When David Jilbert was in the seventh grade, he never would have guessed that a school project would later turn into a successful career in winemaking. And it all started with bees. â€œMy father got me a beehive [for the project] and ever since then, I was in some type of beekeeping,â€ Jilbert says.
While Jilbert, 47, has built a successful career as director of operations for Gem Testing and Engineering Labs in Cleveland, he always had the urge to do some sort of farming. When he and his wife Lisa bought an early 20th-century home on 10.5 acres of land in Valley City 10 years ago, Jilbert began thinking of ways to make that dream come true.
â€œThe land is not conducive to farming, so I said, â€˜Well, Iâ€™ll start up beekeeping,â€™â€ he says.
â€œThen I had all this honey sitting in the corner and I couldnâ€™t give it away. So I asked myself, â€˜How am I going to add value to this project?â€™â€
Thatâ€™s when the idea of making honey wine hit Jilbert. â€œI knew you could make wine from honey, but I wanted to be the best at it,â€ he says. So he headed to Cornell University to learn state-of-the-art honey wine production techniques and invested in pharmaceutical-grade filtration equipment. â€œBefore this method, honey wine wasnâ€™t very good. It had a lot of bitterness and aftertaste,â€ Jilbert says. â€œBut this is good stuff.â€
With expert training and a lot of extra honey on hand, Jilbert opened Jilbert Winery in 1999. Today, the winery, housed in an old dairy barn on the Jilbert property, produces Jhelbare honey wines – derived from the phonetic spelling of the Jilbert name – as well as a selection of grape wines. The Jilbert estate features an apiary, honey-extraction house, wine manufacturing and bottling area, tasting room and gift shop. â€œWhat youâ€™re witnessing is a hobby turning into a small business,â€ he says.
The Grill at Jhelbare restaurant features patio dining and is so popular that reservations are a must. Jilbert mans the grill, while his wife, Lisa, serves as hostess and their teenage children, Isaac and Sarah, wait on tables. â€œWe get bigger and bigger every year,â€ says Jilbert. â€œYou canâ€™t get more family oriented than this and we have a good time.â€Despite Jilbertâ€™s success,
and an undergraduate degree in business, he knew he could not attain his goals alone. So in 2004 he enlisted the help of Business Advisers of Cleveland, a group of executives who counsel entrepreneurs. Jilbert was paired up with L.T. Young, a retired marketing communications executive.
â€œI had a business plan, but what I really needed to have was L.T. Young kick me in the pants and get me motivated,â€ says Jilbert. â€œAnd thatâ€™s exactly what heâ€™s done.â€
Young worked with Jilbert to hash out his business plan and identify specific goals. â€œHe had an extremely well done business plan, but it didnâ€™t have a lot of key results that you could change if it didnâ€™t work,â€ says Young. â€œWith a lot of people we deal with we have to say, â€˜Donâ€™t get ahead of yourself; donâ€™t quit your day job just yet.â€™ With David, I said, â€˜Quit your day job, you can do this.â€™â€
Though Jilbert kept his day job, Young helped him realize the value of opening a restaurant at the winery and expanding his wine selection. â€œWhen you get people in there, wine sales go up,â€ Jilbert says. â€œL.T. made me realize that if you open a restaurant you have to have more than one kind of wine. So now I have grape wine.â€
Young also assisted Jilbert in securing grant funding from the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, a division of the Ohio Department of Agriculture that is devoted to promoting the grape and wine industry in the state through advertising and marketing. Jilbert plans to create a brochure with the funding.
â€œ[Young] got me to focus on the tasks at hand that needed to be accomplished,â€ says Jilbert. â€œHeâ€™s a mentor who keeps me on the path by asking what Iâ€™ve done.â€
Since working with Young, Jilbertâ€™s winery sales have doubled. â€œFrom 2004 to 2005, [we went] from 2,500 bottles to 5,000 bottles,â€ says Jilbert. â€œAnd this year we hope to double that.â€
Jilbert has invested in newer, faster equipment, including a new crack-and-peel labeler that turns out 15 labeled bottles a minute. The old glue labeler produced only two bottles a minute. The labels themselves have gone through three design changes. Other investments include a new parking lot, to be completed by the start of their summer season, and renovations to the winery.
A Washington, D.C.-based restaurateur recently contracted with Jilbert to feature Jhelbare honey wines in his restaurants.
Jilbert finds fulfillment in his creations. â€œThe high point is the satisfaction of looking at the final product and knowing it started from nothing but bees,â€ he says. â€œThe challenge is, at this point, time. I only have so much time. I wish I had all the time I needed. My goal is to become very successful in the wine manufacturing business – something I could maybe retire with.â€
He is on his way to achieving that goal with Youngâ€™s help. â€œIâ€™m grateful the Business Advisers of Cleveland was there to focus [my business plan],â€ he says. â€œI wouldnâ€™t be where I am today without that focus.â€
During the spring and winter, Jilbert Winery is open on Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m., and during the summer months, the winery is open Fridays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 9 p.m. It is closed during the months of January and February. For more information, go to www.ohiohoneywine.com.