Often making appearances in his signature grape-colored suit, he is the voice of the winery, particularly on social media. His seemingly endless enthusiasm and eccentric event marketing ideas — such as flying in on a helicopter or riding in with Orange County Choppers — certainly help differentiate The Vineyard at Hershey from other local wineries.

CPBJ: Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

MW: My career evolved from the field of education, where I was really working with a lot of people who were trying to figure out what they wanted to do and be. That led to my work in government relations and getting to know elected officials and the past six years of getting to know the winery’s brand. It definitely has all blended together. I’ve also completed the Leadership Harrisburg, Cumberland, Lancaster and Lebanon programs, and I’ve gotten to know great people in the all the surrounding counties that way.

CPBJ: How do you balance your time between both workplaces and your personal life?

MW: You can’t achieve world domination if you take a lot of time sleeping. In all sincerity, the winery has really matured now. We’ve hit our stride and know what we’re doing … we build our calendar way in advance. And we follow a Disney business model with everyone being part of a “cast.” They are just fantastic. It’s very easy for me to balance my responsibilities because we have a great group of people managing everything.

I’m not the only partner who’s doing a full-time job — we’re all doing something. For me, Members 1st comes first, and then I do everything around that.

With the winery, most of what I’m doing there, that’s really a hospitality-driven organization, and that’s going to be primarily evenings and weekends.

As far as my personal life goes, the importance of having a great teammate is key. Amy (my wife) has been incredibly supportive.

CPBJ: How did the idea to start a winery come about?

MW: I met Jason (Reimer) and Paul (Vezzetti) at happy hour at Carley’s (Ristorante & Piano Bar) in downtown Harrisburg. They already knew each other. I overheard a conversation they were having, as I’ve been known to do — I like to talk to strangers. The whole concept for the world-famous Merlot & Pumpkin Beer Release Party started at that very happy hour, or happy hours, as it turned into. Jason said we should do one of those Napa Valley-style release parties. The rest is history.

CPBJ: How did you develop the brewery side of the business?

MW: We used the capital from the winery to front the brewery. We needed that production space. We needed to figure out how we were going to do the setup and make that work. Once we got everything squared away with the new building, we did an “American Idol”-style casting call for brewmaster. We talked to 60-some candidates. Basically, we wanted to duplicate Paul (the winemaker), but on the craft beer side. We were looking for a homebrewer that wanted to go big. And we wanted to be really comfortable with them because we were looking to make them a partner.

CPBJ: How has the winery grown?

MW: As far as the wine side goes, there are 208 wineries in Pennsylvania, and we cracked the top 10 percent this year in sales and production. We’ve been growing pretty steadily each year. Beer is growing great and the cider brand has really been growing a following. What’s going to be interesting for us is tracking our growth because of our new partnership with Wegmans. In addition to wine, Wegmans has just added the beer because we’ve started bottling.

CPBJ: What do your numbers look like for this year?

MW: We are trending another 20 percent growth for the end of 2016. I anticipate 2017 will be bigger yet. So we’ll be ramping up production to get there.

CPBJ: What has been your biggest challenge in establishing and growing the business?

MW: It’s one of those things that’s really a blessing and a curse. We don’t have endless resources — we’re not venture capitalists and we’re very fiscally conservative. Everything we make, we put right back into it. We have this long wish list of what we want to do, but we have limited capability to do them. We always want to be able to meet demand from a production standpoint without losing our focus on quality. So the lack of resources has been a challenge, but that also forces creativity, which is what I love.

CPBJ: Do you have any upcoming projects or products in the works?

MW: Next year is our fifth year, so we’ll be celebrating that all year with different things. Last year, for the Merlot Release Party, we had our first big concert with Everclear, which brought in 10,800 people. For 2017, we will be working on two concerts with national recording artists — one for our Straws ‘n Stripes military benefit and one for our Merlot & Pumpkin Beer Release Party.

CPBJ: What do you consider your most significant business success to date?

MW: Just continuing to be able to grow every year. When you start a business and you start it from nothing, to even make it to five years is something we’re really proud of. The customers who have come to our business, they have built it. We have always done things through crowdsourcing — from choosing our logo to our products. Those people become our family, and we get to know them on a personal level — it’s truly rewarding.

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