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From VP to Vintner: Second Act

By Susan J. Wells

  • PUBLISHED April 28
  • |

For 25 years, wine education and collecting was a passionate hobby for Tony Parnigoni. He kept a wine cellar in the lower level of his home and subscribed to numerous wine publications. “I always loved learning more about wine and what made certain vintages better than others,” he says. “But it was more a romance at the time rather than a lust.” 

Indulging his personal diversion took a backseat to building an executive career and raising a family in Cincinnati. He spent many years as an owner, president or vice president at several public and private companies, many in the food services and facilities management industries. Still, his interest in viticulture grew.

Digging Deep

In fact, it almost took hold when he considered, but passed on, an opportunity to buy a vineyard in Oregon in 1997. “It may have been the right place, but not the right time,” he says. “It would have been just too big of a financial risk.” 

Years later, after a close friend died, he began to re-examine his work-life balance. And that assessment spurred him to rekindle the idea. “Right then, I told myself: I’m going to stop all the airplanes, hotel rooms, emails and phone calls,” Parnigoni recalls. “It’s time to make a change.”

He started searching for a suitable property for locating a vineyard and winery, and found it in 2010—on a rolling, 18-acre parcel in Northern Kentucky, 30 miles south of Cincinnati.

Trading Suits for Boots

On weekends, he spent 12-hour days preparing the overgrown farmland for planting. He also immersed himself in learning the trade, through a University of Kentucky viticulture program. And he trained with a noted wine consultant, ultimately mastering the fundamentals of wine production. 

A year later, Parnigoni planted his first grape vines on three acres. As he waited for the vines to come of age and produce quality fruit, he decided to leave his corporate job to focus full-time on his second act. He was 51 at the time.

Parnigoni’s vineyard, winery and event venue opened to the public in May 2015. He named it Brianza Gardens and Winery, after the Italian province from which his ancestors immigrated. Today, the estate vineyard tends 3,800 vines. This year, wine production should top 1,700 cases—more than triple what he produced in his first year of operation.  

Cultivating a New Pursuit

A self-described risk-taker, Parnigoni credits a solid business background, a tireless work ethic and a consistent approach to investing and long-term wealth management for putting him in the position to follow his new path. Along the way, he chose to capitalize on what he knew and trusted the most: himself.

“I have always invested in me,” he says, whether through rewarding business partnerships, tax-advantaged individual retirement accounts, high-yield savings plans or other financial products. 

“I had no windfalls, no inheritance,” he says. His new venture was entirely funded from those savings and investments over the years. 

And while the point of the vineyard was to pursue a dream, Parnigoni says he also has been focused on making sure his retirement was adequately funded and leaving something for his kids. “I have friends who think my investment was a crazy thing to do,” he says, “but we are a debt-free business today and my goal of positive cash flow has been met.” 

Living the Vine Life

As satisfying as his second act has been, Parnigoni nods to its challenges—not the least of which are harsh winters and late spring frosts, which can damage tender vines. “I do curse Mother Nature occasionally,” he laughs.

Nevertheless, his efforts are bearing fruit: Last fall, 15 of his wines earned medal awards—including two gold and eight silver—in the 2018 Kentucky Commonwealth Commercial Wine Competition & Commissioner’s Cup. He takes pride in that recognition and plans to leverage it for further growth.

“Truthfully, I’ve never worked so hard physically in my life, but it’s a totally different type of exhaustion,” he says. “I’ve been able to create something I have a passion for, and I honestly couldn’t be happier.”

Susan J. Wells is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly for Kiplinger’s custom content team. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, American City Business Journals, HR Magazine and many other digital, print and brand media.

Do you have a passion you want to pursue? Learn 8 steps to joining the gig economy

Read more of our Second Act series in From Attorney to Author.

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