White Winter Winery

White Winter Winery: Planning Leads Mead-maker Home

After 20 years, the mead, cider and spirits business had a decision to make. The SBDC was there to help with a plan for a phased expansion in Iron River instead of moving to another city.

White Winter Winery Founder Jon Hamilton grew up in a beekeeping family and began exploring beekeeping himself in the eighth grade. For a business opportunity using the family’s honey supply, he turned to value-added products, because “There’s not a lot of money in raw honey,” Jon said. “We looked at home-brewing, which led to mead—why not? Nobody else is doing it.”

That kicked off two years of research to develop recipes and the brewing process. Jon and his wife Kim launched White Winter in Iron River, near Bayfield, in January 1996. The winery opened to the public in June and sold its first products that November. White Winter specializes in mead (18 styles), hard cider (4 styles) and spirits (3-6 styles), using locally grown ingredients.

SBDC a source of research

Before launching his business, Jon’s research led him to the small business development center at UW-Superior, which serves northern Wisconsin. The SBDC provided basic market research and connected Jon with a marketing class that completed a field survey. “We tried to fill in the blanks in our knowledge,” Jon said. “The results convinced us that a craft beverage company could succeed.”

As the company’s 20th anniversary approached, it was time to strategize for the next 20 years. Jon had maintained a relationship with the SBDC at UW-Superior over the years. In 2016 he approached the SBDC again. UW-Superior Director Andy Donahue recalled, “Jon had a decision to make: stay in Iron River but move to a new facility, or relocate to the Superior-Duluth area.” Iron River’s permanent population of about 1,000 swells to over 10,000 with summer tourism. “Dealing with seasonality is a big aspect of their strategic plan,” Andy said.

 Jon observed, “Our business is fairly complicated, because we have such a wide array of products at so many different price points and styles,” and state laws governing the distribution of alcohol adds complexity. Jon was grateful for the help of Andy’s team to put together financial projections.

Our business is complex. The SBDC helped with financial projections. Andy is very knowledgeable
John Hamilton
White Winter Winery
  • Financial projections
  • Decision support
  • Connections with economic development resources
Taking the emotion out of decisions

“Andy is very knowledgeable,” Jon said. He appreciated Andy’s site visits to get a well-rounded picture of the operation. Andy connected Jon with economic development resources in Douglas County and Bayfield County to explore each market’s potential. Andy recalled, “We did a financial analysis of the options, looking at what would be feasible.” Research demonstrated White Winter could have a viable business in the Duluth-Superior area, “but it would take considerable marketing effort to reestablish ourselves there,” Jon found. The strategic planning process led to White Winter Winery choosing phased expansion in Iron River. Jon’s plans include a 150-gallon still to increase production and a bigger building, custom-built to the winery’s needs.

Strategic planning is “about stepping back, taking the emotion out of it,” Jon said. “It has to make sense financially. Then I can start making decisions based on quality of life, the labor market, education, population.”

To fuel growth in Iron River, Jon is focusing on destination marketing. “That’s going to be the key—it’s building events to bring people in.” Andy added, “Jon was very open to ideas, what would be best for his business. The product is his passion.”