Friday, March 5, 2010

Belpre couple shares wine-making enthusiasm through retirement project

by Katherine Bercik

Unicorn Wine Guild isn’t your typical winery. Rows of luscious grape vines do not snake along a curvy hillside. Large wooden barrels do not gather dust in a barn, shimmering in golden sunlight. Unicorn Wine Guide is an urban winery instead, evoking an ambiance relative to a coffee shop like Starbucks.

The winery provides a quiet and relaxed atmosphere, says Barbara Whitaker, who owns the winery with her husband Joel. In addition to serving wine, Unicorn Wine Guild offers tea, coffee, snacks and gift baskets.

Joel and Barbara started to make wine in their bathtub after receiving a wine-making kit as a Christmas gift from their nephew several years ago. What started out as a hobby became a business plan for when the couple retires from their current jobs (Joel is a dentist and Barbara a nurse anesthetist). As two years’ planning elapsed, the winery opened in March 2009 in Belpre’s Washington Square.

Belpre, which is home to around 7,000 people in Washington County, is not the most anticipated location for a winery, especially since Belpre has been a “dry city” since Prohibition. Apart from a few letters appearing in the local newspaper, however, the winery has not met much resentment from the community. Barbara modestly says that Unicorn Wine Guild isn’t the first winery to open in a “dry city.”

Joel and Barbara produce the wine on the store’s premises by using juices made from all over the world. While the store’s location and city regulations do not make it feasible for the couple to grow and stomp their own grapes, Joel says they make quality wine by being able to pick and choose the juices they use. He says, “You can’t make a great wine [if you have] bad grapes.”

The winery currently offers 29 wines that fit several occasions and moods. Holiday Delight, Shamrock and Midnight Magic are some of the most popular choices among customers, but Joel finds it difficult to pick a favorite wine.

The winery already hosts a few club meetings, but Joel and Barbara are in the process of constructing a conference room so they can accommodate a larger crowd, with the hopes of being able to host wine-making demonstrations and to share in their enthusiasm. The couple’s plans for the winery are far from complete.

But like every great wine, Joel says. The winery can only get better with time.

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