Chicago Booth alumni’s organic vineyard produces Michelin-worthy wine

Skills learned at Chicago Booth help alumni launch innovative Belgian wine cooperative

The first harvest at Michel Schoonbroodt’s organic vineyard yielded 6,000 bottles of still and sparkling white wine in 2020. One of those wines—called Les Rémouleurs, or “knife grinders”—is on the wine list at La Canne en Ville, a Brussels restaurant with a Michelin star.

Located in east Belgium, the Vin du Pays de Herve wine cooperative was launched on the heels of Schoonbroodt’s 30-year career in finance. This venture was the culmination of years of hard work and research that he undertook with two fellow alumni of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Working with their local board members, they share a vision to produce quality wine while respecting the environment and stakeholders.

The company has faced its share of challenges. In 2021, a long humid summer led to the outbreak of diseases such as mildew that halved the grape output, leaving the vineyard with a financial shortfall.

Schoonbroodt and his team acted quickly, filling two of their tanks with apple juice that they fermented with some of the grape must to produce 8,000 bottles of a new type of cider, which they call Parallèle 50.

“We needed to show that we were capable of doing something else when necessary and that we had the innovative capabilities,” said Schoonbroodt, MBA’92, who is hopeful that this year’s lack of frost and forecasted hot, dry European summer will deliver another strong, more traditional grape harvest. “We continue to cross our fingers.”

Something tangible and organic

He decided to establish the vineyard in 2016 after learning that he was about to become a grandfather. After a long, successful career as a business executive working at multinationals engaged in banking, telecoms, biotech and satellites, Schoonbroodt saw an opportunity to do something that was—as he puts it—tangible and organic and would contribute to his region, becoming a local actor in the social economy and training local people in cultivation and food processing techniques.

But he needed other directors on that journey. In 2017, Schoonbroodt took part in a Chicago Booth alumni event at Brussels Airport, where he reconnected with Didier Jacques, MBA’89, whom he had known for 20 years and who had extensive experience in project and business management in several strategic sectors—including transport, oil and gas, energy and infrastructure.

Schoonbroodt also connected with Philippe De Prins, MBA’69. A participant in Booth’s exchange program with the Louvain School of Management, De Prins had decades of experience in the wine and spirits industry. Both Jacques and De Prins agreed to join and serve pro bono on the vineyard’s board of directors.

Schoonbroodt, Jacques and De Prins met at the general assembly of the Chicago Booth Alumni Club of Belgium, where about 100 other alumni had also gathered. De Prins, who spent more than three decades in several senior executive roles at the Italian wine and spirits company Campari Group, said he found Schoonbroodt’s idea appealing because it matched his experience.

“Because it was a challenging project, because he is an entrepreneur, because he’s a nice fellow, and because he’s from Chicago Booth—all these factors were enough for me to jump in,” De Prins said.

The three were determined to make the vineyard organic, worried that the wine industry in Europe uses too many pesticides. They chose the most pest-resistant vines, and adopted practices that Schoonbroodt said would be better for workers, neighbors, consumers and the planet: “We need to be an example.”

‘It’s only difficult the first time’

The expertise that the three alumni acquired during their MBA studies and from their subsequent careers proved essential in establishing a successful vineyard, which requires a lot of up-front investment and patience to absorb several years of losses before the vines can produce the grapes needed for a successful viniculture. It can take three to four years to get the first grapes to grow, while turning a profit can take between seven and eight years. “Creating a new vineyard from scratch is very costly,” Schoonbroodt said.

His time at Booth gave him an appetite for learning that helped him acquire all the skills needed to start a vineyard from scratch. Schoonbroodt said the marketing and management skills he acquired from his MBA also helped him launch such a challenging venture: “It’s important to keep confidence in a company that’s losing money.”

Schoonbroodt, De Prins and Jacques raised more than €1 million ($1.05 million) from 700 shareholders to finance the expansion from three to eight hectares (about 7 to 19 acres) of vineyard—and are still actively seeking new investors. The vineyard plans to host the Booth Alumni Association’s Family Day on Sept. 11, 2022.

Although the vineyard is a social purpose activity—producing organic wines as well as supporting local employment—Jacques said it is still essential to focus on the bottom line. “The three of us are impregnated by the evidence-driven type of thinking from the University of Chicago and from Booth,” he said.

De Prins echoed that sentiment. Starting new ventures, he said, always requires financial planning, marketing strategies, control management and systems of communication: “No matter the size of the company you’re working for, referring to Booth courses can be a source of inspiration to carry out your job efficiently.”

Asked what advice he has for recent Booth graduates, Schoonbroodt said: “Don’t be afraid of doing something new. It’s only difficult the first time—the second time will be easier, and the third time easier again.”

—A version of this story was first published by the Booth School of Business.