Krisit and Nate Shopbell left their corporate jobs to pursue their dream of entering the wine indsutry.
While Kristi and Nate Shopbell had corporate jobs, they got into wine as a hobby. They enjoyed wine tourism and making their own wine at home, and they were having fun doing it. Their interest then developed into the desire to start their own wine business.
Over a two-year process, the Shopbells developed their plan and educated themselves on how to do grape-to-wine. They worked with the librarians in Plymouth, Michigan, to research weather and soil data to see where they could feasibly grow a vineyard. They consulted with the MSU Product Center and the national Small Business Development Center that support startups.
“We also attended a lot of Google University,” Kristi joked. “As we researched, I realized I’m an East side of Michigan person. Not that I don’t love the West side, but we knew we wanted to start our business here. Then the question came – can we grow on the East side?”
A Tough Start
In Croswell, Michigan, the Shopbells found 35 acres, with 17 tillable, that had been a soybean field. In 2007, they moved there from Plymouth and entered into a two-year land contract.
Shannon Arbaugh, a VP of lending for GreenStone, became a part of their business plan when they financed their first tractor. They then began planting their vineyard, but the weather didn’t cooperate.
“In 2008, we planted 24 vines on one acre,” Kristi said. “Then the next season, we planted another acre. They were up and growing great in 2014, which is when the polar vortex hit. It was -30 degrees, and we lost 40% of the grapes. It was terrible, and the ones that did survive still looked terrible.”
Unfortunately, the next season wasn’t any better.
“We replanted, and then the second polar vortex hit,” Kristi said. “The first years on a vineyard are a lot of pretty intense work, and now we were back to square one.”
The Shopbells modified their planting plan, and eventually found hardy varietals that performed better in colder, unpredictable weather.
A Trusted Lender
The land came with a house that had been on the market for four years, and it needed a lot of work. The Shopbells worked with GreenStone to finance it.
“Shannon came to look at the house as we were remodeling it,” Kristi said. “It’s an 1800s farmhouse, we had to gut it, and fix the foundation of it. Shannon was realistic, but also supportive of what we were doing.”
Opening The Doors
Despite the impact of the polar vortex, in 2014 the Shopbells opened a tasting room on their farm site – 3 North Vines.
“It’s great the way the property is laid out, because it’s on top of a hill, and the barn is surrounded by vines,“ she said.
“It’s a cool kind of environment, because now the tasting room is creeping into the vineyard, which makes people ask a lot of questions when they’re right next to the grapes. This gives us a chance to teach about the actual agriculture that goes into our wine.”
The vineyard tasting room in Croswell is currently open seven days a week and employs 14 part-time and two full-time people. Nate works off the farm as a project manager for Ground Effects Ltd., but he spends every spare minute on the farm managing the vineyard.
Kristi works in the vineyard and is more involved in the wine making side of the business. Over the year, she prunes the vines, cuts them back, rakes them out and cleans up the vineyard, tucks the vines, removes leaves by hand to allow for better air movement, and clips buds. She compared making wine at home to making it commercially to going from making one batch of cookies to 25.
“When you multiply your product by 25, you run into challenges like lifting a 200-gallon tank – knowing where you set it, that’s where it’s going to stay,” she said. “You need more grapes, and once a year you have the one chance to bring it in and make everything right. It goes from field to crusher to stemmer…not many wineries in the state grow their own grapes, and I can see why. It’s a lot easier to buy them.”
Expanding Their Operation
The Shopbells later met Ryan Mulrenin and formed a partnership in a second tasting room in downtown Lexington. They also worked with GreenStone on the expansion.
“I love the downtown atmosphere, and we’re going to add a brewery and kitchen aspect to it in the future,” Ryan said. “With our experience, it should be a good transition.”
Shannon has enjoyed working with 3 North Vines for the last decade.
“I’m continually amazed at the research they do for everything related to opening, growing and expanding their business,” Shannon said. “They had a vision and they have made it a reality – a beautiful and successful reality.”
Shannon worked to support them through the difficult times of shutdowns in 2020.
“The pandemic obviously affected everyone, especially those with retail businesses like 3 North Vines,” Shannon said. “Nate and Kristi were very adaptive and made changes so that they could keep their business open, and as a result they actually had one of their most prosperous years ever.”
For instance, the Shopbells added an outdoor patio, additional outside seating, an updated menu and hosted several small outdoor weddings.
“To me, this is the true definition of a successful, creative and innovative business owner – adjusting to change while building your customer base all while remaining profitable,” Shannon said. “With Kristi’s bubbly personality and industry knowledge, Nate’s attention to detail, and Ryan’s knowledge and experience, they make an excellent team and truly are the recipe for success.”
Kristi, Nate, their two sons Parker (10) and Lincoln (8) are enjoying their rural life and running their growing business.
“There are days I miss sitting behind a computer, but Nate, the kids and I love where we live and work,” she said. “People coming to our farm are here for this exact experience.”