But by the time they hit their mid-sixties and hunkered down to start planning in early 2007, they were facing a bleak reality: The $150,000 they’d managed to stash for their golden years wasn’t going to stretch very far in the states.
Click here to see our photo essay on the Phelans‘ journey >
“We had talked for a long time about owning a vineyard, and by the time we got serious about retirement, we realised that if we wanted to fulfil that dream, we’d have to look outside of the U.S.,” Tom told Business Insider in a recent interview.
So the couple sold off most of their belongings and turned to South America, where they spent a gruelling year navigating language barriers, dodgy realtors and their own naivete in their search of the perfect plot of land.
“We did not have a lot of money,” Tom said. “But we didn’t want to let our vineyard dreams die.”
The search begins
The Phelans knew they wanted a vineyard, but the question was, Where?
“Because both of us had grown up in California, we did briefly pursue owning a vineyard in Napa or Sonoma,” Tom says. “But you might buy an acre there for 100 grand and it wouldn’t support you. It wouldn’t support enough (growth) to even think of creating an income.”
It was during a business trip in Argentina that Tom, an international speaker on IRA investments, decided to see what the country––with its flourishing wine industry and relatively low cost of living (today’s exchange rate is about 4.5 Argentine pesos to the U.S. dollar)––had to offer. The couple rented an apartment in Buenos Aires and set out for nearby province of Mendoza, the heart of the country’s wine industry.
“It’s like the wild, wild west.”
Even with Yvonne’s flair for Spanish and experience as a realtor, in the three months they spent scouting locations (in the dead of winter), the Phelans found themselves fighting just to get their foot through the door.
“It was kind of deceiving,” Tom says. “A lot of people think of Mendoza as having vineyards, but I can count them on one hand.” So they widened their search parameter, eventually winding up a couple hours away in vineyard-rich San Rafael.
Click here to see our photo essay on the Phelans’ journey >
“Buying real estate here is like the wild, wild west,” Tom says. “You might be shown the same property three times by three different realtors at three different rates and three different types of grapes (advertised)…We looked at at least 100 vineyards.”
They returned home to the U.S. to mull over their options, but all roads led them back to San Rafael. “We decided to look around and we found this 108-acre land that our realtor hadn’t wanted to show us,” Tom says. “We went out and fell in love with it.”
At $132,000 USD for all 108 acres, they knew a steal when they saw one.
Closing the deal
“(A vineyard) certainly isn’t something you visit for 24 hours and probably buy on the spot,” says Tom, who dabbled in flipping homes before the housing crisis settled in. When they showed up to their closing with a bilingual real estate attorney, their realtor was stunned.
“In 20 years, he said maybe twice someone brought a lawyer,” Tom says.
When naming their land, they took the simple route: La Vida Buena Vineyard. Now the real work began.
“We knew the area was fertile but it was rough and tough. It was ugly,” Tom recalls. They may have been savvy in real estate, but the Phelans were complete novices when it came to running a vineyard. “Our only wine experience was drinking it.”
They quickly hired the extra help they’d need to get things up and running, including hiring a handful of laborers to work the land year-round and collect the grapes during harvest time.
The Phelans employ about four permanent workers who earn up to $100 per day ($1.00 USD for every 50-pound container they pack). “We’re working in the white and our workers are all paid government-mandated wages,” Tom says. They also cover their health benefits and built a separate building for their lodging on-site.
Even with all their bases covered, the fruits of their labour were slow coming. It took about three years for the vineyard to really start producing a substantial harvest.
Sipping on their success
Photo: Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Phelan
Today, they harvest a variety of grapes, including Malbec (pictured below) and Chardonnay: “To date, we have planted 60 acres,” Tom says.”This last harvest, in March and April, we sold our Chardonnay grapes to Mumms to make champagne.”
With new profit streaming in, they’re able to finance further expansion on the vineyard and cover the inevitable costs of running a new business.
This year, the couple’s celebrating their first foray into wine production. At present, they have two barrels of Malbec stashed at a nearby bodega with about a year left to ferment.
“I cannot adequately describe the pride you have the first time the winemaker inserts a pipette into your barrel of wine and draws out a taste of the ageing nectar that you know will only get better with age,” Tom says.
A new plan is hatched
Once their story spread, a lot of people were interested in taking a page out of the Phelans’ retirement planner. “People said, I want to do exactly what you’re doing but I don’t want to live in Argentina…I just want five acres or something,” Tom says. “They asked if we would carve off a piece of our dream.”
So the Phelans hatched a plan: They parceled off three-quarters of the lot to sell in five-acre plots.
“We sold to a Canadian gentleman who lives in Ecuador, to someone from New Jersey…one couple in Washington state and one to a filmmaker in Holland,” Tom says.
The parcels are sold for $375/month, and the Phelans’ crew takes care of all the harvesting and grape sales. Per Tom, “The hope is that after three years, your vineyard will be self-sustaining and your income will exceed your expenses.”
Virginia Schoenfeld decided to purchase a plot in 2009 after she happened upon the vineyard during a visit to Mendoza. “I visited many projects in the area but I liked the small feel of La Vida Buena Vineyards,” she says. “Most were too big, more expensive and did not have the ‘small family’ feel or welcoming feeling the Phelans offer.” Schoenfeld is planning a visit in February for her third harvest.
Looking forward to the future
“We’ve had people who’ve begged us to (open a resort on the property),” says Tom, who’s already interviewing chefs to work on site. “Only (our vineyard) owners will have a free stay … You might get 30 people on a good night.”
Once it’s built, the Phelans will move out of their rental and live there permanently.
“Sometimes you hear someone retires and (moves overseas) and then you find out they had $1.5 million. Let me tell you, you could come come here and live like a king if you had $150,000,” Tom says. “And now we have a legacy to pass on to our children and grandchildren.”
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