One of the most asked questions in the tasting room is “what did you do before starting a winery?” I’ll let Nikhila tell her story separately from mine, as we have very different, yet very interesting, paths that led us to where we are today. This is the longer version than what I’m ever able to say in the tasting room…after all I have to tell you about the winery and the wine!
Let’s rewind the calendar to the 1990’s. I was living in Dallas. Growing up I loved working with anything mechanical. If my parents ever had a broken fan – I would be chomping at the bit to take it apart to understand how they worked. I built RC cars from kits. I loved motorized scooters, like Go-Peds. Occasionally I figured out ways to turn my interest in items like these into money-making . For example, many people would modify their Go-Peds, leaving brand new stock parts as waste that piled up at a local retailer. As a young teenager, I cut a deal with the store’s owner to sell the excess parts on eBay and split the proceeds with him. I loved managing my own business.
As time passed, I was certain I wanted to build on my love of all things mechanical and become a mechanical engineer. When I looked at colleges, that was my sole focus. Ultimately I visited a lot of colleges in the Northeast that had strong engineering programs. I landed on Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. It’s a small liberal arts school on top of a hill, overlooking New Jersey. My freshman year came, and by halfway through I had enough of the intro engineering courses. The weed out courses did their job. I really didn’t care how much pressure a gas cylinder could handle. On the other hand, I loved my physics courses. There’s a beauty to physics that explains a lot of day-to-day life that really got me hooked.
So I switched to physics. As the courses became more advanced, many of the subjects became more interesting. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with physics, but I knew I enjoyed it. More time passes and I come up on graduation in 2008. It was definitely not the best year to graduate with a physics degree and no clear understanding of what I wanted to do after college. Fortunately, I landed a job as a Technical Marketer for a small tech company / manufacturer, Thorlabs, in Newton, New Jersey. For the layman, Thorlabs basically makes the building block components used in a laser lab (among other things). Think of them as making really high tech versions of Erector Sets. I loved this job. I would hear about all the new products the company was working on, and then I would work to bring them to the market. I’d build webpages, catalog writeups, etc. I’d collaborate with graphic artists. I’d write tutorials on how to use products. It was a lot of fun and a ton of learning about products. There was just one (or two) flaws. I didn’t want to live in New Jersey forever, and it felt like many more senior staff had PhD’s (I wasn’t interested in a PhD).
So I started planning my next move. After countless hours of research, I decided an MBA was the best move for me. If you asked me in 2008 if I’d ever go back to school, you would have heard a vey loud “NO” from me. However, an MBA was basically the opposite of a Bachelor of Science in Physics. MBAs had opportunities across industries, working in Finance, Marketing, Sales, Operations. If I further narrowed down my focus to Management Consulting, I felt I would open even more doors to my future career prospects. Ultimately I used an MBA as my way to get back to Dallas where I had friends and family. I applied to SMU Cox, and got in. I moved back in with my parents to save money (taking 2 years off of work to go to school is no joke).
I was laser focused on doing things different than undergrad. I studied like crazy (at least until I landed an internship). I attended every company meet-and-greet possible. I researched jobs like crazy. Ultimately I interviewed in PwC’s management consulting group and landed an internship! I was so excited. I felt like I climbed a mountain. I was pivoting careers and opening up doors like I had dreamed of doing for years.
The internship came and soon I realized how different the job was than what I was used to. I was definitely a fish out of water. Looking back I’m embarrassed how much I struggled with some aspects of the internship and am amazed that I did well enough to get a full-time offer. But I did! With the confidence of a full-time job lined up, I took the opportunity to study abroad my last semester in grad school. I wound up moving to Melbourne, Australia to attend Melbourne Business School for 3 months. It was such a great experience living abroad, and taking every opportunity to travel on my days off school. I went to amazing places like the Great Barrier Reef, New Zealand, Cambodia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Sydney.
Anyways, I returned to Dallas after finishing up my study abroad. The Fall came and I joined PwC full time. Over the next 6+ years in consulting, I would work for a number of technology companies, helping them complete mergers & acquisitions, streamline their back office (restructure shared service teams), improve their processes (FP&A, Finance Shared Services, Operations, Procurement), and more. I traveled to my clients in Seattle, California, Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, Georgia, New York, etc. I ran workshops in London and Prague. I flew to Mexico and India to work with teams and present out to hundreds of clients. At the end of projects I would have read outs with the CFO, CHRO, and other execs at enormous companies. My job in management consulting was intense, but offered me insane opportunities to grow.
Along the way I met Nikhila. I immediately learned that she had just started Narra Vineyards. Even on our first date I told her I was jealous that she had her own company. While I loved many of the experiences that consulting afforded me, I had a yearning to build something of my own. Over the next two years, we began talking about the possibility of doing more in the Texas wine industry than “just” grow grapes. Nikhila had an itch to make wine, and I had an itch to start a company. So we decided we’d start our own winery. Since she knew the wine side, she would be in charge of “vines and wines” and then I would use my business knowledge to take on the rest (finance, operations, etc.). In 2017 we made our first vintage!
For years I would work on financial projections, business plans, marketing, etc. for Kalasi Cellars on my (very late) nights and weekends. Consulting can be a brutal industry, so imagine having to work on your “side hustle” on top of working 60-80 hours a week.
In 2018 we found our land in Fredericksburg. We didn’t have unlimited funds, and Fredericksburg is expensive, so the search for land took us nearly 9 months. We worked with an architect in Dallas to create awesome plans for a tasting room. We then searched for a construction loan to make our dreams a reality. That turned out to really slow down our progress. Going back to not having unlimited funds…that meant we HAD to get a business loan. There are not too many loans available to new businesses – at least not of the scale we needed. Fortunately after over 6 months of searching, we got an SBA loan from a bank. We started construction on our tasting room in July of 2019.
We felt a huge sense of relief that the tasting room was being built. After all we had wine that we had been working on for years and we needed a way to sell it. Construction started slow, and we were getting nervous. When you are GC’ing your own project, it’s hard to keep things moving along if you’re not there every day, and I was still in consulting and traveling to Virginia every week. At my job in consulting, my team sold a massive project to our client. I knew that meant I’d be drowning in consulting work for over a year, working just about every hour I was awake. Nikhila and I decided that it wasn’t realistic for me to stay in consulting while we were trying to make our dream of starting a winery a reality. So I left my job at the very end of 2019 to focus on Kalasi Cellars.