Tom Nye was at a crossroads in both his life and career. Eight years ago, the California native saw the writing on the wall in his IT field.
"When I first got into IT, we were changing the world with the internet. Some companies were coming up with some unbelievable, cutting edge ideas. It was an awesome job," Nye said. "Then it became a nightmare. It was so overregulated. Companies were getting bought out, and I realized I would be out of a job by the time I turned 40-years-old if I didn't come up with a new idea before the corporate world could get me."
Nye decided to follow both his head and his heart, and The Grape Escape was born. The Dayton-based business began operations as a unique winemaking school in 2004.
Nye, who said he's long had a passion for winemaking, learned the commercial end of the business by working for free at a winery in Eatontown for a year.
"I made a list of everything that I love, and I thought if we're going to start a business we might as well do something we love," he said. "That's how (Nye and his wife Nancy) stumbled on this idea. Other places were doing this type of thing, but they were getting cheap grapes and not doing it to the level we do it. We brought new ideas to this, like getting the best grapes available from Napa and Sonoma. We use different barrels to age it. We brought all of that to this industry."
The Grape Escape’s customers are able to personalize their wine by choosing the region, grape type, barrel type, and the amount of aging it will receive. People then actively participate in the four key steps of winemaking, which are crushing, pressing, racking and bottling the wine. Customers come in four times over a 10-month period for a session that lasts about an hour, each involving a different step in the process.
First, customers crush their grapes. Then about a week later, they return for the second step of pressing the grapes into a barrel using an Italian-style press. About three months later, customers return for a process called racking where sentiment is removed. Finally, after about 10 months, customers return to bottle, label, and cork their very own custom bottle of wine.
"We started off strictly in winemaking, which was kind of like a Build-a-Bear for adults," he said. "That was our core business, but what changed us is when the Stock Market crashed. When the market crashed, the next day we had $50,000 in cancelled wine orders. That was scary.
“So I sat with my wife and said what are we going to do? We can try to hold on to our current model and ride this out or we can get aggressive and launch new products. We decided to get aggressive."
Having already taken one giant risk, Nye decided it was time to take another.
"What happened to me with corporate disillusionment has happened in many areas, where people are stressed about their companies being bought out. Their kids are busy, their lives are busy and they're looking for a release in a fun and unique way," he said.
The Grape Escape then expanded from just classes on winemaking to also include classes on making food, Nye's other passion. Soon The Grape Escape began offering classes in bottling olive oil and balsamic vinegar, making your own fresh mozzarella cheese, melting wine-infused chocolate, and making your own gourmet ravioli.
"I just followed my own passions. I love mozzarella cheese and teaching people how to make it," Nye said. "We changed our model from winemaking to being a food and wine destination. Our food events have tripled in growth since we started them and we now do about 90 events each year. I get to use all my passions and I used my heart as a guide."
As Nye looks back at the decisions that led The Grape Escape to where it is today, he said it was all about filling a need in the marketplace and never being satisfied with well enough.
"If we didn't launch all of these new products, we would've gone down in sales and we wouldn't be a success story," he said. "People are looking for fun and unique ideas. There's a starvation for fun in this marketplace. If you come up with something unique and fun, even in this economy, people will buy it. But that means never resting on your current product line and always innovating, always coming up with new ideas."
Though they would like to be able to sell wine, The Grape Escape isn't permitted because of New Jersey law, which requires growing at least 5-acres of grapes.
"We're bigger than some vineyards that have grapes and I still can't sell it," Nye said. "I wish the laws were friendlier for a business like this that's growing. It's a shame because if I could sell wine I'd buy a building, hire people and help grow the economy."
Even with those limitations, The Grape Escape continues to flourish. Nye said customers have come from as far away as Utah to take their classes. Companies as large as billion dollar corporations down to smaller doctor's offices have signed up for the classes as team-building exercises.
"This is a non-pretentious atmosphere that's all about having fun," he said. “This is not a classroom. People bring in food, hang out, crush grapes and have a party. They get to see their wine made from the crushing of the grapes through the rest of the process. They get to hold the grapes at the beginning that will end up in their wine at the end of the process. We have everyone in here from wine connoisseurs to novices."
Nye said The Grape Escape has an 80 percent return rate, which is a testament to the quality of the product. For instance, he said The Grape Escape is the only winery of its type to make white wine from grapes, and not from juice. He said Pinot Grigio is the most popular white wine, while Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular red wine.
"Making white wine is difficult. It takes training and has to be done right, but we make great white wines here," he said.
Even as businesses fold throughout the country, Nye said it was the willingness to take risks and a determination to innovate that has allowed The Grape Escape to lead the way in an expanding field.
"I believe you have to have some level of happiness in your job and you have to look realistically at what that is," he said. "For me, it became so risky to stay where I was because all of the IT jobs were going to India. The risk was do I stay and hold on or make my leave and do something I love?
"If you do something you love it diminishes the failure rate. But it was a big risk. When I look at it today I wonder if I could take the same risk again. It was a tremendous risk and that sort of thing is not for everybody."
The Grape Escape will begin the upcoming season by offering a series of open houses in March and April for the public, featuring live music and food provided by featured restaurants. Click here for more information.
The Grape Escape is located off of Route 130 at 12 Stults Road, Suite 101, in Dayton.