Jim Turpin & Susan Prokop
Jim Turpin describes himself as a “recovering lobbyist” who began to wonder, along with his wife Susan Prokop, what “life after DC might be like.” While he once toyed with the idea of owning a race car team, he and Susan enjoyed going to wine festivals where they savored the wine and noticed that many of the winery owners they met had former careers in unrelated fields. The notion of creating their own winery began to take root.
Once they got serious about this new phase of their lives, they went about the transition carefully, seeking expert advice along the way. Counseling provided by the Central Virginia SBDC started with help to develop a solid business plan. With the grand opening of their tasting room in September 2012, Susan and Jim met an important five-year goal in that plan. According to Jim, another of the vital services the SBDC provided was assistance in assembling a construction loan application package for that building. Their thorough preparation resulted in expeditious approval from two banks. In addition to advice from peer winery owners, the SBDC also helped to identify key business support professionals such as accountants, insurance agents and a website designer.
Jim took classes in the Piedmont Virginia Community College Enology and Viticulture program and reached out to an array of experts to help locate their new winery. Virginia Tech helped them target Nelson County in the Monticello American Viticultural Area, one of the richest areas of Virginia’s burgeoning wine growing industry. Additional advice came from the County Extension Agent to identify the best available land for this new enterprise. Experienced Virginia vineyard consultant Chris Hill helped establish the vineyards in 2009, converting part of a former apple orchard and orienting the rows of vines to maximize drainage, air flow, and elevation.
While this new venture is a radical change in lifestyle for Susan and Jim who both have long careers in politics, there is a certain flavor of “back to the future” in their move to Central Virginia and into the winery business. Susan graduated from the University of Virginia and farming has been in her family since they came to Nebraska in the mid-1800s from what is now the Czech Republic. Jim’s family has long roots in Central Virginia and he came to Virginia to attend Virginia Military Institute, but he was still surprised when the realtor first showed him this farm land, referring to the “upper and lower Turpin” property. The real estate attorney turned out to be Ralph Turpin who bears a strong resemblance to Jim’s father. There was a small residence on the land known locally as “Ruby’s Cabin,” the home of a cousin, Ruby Turpin, who lived there for forty years. A shoe from one of her horses was found in the field and now has a place of honor in the tasting room as a good luck symbol.
Walls of the tasting room are otherwise festooned with the inspiration for the winery’s name – Jim’s impressive collection of historic campaign memorabilia dating from 1840. Now that the tasting room is built, the next step is equipping it for winemaking and storage. Noted winemaker Michael Shaps, has been making the wine for Democracy Vineyards, using a blend of their fruit (as the vineyards mature) and grapes sourced from select Monticello appellation growers. Now that the winery is itself maturing, they have hired their first Democracy winemaker and vineyard manager who is helping to select and install the new equipment and they have brought on a tasting room manager.
Jim and Susan are about to begin building their new home on land overlooking the vineyard. Citing their desire to support the community that has been so supportive of them, they will again be using a Nelson County contractor and subs as they did for the tasting room. Clearly, Jim feels a strong connection to his Central Virginia roots. He jokes that he suspects some of his ancestors may have made a particular non-wine version of alcoholic beverage in the past and, as he loads up for a wine festival, laughs that a Turpin is still “selling alcohol from the back of a Ford.”