From the oil industry to the wine industry, Nebil Zarif established himself in every business he ventured in. He is the epitome of a successful businessman. Zareef was born in Turkey, graduated from the University of Denver,Colorado, USA, and went on to build his career and life in the US. He is now known as a producer of one of the highest quality wines in California, with a vision to build on his success. eniGma’s Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata sat down with the fascinating entrepreneur to learn more about his extraordinary life and his plans for the future…
What was your first business venture?
When I was 21, I decided I was going to be in the oil and gas business. I started in a company called Rock Oil, and I ended up staying in Denver for ten years. I drilled a good amount of oil wells and did my first ‘frack’ in 1980. Fracking is forcing oil out of the ground to enhance production. I did that for several years and enjoyed success doing it. In the late eighties, I decided that the oil business was not as profitable as it used to be, as the prices all went down and that wreaked havoc in the oil business. I decided that it wasn’t the business I wanted to remain in and I sold my oil company to George Bush Jr. I decided to go into the real estate business instead. I started by buying, selling, and rebuilding things on a small scale, houses between four thousand to ten thousand square feet. I also got involved in takeovers and acquisitions, and I looked at buying small capital businesses and reselling them. All in all, I was in the real estate and oil and gas business for over 10 years.
What did you do next?
After I got divorced, I decided to move on and to buy myself a ranch outside the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. I wanted to have a dude ranch like the movie City Slickers. I wanted to create a ranch for people coming from the city to learn about being a cowboy. I love horses, and I just wanted to be away from the black tie events and the hectic lifestyle I had in LA. I wanted to simplify my life and be with nature. The plan was to have my kids come with me at the ranch to learn what nature is all about, to be more down to earth, rather than just being in Beverly Hills. But unfortunately I never had that opportunity.
How did you get into the winemaking business?
While enjoying myself at the ranch, this one farmer came over and pointed out that I had some great grapes there. I asked him “What do we do with those grapes?”and he answered, “We make wine!” He told me the grapes could provide high quality wine for the high end El Campanile restaurant near by. So I went to see the restaurant and its management and I realized I had a lot to learn about the wine business. That’s when I decided to go to U.C. Davis to learn about planting vineyards and basic winemaking.
From the five acres of land that I started with, I ended up planting 850 acres of vineyards. I did a lot of the work with my own hands, and I wanted to really be a good farmer. Once I planted the vineyards, I went and bought another winery called Laetitia, which was near the ocean. My first vineyards were up in the mountains – at the highest point in Santa Barbara County, about 1000 meters above sea level. I bought the Laetitia winery with an Iraqi partner who had just sold his oil company, and we had a great partnership. Then I sold my shares five years later, and I started another winery elsewhere.
Why did you sell your shares?
It was after the September 11th attacks on the US, and we were over leveraged, and I didn’t want to have this kind of debt. My partner had just sold his company for over a billion and a half dollars, so he had plenty of cash to play with. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Laetitia had become so big; I had over 500 employees in the vineyards, a couple hundred employees in the winery, too much wine to produce; I didn’t like the pressure. I moved on and I started a new vineyard from scratch. I decided to start a smaller, boutique winery that was higher end. I have been with my current winery, Summerland, for 13 years now, but I have been in the wine business for 23 years with Laetitia and my previous vineyards.
What are your plans for your current winery?
I’d like to have a cult wine, to have my vineyard be known as one of the top producers of Pinot Noir wine in California. With that being the image of our winery, I’d like to pull in some other lower end wineries so I can make my big splash on different levels. We are starting to see some great exposure. For example, we created the private label wine for Caesar’s Palace hotel in Las Vegas and the Tavistock Group, which has 40-50 restaurants around the US. We have also been approached to do a private label for Keeneland [a horse racing facility]. Keeneland is in Kentucky, where the greatest horse breeders are. We have also done private label wines for the Ritz Carlton, the Beverly Hills Hotel, and we continue to work with them. We also have our products on TV shows like the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which gets over five million viewers an episode.
After all you have accomplished in America, would you ever consider investing in Turkey or the Middle East?
I love Turkey. I have real estate interests in Turkey. In Turkey, the tourism business is huge. My dream is to open a boutique hotel in the south of Turkey, where I come from. I have a building there, and I want to create a hotel there with my family. I will always go visit Turkey and the Middle East, but I am now settled and integrated in the US.
What are your future plans for your current business?
I think we have a great opportunity with our Summerland wine and it’s now being introduced and distributed in different countries around the world. I would love to also distribute Summerland in Dubai, Egypt, and all of the Middle East. We make some wines that would fit very well in the region. I know that the region is very limited because of certain rules, but for me, wine is part of the dining experience. Wine is not alcohol; wine is part of our meal, because we pair our wines with our food. We do not just drink the wine to drink the wine. We try to educate people that way, and I hope we can educate people in the Middle East to enjoy wine in the same way.