Paths to Becoming a Winemaker: Reinventing Retirement at M&M Vineyards

M&M Vineyards - Pennsylvania

The origin stories of Pennsylvania wineries are as diverse and exciting as the wines they produce. We’re excited to illuminate the winding paths local winemakers took to build their businesses. If you harbor your own dreams of planting vines and bottling wines, start taking notes!

M&M Vineyards in northeastern Pennsylvania is a “retirement project” that involves very little R&R. The Bangor-based estate winery was founded by husband and wife team Mohinder and Minnie Sidhu (hence the name).

PA Wine Land Post: What inspired you to get into winemaking?

Mohinder Sidhu: My wife and I are both scientists by training. We made vaccines for over 25 years working for a big pharmaceutical company. We both retired about five years ago from our day jobs.

This was my dream, to have a vineyard and winery. I’ve been thinking about it for over 40 years and never had the opportunity before — we were busy being scientists and raising two daughters. But when we retired, we jumped on it.

What excites you about winemaking?

We both have PhDs in microbiology. We were teaching fermentation technology way back in the mid-’80s. And then we traveled the world. We have seen literally every part of the world where they make good wines, from Europe to Argentina, to New Zealand, to Australia. And we have traveled within the U.S. as well. We love wine.

So we wanted to do it right. We invested a huge amount of time, money, and effort into doing it right.

What was the first step in starting M&M Vineyards?

We spent two years [2012-2013] looking for the right land. We engaged at least half a dozen different experts in the field, including well-known vineyard managers, owners, and winemakers in the northeast, to help us identify the right site to grow good quality grapes. We actually looked at close to two dozen farms. Our site is ideal — it offers the best location within Northampton County to grow grapes.

And then in 2014 and 15, we optimized the soil through organic methods of crop rotation. And then we went to California, near Napa Valley, to order custom-designed vines.

We have four acres of 5,000 vines and nine different grape varieties. These grapes were planted in 2016. Usually, you wait five to seven years before you get a crop, but since we invested four years before we planted the first vine, we had a huge production in the second year [2018]. From 3.5 to 4 acres of vines, we harvested 40,000 pounds of grapes. That was an enormous harvest.

That was the first milestone we wanted to have, which was to be an estate winery. The definition of an estate winery is you make wine from your own grapes period. So we do not buy grapes, we do not buy juices from anywhere else. We can produce up to 600 –  800 cases at this point. And we plan to expand to another three acres eventually.

Maximum production in our business model is 2,000 cases. That’s the maximum we can ever make and that is designed based on the fact that, at this point, we have no employees. My wife and I pretty much take care of everything by ourselves. We have one partner and we engage local high school kids during harvest time. They help us harvest, as well as during wintertime, they help us prune.

This is a retirement project — we don’t want to kill ourselves. And our kids are not coming into play: We have two daughters that both are physicians, and they’re not interested in the vineyard, at least at this time.

Are there any wines you’re particularly proud of?

All of them. We are known for dry reds and dry white wines. Although, in this region, people love sweet wines. We have introduced more sweet wines recently.

What advice would you give to someone who said they wanted to open a winery or go into winemaking?

There are a couple of things you must have. Background was a non-issue for us — we are scientists by training, so making wine is not a big thing for us. Growing grapes, understanding grape diseases, how to intervene, we had a lot of education to understand and take care of that. Having that [science] background helped us build the confidence that we could do it.

The second thing is you have to have a certain personality. My motto is that failure is not an option. If you want to, anything and everything can be done. And then I’m physically out there, whether it’s mowing grass, or pulling vines, or harvesting grapes, or making wine, or bottling wines, or corking, I’m doing everything. I’m not dependent on anybody to help me. So I’m hands-on in everything that I do.

And number three is that it’s not a simple task to start a winery and vineyard. It’s a pretty onerous, pretty extensive undertaking. For us, it was less problematic that we are not dependent on this business. You have to have cash in hand to carry this out for four to five years before you can make a living out of it.

We laugh about it: In retirement, I’m working 10 times harder than I ever worked before. But that’s the name of the game.