Pursuing the Dream featuring Mike and Katie Dickerman with Woodland Hill Winery
Written by John P. Palen, CEO and Founder of Allied Executives Published November 2011 in the Minnesota Business Magazine
Lifestyle Business Bears Fruit at Woodland Hill Winery
The Dickerman's seemed to have it all: great careers - Mike as an engineering sales director, Katie a manicurist. They had all the toys - a personal plane, a yacht and a recreational vehicle ready to travel at a moment's notice with the family. Primed for a future of well-earned ease, they embodied what most would call the American dream.
But not Mike & Katie. They had other ideas that included cashing in all their toys for 20 acres of former corn and soybean fields along with an old farmstead in Delano. The call for a different life started with Mike's beer-making hobby about twenty years ago. Then around 12 years ago, wine in barrels and drums in his basement. But I hardly thought Mike was serious back then when he brought up the idea of establishing a vineyard and winery.
I thought they were crazy. There were so many odds against them. They didn't know the first thing about growing grapes. They didn't want to pursue any outside financing. And then there's the crazy Minnesota climate. I enjoy wine, but Minnesota wines had previously always left me cold.
Still you can't discount an entrepreneur's determined spirit and optimism. The Dickermans proceeded to absorb everything they could possibly find on the science of growing grape varietals - from University of Minnesota research to the Old World techniques of Europe. Mikes engineer mind dug into details about how trellis systems were built to support vine growth. His farming background helped determine healthy methods for planting, treating and maintaining.
"We use sustainable farming techniques. We have to get the soil right with organic natural matter so our plants are healthier and stronger," Mike says. He designed and invented a weeding device that attaches to his tractor and removes weeds while tilling the soil in a highly productive and efficient fashion leaving the soil more nutrient rich.
The Dickermans moved their lives to the farm, calling it Woodland Hill. They enlisted the help of friends, family and part-time employees. They would have to find a market for their new product. Oh, and did I mention that grapes aren't ready to become wine until the vines are at least three years old?
Mike has kept his day job while pursuing his dream - working nights and weekends on the farm. "I've enjoyed it so much, being out in the fields, learning the chemistry; it doesn't seem like work," he says.
Katie, meanwhile, has focused on the marketing and hospitality, creating beautiful garden-accented grounds, a gift shop and tasting room, and methods to attract and encourage people to linger at Woodland Hill for a day or evening of fun. Just for an added dimension, the Dickermans also have a teen-age daughter to raise.
The results eight years later astounded even the astute U of M horticulturalists. Mike's unconventional techniques have resulted in exceptional quality and quantity vines and grapes. Mike and Katie have a very "green" approach to their methods. Their production rate, quality and capacity have become one of the most impressive operations in the region producing 18 different wines.
"We rely on our own vineyard. Our growing techniques produce high quality grapes that are key to making finer quality wines," Mikes says.
In 2010, Woodland Hill won eight medals at the prestigious International Cold Climate Wine Competition, a partnership between the Minnesota Wine Growers Association, the Minnesota State Fair and University of Minnesota.
Almost every weekend of the year, there is an atmosphere of playful energy at the farm, whether an art fair, dance lessons, summer wedding, fall bonfire or sleigh rides. Often, there is live music. The combination of Mike's chemistry and farming skills and Katie's flair for entertaining have created an escape to the country that attracts people from all walks of life.
The common denominator is wine, of course. And I must admit that I am impressed by the high quality and really like the wines that Mike and Katie have created. I must also admit that I am amazed at how their determination and ingenuity have achieved such incredible success in their business venture. It just goes to show that the dream is alive and well in Minnesota - and it can be deliciously different for everyone.
What's your dream? It could be less far-fetched than you think.