Tenba Ridge Winery, tucked into the hills of Trempealeau County, has been producing a variety of artisanal small-batch wines in the style of Alsace, France since 2004. Jon Sylla and his wife and business partner Kim purchased the winery in March 2015.
“Our date day was to visit the winery on a weekend,” said Jon, whose previous career as a finisher-foreman for bridge builders required travel outside the state. Bringing a picnic lunch to the winery was the couple’s way to reconnect. Now Jon and Kim encourage visitors to pack a picnic when they come, to enjoy with a glass of wine and the panoramic view from the terrace or upper deck.
From Cement Finisher to Vintner
After Jon retired he began working for Tenba Ridge’s founder, John Patrick Gill. “We knew he wanted to sell, but I didn’t know much about the wine business,” Jon said. “It was a two-man operation and I learned it.” He acquired the technical skills required for making the wine and stretched himself to learn the hospitality and retail sides as well. His confidence grew that he and his wife could engineer a successful transition from retirees to entrepreneurs.
Nine months later, the sale of Tenba Ridge was completed with assistance from David Kochendorfer from the UW-Eau Claire Small Business Development Center.
Negotiating the Purchase
The Syllas approached a lending institution and were advised to work with the Small Business Development Center located at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Jon and Kim contacted Dave and began discussing their desire to acquire the winery.
In the beginning, the purchase price and the loan numbers “weren’t looking that good,” Jon said. Their work with Dave began with reviewing the current business model and financials and then developing and considering various options, including detailed “what if ” financial projections for each scenario. Dave helped Jon and Kim prepare for approaching the current owner, advised on the business valuation, and educated the couple on how to protect their best interests when they approached lending institutions.
Once the Syllas were ready to seek financing, “I expressed the importance to Kim and Jon that they needed to discuss the acquisition with more than one financial institution,” Dave said. Jon added, “We went to seven financial institutions and before we got home, we had two of them calling us for the business. Our business plan through the SBDC did all the right things for us.”
Accomplishments with the SBDC at UW- Eau Claire:
- Business plan for loan application
- Acquisition and successful transition
- 3-year financial projections
A Thriving Enterprise
Counseling for Jon and Kim extended beyond the purchase negotiation. e counseling included planning for the successful operation of the enterprise after the transition, talking through the necessary sta ng, promotions, competitor research, marketing, and more, and then tying the plan back to the financial projections. “What Dave did for us was nothing short of a miracle. We are living the dream,” Jon said.
Demand from the target market has kept Tenba Ridge’s new owners very busy. Their primary marketing tool has been social media. The enthusiastic word of mouth has brought in customers from around the US and beyond.
Before the ownership transition, the small winery’s biggest annual production fell just under 14 thousand bottles. Performance under Jon and Kim’s management is approaching double that. Twenty varieties of wine are on offer, plus wine-related merchandise.
Jon and Kim are planning to break ground on a new production facility in 2017 or early 2018. “When I met Jon and Kim, I knew they were going to make it,” Dave said. “They listened, asked questions and took direction. They are a pleasure to work with to assist them in fulfilling their dream.”