For many workers in corporate America, retirement is a long-awaited chance to quit the rat race and slow down.
For Paula and Robert Sawitski of Ypsilanti Township, retirement will mean leaving their managerial careers to turn their passion project — producing award-winning wines — into a full-time business.
Just five years ago, the Sawitskis, who run their own vineyard and hope to open a tasting room in 2020, knew nothing about winemaking. But a “joint midlife crisis” sparked a chain reaction of lifestyle adjustments for the couple — and an unexpected opportunity to branch into viticulture.
After becoming empty nesters, the Sawitskis moved from urban Brownstown in 2014 to an approximately 12-acre farm where Paula, a barrel racer in her spare time, could board her horses.
After noticing that the property, dubbed Smokin’ Barrels Ranch, was overgrown with wild grapevines, Robert had an idea.
“If wild grapevines can grow here, maybe we could plant some and make wine as a hobby,” he says.
The Sawitskis sectioned off an acre of their ranch to plant a test vineyard. They started reading books, consulting local vintners and taking virtual classes to learn about viticulture and winemaking. In 2016, they planted their first 500 vines.
From their harvest the next year, the couple produced three wines — a semidry Traminette, a semidry La Crescent and a sweet Brianna — that earned silver medals in Winemaker magazine’s 2019 International Amateur Wine Competition.
“It was an absolute shock,” Robert says.
While those wines were straight varietals, the Sawitskis have also been experimenting with red and white blends — and even a pumpkin spice wine they want to offer as one of their specialties.
This past spring, they also planted a bigger vineyard on a neighboring property they acquired a few years ago. Those grapes won’t be ready to harvest for another three or four years, Robert says.
In the meantime, while they get their commercial licensing, the Sawitskis are working with their township zoning and planning commission to gain approval to build a tasting room. They plan to construct a traditional post-and-beam horse barn with rodeo-themed décor to tie into the Smokin’ Barrels brand. Looking ahead, they also want to branch into distilling spirits, brewing beer and hosting farmers markets.
“We’re definitely ambitious people,” Paula says. “We think on a much bigger scale. I don’t think that just a little tasting room is going to do it for us.”