Startup Spotlight: The Sangria Shop to open next week

It's one thing when your friends tell you that you have created something so good people are going to want to buy it.

It's something else when a panel of judges says yours is the best. The judges of the International Amateur WineMaker Competition awarded winemaker Frances Vega and her husband Fernando Costas the highest honors in their 2011 competition, giving the couple the confidence they needed to take Vega's Sangria to market.

Costas has been laboring since then to obtain the licensing and complete myriad other negotiations -- for everything from bottles, corks and tanks to spirits -- needed before they can open The Sangria Shop. They invite the public Aug. 30 to taste the fruits of their labor.

The tasting room of the 400-square-foot winery, which shares a building with an insurance office at 5919 Sprinkle Road in Portage, is fitted out with fruit presses from 1920, tables made of old barrels and a wine glass rack Costas built. In the back, where the Sangria is mixed Costas demonstrates a station he designed that will allow him to fill 60 bottles at a time.

The Sangria Shop will start out with three offerings -- a red, white and spice Sangria. To make their drink, they buy wine in bulk and blend it following Vega's recipe. Bottles of Sangria Taina come with fruit and are good for three months if refrigerated. Costas says as the business grows they will purchase the ultraviolet lights that will give treated bottles of Sangria longer shelf life.

Although there has been a flurry of activity in the past year, Sangria Taina really has been 10 years in the making, when Vega and Costas started to recognize how much friends enjoyed their version of the beverage. The couple brought the recipe with them when they relocated to Portage in 2006 in order for their son to attend programs for those with autism offered in Kalamazoo County. Schools in Puerto Rico teach in rigid military style in classrooms of 40 to 50 students they knew would not be good for the boy. "We researched the programs across the country," Costas says. "The program here is the best."

The company he worked for at the time, Cockram, was very family friendly and transferred him to the area as soon as there was work for him to do here.

Costas is in chemical engineering and since then has variously worked for Pfizer, Merck, Consumers Energy, and BP&R as jobs opened up in his field. Company gatherings followed.

"We were introduced to the concept of 'pot luck,'" Costas says with a grin.

Vega's Sangria quickly became what their friends hoped they would bring. Costas recalls one gathering where by the time the hostess came from the kitchen with wine glasses the group had already popped open the bottle and started drinking from the regular glasses on the table. They couldn't wait.

And his former co-workers continued to invite them to company gatherings even after he had left the company.

Good friends also have helped at all steps along the way. Costas particularly thanked Mark Peplinski who crafted the tasting room tables.

The willing help of friends as they turned an office space into a winery and tasting room is just one of the things that seemed to come together for Vega and Costas as they pursued their dream. They won an iPad in a raffle that they can use for credit card processing. And at one point it seemed Costas was about to become mired in a licensing application process that bounced the application back to the applicant whenever a wrong response was encountered. He found someone at the licensing agency who helped him through the process step-by-step in order to complete it. The winery received its license in February.

Then, there is the specialized equipment required for their undertaking. "You have to have the tools you need," Costas says. He has worked hard to find them.

Costas, who may be familiar as the man who successfully led the effort to convince Portage city officials to approve backyard chickens, scoured Craig's List, looking for free or inexpensive items like the stainless steel sinks needed to make the winery a reality. They also are selling their home in Puerto Rico to finance the new business.

When Vega and Costas decided to take their Sangria to market they chose a business name that reflected their heritage -- Sangria Taina. Taina means "the noble ones." The Tainos were the original inhabitants of the Caribbean and their petroglyphs are still found there. The petroglyph for the sun is on the Sangria Taina label.

The couple originally had thought of using the petroglyph designs throughout their business, but friends suggested the primitive cave drawings were too ethnic and might discourage those who have not tasted Sangria from trying it.

The couple recognizes not everyone is as familiar with Sangria as they are about beers, for example. But they hope for support from the Hispanic community, which knows all about the fruity beverage with a powerful punch, and that word will spread. Costas has online marketing efforts on Facebook and the company website already up and running. Shirts are one more way the marketing efforts are going forward.

And there is always the power of recommendations from those who have already sampled the earliest versions of what is about to become known as Sangria Taina.

"Our friends tell us we have spoiled them," Costas says. "They say they can't drink other Sangria. It doesn't taste as good as ours."

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.
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