After being forced out of Colombia for refusing to do business with the drug lords, the Negret family company is making a comeback in Hudson.
Winemaker Vincent Negret has leased the former car dealer garage on Second Street next to Pudge’s Bar. Extensive renovations are under way, and in January the building will reopen with a sign reading “Negret Wine Company, established 1937, Wisconsin-Colombia” hanging out front.
It’s been a long road for the 57-year old Negret, but the dream of reviving the family business is finally coming to fruition.
“It’s an adventure,” he said recently. “People are excited about the idea. That’s a good first step.”
In the late 1990s, Negret resisted pressure to sell the winery started by his grandfather to a drug cartel. But the cartel bought his main competitors for its money-laundering operations and dropped their prices below the cost of production.
He couldn’t compete and eventually had to close the Bogota winery.
“Either you play their game or you are out,” Negret said during a visit to Hudson last Thursday. “Once we lost our company completely, I struggled for a while to understand what happened.”
A friend suggested that Negret try to pursue his profession in the United States.
After receiving training in California wine-making in Fresno, he answered an online ad for a winemaker in Alexandria, Minn., and was hired immediately.
Arriving in Minnesota in November of 2000, Negret was shocked by the cold temperature, but grew to appreciate the warmness of the people.
He eventually took a better-paying job at a larger winery in Ohio in order to afford to bring his wife and their two children to the United States.
Then in 2004, Negret was hired by John and Maureen Maloney to help start their Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls, Minn. He was the chief winemaker there until recently.
In talking about Negret in a 2008 story in Minneapolis Star Tribune, John Maloney said: “I knew he was a good winemaker. I had no idea his social skills were so great. He loves people. So that component actually was a bonus.”
The Cannon River Winery also is located in a renovated former auto dealer garage. It’s the largest winery in Minnesota.
The winery earned many flattering reviews from publications during Negret’s tenure there, but his dream was always to open his own business.
Three years ago, on a trip scouting for a location, he drove through Hudson.
“I said, oh, my God. This is the place. I want a winery right here. Who do I have to talk to?” Negret related.
A short time later in the office of Dennis Darnold, the city’s community development director, he learned it would take a change in the Hudson’s zoning code to open a winery in the downtown business district.
The City Council approved the change in March after months of urging by Negret and other hopeful business owners.
Along the way, Negret met Robert and Barbara Butler of Butler Consulting.
Robert is a professor emeritus of agricultural engineering at UW-River Falls and Barbara is a certified public accountant who has worked in Hudson for many years. Together, they do business consulting.
Negret came to them on a referral for help in applying for a small state grant to write a business plan and prepare financial information for potential investors.
The Butlers were so impressed with his expertise, plan and passion that they became investors in the winery.
“He has great credibility as a business owner,” Barbara Butler said.
There are now 16 investors in the business, according to Negret, including his son, Mateo, and his daughter, Camila.
Mateo is a salesman in the medical division for 3M Co. in St. Paul. He plans to become a fourth-generation Negret winemaker.
Camila is employed by the business services firm Price Waterhouse Coopers in Cleveland.
Negret will be leasing the Second Street building from Michael Murphy, owner of Pudge’s Bar.
The 7,600-square-foot space has been gutted and will get a new roof in the makeover.
The old glass-sided auto showroom will become a 50-seat tasting room with a fireplace in the center.
Behind the tasting room will be the production area, bottling room, laboratory and cooler, as well as a bar, kitchen, retail area and restrooms.
Negret said guests will be free to wander through the production area to watch the wine being made and ask questions of the winemaker.
“It’s a completely open space for people to enjoy the smells and flavors, and the learning experience,” he said.
The winery will share the existing patio with Pudge’s, with a fence separating the two businesses. Next spring, outdoor terrace seating will be added above the small parking lot, giving patrons a view of the St. Croix River.
The charming, gentlemanly Negret said the business will open with seven different wines covering the spectrum of personal tastes from dry white to sweeter white, a blush wine, and fruity to dry aged-in-oak red.
He has contracted with a California winery that is making the wine to his specifications so he will have a stock on hand when Negret Wine Company opens its doors.
“They are harvesting the grapes and making the wine the way I want right now,” Negret said enthusiastically. “So by the time that we open they will have been fermenting, aging, and they are going to ship that wine to me. I am going to configure all the blends and then start bottling.”
The following season, Negret will include grapes from two area vineyards -- one near Somerset and the other at Bay City -- in his blends.
“We’ll be as local as possible,” he explained. Growing wine grapes in this northern climate is still new.
“Some of the grapes work well and some do not. Those that work will produce beautiful wine.”
In 2009, while still working for Cannon River Winery, Negret developed a soft, dry white wine using California and Minnesota grapes. He told the Northfield News that he named the wine after his mother, Graciela, because its sophistication reminded him of her elegance.
“I have to make what the market wants,” Negret said when asked if he will be making wines that have been in the family for years.
He said would use some old recipes from his grandfather for specialty wines, but Chardonnays, Savignon Blancs, Cabernets and Pinot Noirs will be more typical offerings.
“I’ll try to highlight as much as possible the local grapes, but combining them with known flavors from California, Mexico and the world, really,” he said.
The number of offerings will expand with time.
Negret is anxious to open the winery as quickly as possible, but adds, “We have to be ready and we have to be right.”