5 questions with…winery owner, Advancement Services leader Larry Gibson

For most people, a look at family ancestry can lead to a few exciting revelations or the discovery of a long-lost family member. But for Larry Gibson, senior executive director of advancement services, genealogy—combined with a few other completely unrelated factors—turned him into a winemaker.

In the early 2000s, Gibson was a university employee and a student in Weatherhead School of Management’s part-time MBA program, where he focused on entrepreneurship. Simultaneously, he became interested in his family’s genealogical history and learned his ancestors were among the first permanent settlers in Lorain County. These two factors inspired him to become a business owner in the county—fulfilling his entrepreneurship goals and acknowledging his pioneering ancestors.

Around the same time, he developed an interest in home distillation—namely, how to make whiskey. But after much research, he decided the brown spirit was “too dangerous and too illegal” to make in his basement; his focus quickly turned to wine, and his small business dreams became a reality.

Now, five years after the first grape vines went in the ground, he, his wife and business partners have a fully operational winery, Vermilion Valley Vineyards. The “boutique winery,” as Gibson calls it, aims to make high-quality wines from the European varieties of grapes that can be grown right here in Northeast Ohio, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, as well as creating wines from grapes that are native to North America, such as Concord, Niagara and Catawba.

Gibson and Vermilion Valley Vineyards are part of a growing movement of wineries across Ohio, where the focus is on local, environmentally friendly offerings. “Food and wine can be enjoyed perfectly well in the region that they come from,” he said. “I’m not a zealot or anything, but it just seems to me that we have a choice and we ought to choose in a responsible manner.”

Learn more about Gibson in our weekly five questions.

1. What superpower would you most like to have?
Oh man, I already feel like I am failing this test. Is this a trick question?

The Tick is my favorite superhero and his coolest superpowers are “nigh-invulnerability” and “drama power.” Nigh-invulnerability is a tempting choice, but I’d choose drama power; the ability for my powers to increase as the situation becomes more dramatic.

2. What’s your favorite place to dine in Cleveland?
I’m not the “live to eat” type. I’d have to say standing over my kitchen sink at home. A close second would be walking back to my office from Tomlinson Hall cafeteria. In both cases, I’ve typically allowed myself to get so hungry that whatever I am eating is the best thing ever.

3. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Carefree, and I fear that I am failing miserably.

4. What accomplishments are you most proud of—personally and professionally?
Personally, it’s got to be something family-related. I admire my wife and daughter so much. I can’t even look at them without feeling so incredibly inadequate, but they seem to put up with me. So that feels like an extraordinary accomplishment.

When I was 30 years old, I became the primary caregiver for my mother who was stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. I really feel like I did my best, but how can you ever really feel that way when you have a young family, a demanding job, you’re going to school at night, and you are trying to start a business? It was a very difficult time for me, but now that she is gone I can’t help feel that it was some kind of a miracle. Every young person should be required to spend 10 of the best years of their life in a nursing home. It’ll teach you a little bit about where we are all headed. I live in absolute dread of the things that are going to come out of my mouth when I finally lose my mind.

Professionally, starting my own business. My father raised eight children as a small business owner. That absolutely blows my mind (although I am pretty sure there is a hidden lesson in there somewhere about how the cost of living has changed over the past 30 years). He always told me, “Larry, never be a business owner. Get an education, get a job, get health benefits and save for retirement.” So, I did all that—several times. When he died, I found myself free to break all of his rules.

It’s funny really. I always thought my dad was really smart, but man was he wrong. All human endeavors have been and forever will be dependent upon venture creation. It could be our ancestors who first left Africa to cross the Red Sea to get to the Arabian Peninsula, or a kid in a college dorm starting the next big company. Someone has to step up and say, “Let’s do this!” and inexplicably other people respond, “OK.” At that point, that individual is left with that lonely, sinking feeling of, “Well, now what do I do?” If you haven’t had that feeling then you don’t know how to live. Go out there and find it. Every other country in the world is trying to replicate what for America is second nature. It’s hard-wired into our DNA. We do this because we have to, and because we can. And that is the coolest thing ever.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve University?
CWRU is filled with so many fun and smart people. I like to have fun and I like to learn, and this is a great place for both. I tell people that I would hang out with my co-workers even if I weren’t getting paid for it—and I’m serious about that. I also enjoy tormenting the students that work in our office. CWRU students are the best that I have ever worked with, probably because they seem to be a lot like me—only they keep getting younger and younger.