By Lindsey Ziliak
---- — CONVERSE — Before the two-story carriage house on Marion Street in Converse became a haven for wine lovers, it was almost an antique store, almost a restaurant and almost a coffeehouse.
About 15 years ago, Rick and Betty Jo Moulton were doing a wealth audit and realized they weren’t going to have enough money to retire.
He travels across the state doing life safety inspections for a living. She’s been a legal secretary in Kokomo for 25 years.
Between the two of them, they had a modest retirement account, Rick said. But it wasn’t enough to live comfortably in their golden years. They decided they needed another income source.
Their financial planner’s advice? Start a business.
And that’s where Oak Hill Winery's story began.
“We talked about opening an antique store, but several have opened and closed here,” Rick said. “We talked about opening a restaurant, but we felt like that was covered.”
Their next big idea was to open a coffee shop. They were serious about this one, he said. They thought it could work.
Someone else thought it could work, too.
“No joke, six months later someone else opened one up,” he said.
They never even considered opening a winery until they visited some friends who owned one in Madison.
The Moultons told their friends they were trying to start a business. The winery owners said they had the perfect solution. Their friends should open a winery, too.
At the time, there weren’t any other wineries in north central Indiana.
Rick and his wife had been avid wine drinkers for many years and wine-making hobbyists for almost as long.
But making one or two gallons of wine is nothing, Rick said. When you’re making 200 or 300 gallons at a time, it becomes much more complex.
The couple thought long and hard about it.
“In 2001, we made the final decision to go for it, which meant spending money left and right,” Rick said with a laugh. “We call that the big year.”
The Moultons don’t like to do anything too fast, though. It would be another two years before the couple opened Oak Hill Winery inside the 119-year-old carriage house on their property.
In the meantime, Rick spent time learning about the business. He wrote a 20-question survey and sent it out to 100 wineries in the region.
He expected to get maybe 20 back. He got 71.
Winery owners are a tight-knit group of people, he said. They were all more than willing to offer him their advice.
He learned Michigan has a hearty supply of grapes. The farmers there grow more in one county than Indiana does in the whole state.
Rick learned that wine-making equipment is made primarily in Europe and costs a lot of money. You can’t start a winery for $10,000, he said.
What he couldn’t glean from local winery owners, he learned from a distance education course through the University of California Berkeley.
He laughed when he recalled the class. He said the university sent him VHS tapes to watch, and he then called the professors to discuss what he learned.
By 2003 he and his wife had done all the research they could. They had renovated the carriage house — mostly by themselves because they’d run out of money.
They were ready to open their doors. The Miami County couple had even carved out their own niche in the market.
They would sell all natural wines made with little to no preservatives.
“We don’t claim to be superior,” Rick said. “We’re just a little healthier.”
The Moultons thought they had a good business model, but still they were nervous. What if people didn’t like their wine?
"We thought it'll either be a good business or we'll have a whole lot of wine to drink," Betty Jo said, chuckling.
It turns out their fears were unfounded.
This year they’re celebrating their 10th anniversary.
Their winery isn’t big — not even by Indiana standards. There are 70 wineries in the state, and Rick said they’re in the bottom 25 percent in terms of size.
Oliver Winery — the largest in the state — makes about 750,000 gallons of wine each year. That’s about 3.75 million bottles.
Rick and his wife make about 3,000 gallons or 15,000 bottles.
But it isn’t always about size. Rick said his favorite wineries aren’t all that big.
“Little wineries tend to have more personality,” he said. “You’ll get wines you won’t find anywhere else.”
Oak Hill Winery sells 20 to 25 different varieties of wine ranging from apple, blackberry, peach and cranberry, to a unique Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.
A sweet, Concord grape wine is their biggest seller, perhaps followed by a dry, red wine that’s also made with Concord grapes.
That’s a unique combination, Rick said.
“I think I’m the only one in the world who makes a dry red with Concords,” he said. “I hope no one else ever does.”
At Oak Hill Winery, it’s sometimes hard to tell what kind of wine you’re getting just by the name, though.
All of the Moultons’ products are named after a local spot.
There’s the Peru Peach, Sycamore Stump, Eel River, Wildcat Creek White and Wabash Valley Red.
And that sweet Concord grape wine that people keep coming back for, it’s called Bunker Hill.
The local names make Oak Hill’s wines a popular gift during the holidays.
Rick said half of his sales are made in October, November and December.
On a typical week day, 30 or 35 people will stop in to taste the wines and chat with the women who work there. There’s a group of women who come in every Thursday for a Girls Club.
Not surprisingly, Oak Hill Winery is busiest on the weekends.
Betty Jo said the winery grows bigger with each passing year. Growth is good, she said. But it's becoming a lot of work.
"This is our moonlighting job," she said. "And we still do everything ourselves, just Rick and I. We get too much bigger, and I'll have to quit my job."
They spend a few evenings after work every week bottling, capping and labeling wines.
Betty Jo said she enjoys that, but talking to customers is still her and her husband's favorite part of the job. They get people who come in from all over the United States and beyond.
Rick said their customers are pretty loyal. That’s helped him and his wife stay in business for the past decade. It’s what’s going to allow them to retire in a few years.
He and his wife said they are thankful to have made it this far.
“We’re still here and alive and kicking,” he said.
Betty Jo could hardly believe that it's been a decade already.
"It has flown by," she said. "It's been fun."
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at firstname.lastname@example.org