Winery owner makes plunge into Arkansas’ burgeoning cheese industry

by George Jared ([email protected]) 2,705 views 

Margie Raimondo is about to be able to ask her customers if they want cheese with her vintage wines. The owner of Raimondo’s Winery in Mountain Home bought Kent Walker Artisan Cheese in Little Rock, Raimondo told Talk Business & Politics.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. It took Raimondo less than 72 hours to make an offer for the business, after she learned from a friend it was for sale, she said.

“I’m always looking for opportunities … this just felt right,” she said.

Kent Walker started one of the first cheese manufacturing businesses in the state in 2011. Walker was instrumental in developing the regulations and standards used by the state to ensure food safety with cheese manufacturing.

The “cheese factory” is located on Cross Street near the capitol. Raimondo decided to close the business until the first of June to remodel and rebrand, she said. The company has at least 100 wholesale and commercial clients, including Whole Foods. Raimondo said she plans an aggressive expansion into restaurants and specialty food stores. She tentatively plans to expand the cheese part of her business into Oklahoma and Texas.

A large number of customers come to the Little Rock location, and a large sitting area will be redone, she said. Arkansas-based craft beers, Raimondo’s vintage wines, other wines, and of course a wide assortment of cheeses will be available. She also plans to offer other foods. Raimondo spent a year in Italy learning how to make wines, vinaigrettes, cheeses, oils, and other food staples. Cheese making especially appealed to her.

“I’d get up at 3:30 a.m.,” she said. “I was so excited, I could hardly sleep. Every farm has something that has to be milked. I’ve milked goats, cows, and even sheep.”

In 2008, she opened Raimondo’s Winery. The third generation wine maker sold about 12,000 bottles of wine in 2015, and her plans have always included expansions into Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas.

Arkansas wine is a thriving business in Arkansas, but the industry faces many hurdles. “Wine tourism” is one of the fastest growing segments in the tourism industry, and many experts think Arkansas could become a premier destination for those tourists. According to a 2012 economic impact study commissioned by Arkansas Tech University, wine and vineyards generated nearly $21.5 million in tourism revenue in 2010. Winery sales topped $11.4 million that year alone. Arkansas’ wine, grape, and related industries had an economic impact of $173 million that year.

Early in the fall, Raimondo will travel to California and hire a crew to pick her grapes. Work begins at 4 a.m. and ceases by 6 a.m., before the heat affects the quality of grapes. While she’s in California she begins the fermentation process. The grapes are then shipped to Arkansas where she finishes her own process. She stores her wines in a warehouse in North Little Rock.

Before she bought Walker’s, Raimondo needed to experiment with the cheese like she did with her wines. She, and her now cheese maker Dalton Hughes, made 25 gallons of goat milk and 500 gallons of raw cow milk into cheese. Hughes’ passion and willingness to expand his knowledge base convinced Raimondo.

“That’s when I decided to write the check,” she said.

Raimondo knows the basic concepts of cheese production, but she plans to expand her knowledge base. In May, she will spend several weeks in Vermont and upstate New York taking cheese making classes and acquiring certifications. During the next week, she will meet with her marketing team to develop a new brand name for her cheese business.

Wine and cheese are a lucrative combination and Raimondo said she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of developing a franchise based on her signature wines, oils, cheeses, and other products. Although this expansion isn’t completed, Raimondo said she still wants to move into Northwest Arkansas. It has been a goal for several years, and she’s waiting for the right chance to pounce.

“Oh, I’ll get there eventually,” she said.

Walker makes big batch cheeses such as cheddar, gouda, feta, and others. Specialty cheeses will become a focus, and Raimondo said she can’t wait to start development. Raimondo’s singular focus is to develop signature brands. Her cheese products will soon be offered at the winery, too.

“I love, love, love what I do … it’s not work. It’s therapy for me,” she said.