When The Dalles natives James and Molli Martin heard the city planned on destroying the Sunshine Mill if no one stepped up to buy it, they knew then and there they were the ones to save it from ruins. And save it they have.
After sitting vacant since 1978, the Sunshine Mill is sporting a beautiful new paint job and has been operation central of the Quenett and Copa Di Vino wineries since 2009. Quenett, according to the Lewis and Clark journals, is the Native American word for Steelhead.
With the help of an urban renewal loan, the Martins were able to make upgrades to the building with $500,000 and then put the other $100,000 into the painting of the building, turning the once industrial looking mill into a work of art.
Back in its heyday—when it was owned and operated by the Sunshine Biscuit Company—the mill ground wheat into the flour that went into the ever popular Cheez-It®. The mill was also the very first building to have electricity in The Dalles, powered by a Thomas Edison motor that can still be seen in the mill. What’s more, it is the only designated skyscraper in the Columbia River Gorge.
With artifacts found throughout the mill, the Martins have created a unique winery with an industrial feel. Tables are made from fan guard covers and pulley wheels that are covered with the original straps of leather still wait for the command to grind flour once again.
“I think what truly makes my heart skip and what I feel when I see and work in the Sunshine Mill is the true American Dream,” said Molli. “An idea that became real. A building that sat vacant for over 30 years in our hometown that many described as an eyesore is now the most visibly stunning and thriving building in downtown Dalles. Our incredible staff has come on board as our growth continues because they believe in us and the dream. The support of our small community, seeing the expressions of the all tourists when they walk through the door recognizing and appreciating the vision and sacrifice it took to do this, truly radiates warmth and sunshine at the Mill and our Company. It’s sappy but so true. This is a project that is close to our hearts. It has been great to bring it back to life.”
Molli’s excitement about the winery, the wine, and Copa Di Vino was infectious and there is no doubt the old mill is in great hands.
It all sounds pretty cut and dried. A couple grows up in a town in Oregon, they buy the old mill that has been a part of their life forever, restore it, and turn it into a winery with a really cool painting on the outside. And they lived happily ever after.
But there really is so much more to the story.
Bullet trains to sharks
On a 20th anniversary trip to Provence, France, James and Molli sat on a bullet train sipping wine from a unique single serving container. It was their first experience with Copa Di Vino, which means “wine by the glass.”
“When James bought his first single serve glass of wine on the bullet train it triggered an epiphany,” said Molli. “I, on the other hand, thought it was just a cute glass of wine. I did not see the opportunity, he did. Our family soon made the decision together to go for it and take on a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I only would do this once in a lifetime!”
The Martins brought the idea back to the United States and immediately began the rehabilitation of the Sunshine Mill.
“Copa Di Vino is a ready to drink product for on the go people,” said Molli.
Copa Di Vino was almost an overnight hit. And like most viral sensations, that came with issues. The Martins were having trouble keeping up with production. They knew they needed another bottling line, and they needed it quickly. So James made his pitch to the producers of the popular television show, Shark Tank. He was invited to be a part of the show and in 2011 he made his first appearance. James was seeking a $600,000 investment into his company and in exchange would give the investors 20% of his company. The Sharks made their offers as they realized the potential Copa Di Vino could have on the wine industry.
James knew what the Sharks were offering would change the tapestry of his business forever. He knew they were not grasping just what it was that he had, so he explained to them that the opportunity was far greater than what they were picturing. In the end he told the investors that he would not be making a deal with them and he would not be taking an investment from them.
Shark Kevin O’Leary told him, “This was your moment,” as if James had just made the most horrible business decision in the history of business decisions.
”Before James went on we discussed to staying true to ourselves,” said Molli. “He drank some Copa before the taping and had the courage to say no! True story!”
Before James was a guest on Shark Tank, sales were around $500,000 and the product was sold in five states. The company now generates $13 million in annual revenue and is sold in 48 states and 18 countries. A pretty good turn of events for a couple of small town Oregonians that had to sell the family’s cherry orchard in order to have enough money to invest in a winery that they just knew in their hearts would be a great life-changing endeavor.
Ah, success! What better way to show the Sharks that the decision to not take their investment offer was not a mistake
James was invited back to the Shark Tank in 2014. During the trip, he made a phone call to Samuel Adam’s creator Jim Cook who told him, “Passion will take you a long way.” Once again, when James realized the Sharks did not share or understand his vision, he told them he would not be taking their offer. This gained him the reputation of being the most hated entrepreneur in Shark Tank’s history.
“The only people who created that label are the Sharks themselves because of the success we are having,” said Molli. “The majority of the people who love Copa and have seen the show support us turning them down. Kevin O’Leary himself told James it had worldwide potential so why should he have given up so much and why did he offer so little? And by saying “No” the ratings for Shark Tank shot up. James was the first to turn down an offer and so they asked him to come back a second time and that show was even more successful. Shark Tank should thank James for its success maybe?”
Eventually, a private investor became involved which gave the Martins the means to go from one bottling line to two.
The Sunshine Mill Winery now produces 7 million glasses of Copa Di Vino and 2,200 cases of Quenett wine yearly. Copa Di Vino is sold at Walmart and is in venues such as Madison Square Gardens, Radio City Music Hall and many NFL locations. The Martins have created 105 jobs and the mill has been the production site and tasting room for both Quenett and Copa Di Vino since 2009.
Plans for the future for the Sunshine Mill include a 49 room boutique hotel inside the huge concrete silos.
James and Molli’s story is inspirational. To turn down a $600,000 investment simply because you think your business has even more potential is a pretty daring thing to do. And it would seem that the Martins have absolutely no regrets on the business decisions they have made since acquiring the old run down mill on the edge of their hometown, turning it into a place where weddings, reunions and parties are a normal occurrence and friendships are made over a Copa Di Vino.