Can An Old Dog Teach Us New Tricks?

By Courtney Leatherman

Reprinted with permission from Vineyard & Winery Management, January/February 2000.

Legend has it that the first table wine grapes came from Armenia. Now, centuries later, a unique system for securing today's grape vines has come out of the same ancient land.

Two Armenian-Americans, K. George Najarian and his daughter Nancy, brought the system to the United States. They werenât particularly focused on the region's fine wines and cognacs when they first began traveling to Armenia in 1987. They went to the then-Soviet Republic simply to learn more about their ancestors. But the two kept returning on humanitarian missions to help the struggling land-locked country. After a devastating earthquake in 1988, George and his wife, Dr. Carolann Najarian, started a relief organization, The Armenian Health Alliance. A few years later, Nancy worked there as an English teacher to MBA students and then as a consultant on economic and development issues to governmental and non-governmental agencies. Since the first trip the father and daughter have visited the country about 45 times combined.

It was on one of those trips, in 1994, that George met Manuk Manukian, a man who had worked as an inventor for the Soviet government. For 10 years, Mr. Manukian had been independently working on a device to make it easier and quicker to secure grape vines to trellises. The assignment had been first handed to him by the Soviets. What Mr. Manukian had come up with was a clear, plastic, C-shaped clip -- something akin to the kind of fastener you find on bread bags -- and a dispenser to apply it with. What Mr. Manukian had not devised was a way to manufacture the clip or to market it

Thatâs where George came in. A retired Boston real-estate developer with an insatiable entrepreneurial spirit, George was instantly sold on the ingenuity of Mr. Manukian's grapevine fastener. In fact, he bought the idea from Mr. Manukian, applied for a patent, and trademarked the name Clip-it®.

George's wife and daughter needed a bit more convincing. "My step-mother and I were skeptical of this being the best thing since sliced bread or the paper clip," Nancy recalls. But "he was walking around the house clipping everything."

In 1997, after a one-hour meeting with two vineyard consultants, Nancy was sold too. "Their eyes lit up," she says. "You could tell that they thought this was outstanding." The Clip-it® was appealing because whether a worker attached it to a vine with the dispenser or used only his bare hands, he could tie up vines more quickly than he could using sisal twine or tie tape. Training grape vines takes a lot of time and a lot of labor, so any gadget that saves on those fronts, saves the vineyard money, too. The consultants figured that during the winter and spring tying seasons, Clip-it® would be a big boon to the industry.

The consultants' enthusiasm was infectious and Nancy herself began to see Clip-it® as an indispensable gadget -- if not tantamount to the paper clip, at least the Post-it® note for those in the wine business. She remembers thinking, "The wine industry is a great industry and we have a product that works great, so why not start this company?"

In 1998, Nancy and her father started Clip-it® Systems. Nancy is the company's president. Her father is its director of research and development.

To test and refine the original Clip-it®, they worked extensively with grape growers in California and Virginia and with viticulture specialists at universities and agricultural extension programs across the country. "We received great support across the board in our attempt to make the best possible Clip-it®," Nancy says. "It was daunting to try to meet all the special needs of growers and their grapevines." The aim was to develop a device that could secure young and mature vines, "with one simple motion," she explains.

After a lot of testing -- and trials -- they finalized a design for Clip-it® Vine, their first product. They began marketing that first design nearly two years ago, and almost immediately began receiving reports that growers who used Clip-it® Vine had cut their training and tying time in half-- which translated into big cuts in labor costs. Moreover, vineyard owners reported that the laborers themselves were asking their foremen to order more Clip-it® Vine fasteners. "That was when we really knew we had a product that would help the industry on all levels," Nancy says.

The product helps because Clip-its® snap on easily, but they won't snap off canes or young vines. They won't girdle vines, either: when they get too tight, they simply pop off. But they won't pop off on a whim: They held fast through three hurricanes, as one Virginia grower told the Najarians.

When growers saw what the gadget could do, they wanted more -- more designs, that is. At trade shows, the growers bombarded Nancy and George with innovative ideas for using Clip-it® and suggestions for new designs. For instance, the original Clip-it® Vine worked great on grapevines younger than three years, but after that, the vines got big and they needed a bigger Clip-it®. Conversations like those led to the creation of three new devices: Clip-it® Big, Clip-it® Drip Irrigation, and Clip-it® Catch Wire. Their names pretty much describe their functions. "Our goal is to offer a Clip-it® System that can fulfill all the tying needs on vineyards, orchards, and farms."

The Najarians were issued patents for their Clip-it® fasteners and the Clip-it® Dispenser this year. The products have been on the market for one year. So far, the company has a list of 260 customers in 32 states and four countries. The company's brochure includes testimonials by vineyard owners and managers, like Jan Krupp of Stagecoach Vineyards in Napa, Calif., and Michael Downs of Max Orchards in Orondo, Wash. Some say the Clip-it® is saving them up to 60 per cent in labor costs. And the Clip-its® capabilities aren't limited to grapes: It has been used to fasten blackberries, trellis apple trees, and attach tomato vines.

Because there are so many potential uses for Clip-it® System, the Najarians are moving into other markets. If Clip-its® work so well for commercial wine grape growers, the Najarians figure the device will work for the back-yard gardener, too. And since Clip-its® hold most any kinds of vines together, they're likely to secure all sorts of electronic and computer cables as well.

The Clip-it® is catching on, and Ms. Najarian believes that her company could start to turn a profit this growing season.

That Clip-it® was born in Armenia makes that success all the sweeter. Eventually, the Najarians hope to manufacture some of their products there. But for now, "It's exciting to help bring this product out of what's considered a developing country and actually compete with products made in an industrialized country," Nancy says. "When I started the company last year, my aunt wrote me a wonderful note about how her parents grew grapes, both for winemaking and for the grape leaves themselves -- to cook with. She is so proud that we are carrying on the fruits of our ancestors labors."

Clip-it® Systems has recently increased its operations, and is making innovative and cutting edge contributions to the grape and agricultural industries. Nancy, George and their growing family at Clip-it® "look forward to continued growth and collaboration with the growers using our products. We would not be here without them!"

Courtney Leatherman is a writer residing in Washington, D.C.



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