California winery a labor of love for Duluth nativeWhen Duluth native Rick Quinn moved to California in 1979, he became successful in real estate, turning a small agency into one of the largest Century 21 agencies in the country. In the mid-1990s, his winemaking hobby turned into a business when he started buying vineyard property.
By: Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune
Even before Rick Quinn left for California at age 29, he was making his mark in Duluth.
He started his own ski store, opened several photo processing shops and a portrait studio and was president of the West Duluth Businessmen’s Club.
Before Miller Hill Mall was built in the 1970s, Quinn pushed for an indoor mall built in West Duluth, knowing it would be good for the community. With Spirit Mountain towering nearby, Quinn said he first coined the phrase “Spirit Valley.” Civic leader and businessman Erwin Goldfine was his mentor.
“I worked hard,” said Quinn, a 1967 graduate of Morgan Park High School. “I was a hustler.”
But he was just getting started.
When he moved to California in 1979, he became successful in real estate, turning a small agency into one of the largest Century 21 agencies in the country. He created software that became widely used by Realtors around the country. In the mid-1990s, his winemaking hobby turned into a business when he started buying vineyard property in Paso Robles with his neighbor-turned-business partner.
“Rick is the quintessential entrepreneur, always starting something, always trying a new business, going with what worked and (not) what didn’t work,” said Duluth businessman John Goldfine, a longtime friend.
Today, at 62, Quinn and his partner own 300 acres of vineyards on the central coast of California. His Opolo Vineyards wines get raves from connoisseurs. Their full-bodied wines are served in famous restaurants including those owned by famed chefs Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Quinn also sells his wine grapes to leading Napa Valley wineries such as Niebaum-Coppola and Hess Select.
Opolo Vineyards also has become a destination for wine lovers who come to sample the wines, stay at the vineyard’s inn and attend the Serbian-style wine festivals, which are a salute to Quinn’s heritage.
And the vineyard property he bought for $4,000 an acre in the 1990s? It’s worth a fortune today.
“He is one of the great American success stories,” John Goldfine said. “He started with nothing. He made one business that was little. He made a small business into a big business. And then he went into the winery business.”
“He’s a kid from Gary,” Goldfine continued, “who decided he would make something of himself, and he did. It’s an Horatio Alger story.”
Quinn, who still has family in Duluth, gets back a couple of times a year. He was back last week, participating in a special wine dinner at Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar that featured Opolo wines with each of the four courses.
It was his third time doing it since 2009. Each time, all 70 seats have sold out.
With Quinn’s direct Duluth connection, he knows about 90 percent of the people who attend, said Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma’s Restaurants, which owns Bellisio’s.
“It’s almost a ‘Kumbaya’ evening,” Daugherty said. “He’s like your neighborhood wine producer, so there’s a lot of respect for relationship in the room. It makes it different from the other wine dinners we do.”
And the Opolo wines?
“They’re special, no doubt about it,” Daugherty said. “I think California wines are the best wines in the world. I think Rick’s wines represent some of the best California wines available.”
They’re smooth, round and supple without sharp, quick starts and finishes, he said.
The judges at the Minnesota Monthly Food & Wine Experience in Minneapolis just days earlier must have agreed. Quinn’s Opolo Mountain Zinfandel wine received the “Best of Show” award among more than 1,000 wines.
At the Bellisio’s dinner, Quinn unveiled a new petite sirah that he said was even better.
“It was just the rave that night,” Daugherty said.
Midwestern work ethic
Quinn grew up in Gary-New Duluth by the U.S. Steel mill. His father, who was a Duluth police officer, died when Quinn was 13. His mother was a homemaker and worked in social services.
“We weren’t well-to- do,” said Quinn, who believed since childhood that hard work paid off.
He started working at 15, packing groceries at the local grocery store. He also did snow removal for the public works department and had a job at the local shopping center.
He attended the University of Minnesota Duluth. But by his 20s he was more interested in making money and buying property. He chalked up one business venture after another.
An uncle in California urged Quinn to move there, where the climate was warmer. So before he turned 30, Quinn and his wife made the move.
In California, Quinn went into real estate. He sold his first house on the same day he got his real estate license, amid a collapsed market and high interest rates.
“When people say the market is bad, they don’t go out and do what they need to to be successful,” he said. “People who stayed home because they thought it was a bad market were right.”
But while other agents complained about the depressed market, Quinn rose early and worked hard, just as he had done in Duluth. He made $35,000 that first year, more than he had ever made.
“Being from the Midwest, I work harder and longer,” he said in a phone interview from California. “People here, when the surf’s up, they don’t work as hard. It was easy to make money in this business.”
Each year, he made more money. He started buying property. In 1983, he bought a small real estate office and focused on recruiting quality agents.
In three years, he built the agency up from six agents to 135, making it the third largest Century 21 in the United States. At the same time he developed a software program for real estate companies and sold it to Century 21 and Caldwell Banker, making a windfall.
A winery is born
Quinn first learned about winemaking growing up in Gary-New Duluth, where its Croatian and Serbian residents would get together to order grapes from California for their home winemaking.
In California, years later, winemaking became Quinn’s hobby and passion. When the vineyard that supplied him with merlot grapes was short one year, Quinn bought 68 acres sight unseen for $280,000 so he would never have to go without those grapes again.
More purchases of vineyard land followed as well as a partnership with his neighbor in Camarillo. Together, they turned land filled with wild brush and trees into vineyards, putting in roads and irrigation.
They supplied various wineries with grapes, with a good financial return, before getting a winery license. The first year, they produced 1,000 cases that sold out in three months. The next year, their 5,000 cases sold out in four months. Opolo wines have been growing ever since, reaching 45,000 cases last year that are sold through distributors and online.
“Everybody can make wine. It’s selling it that’s the tough part,” Quinn said.
Quinn applied his business knowledge and the work ethic honed into him in Duluth to the wine business, just as he had real estate.
“If you apply good business principles to most businesses, you can make it,” he said.
In November, he retired from real estate and is focusing on managing the vineyard’s inevitable growth.
“We don’t have a choice,” he said.
The vineyard has grown into farming and winemaking operations with 40 employees. A 60,000-square-foot expansion of the winery is under way. And the business is growing at a rate of 10 percent to 15 percent a year.
Daugherty said Quinn’s story is one of a small town boy who made it big.
“He started by developing a career in real estate,” Daugherty said. “He leveraged that into a passion of his — winemaking — for a career doing what he loves. So that’s really fun to see. We would all be so lucky to carve out a living doing what we love to do. And he’s done a fantastic job of it.”