Cherry Point Estate Wines has new owners
A wine-loving economist from Colombia, Xavier Bonilla, has taken over as the new owner of Cherry Point Vineyards, one of the stalwarts of Cowichan Valley wine production.
One of his first moves has been to rename it as Cherry Point Estate Wines, to underline a commitment to making only estate-grown wines.
The only exception might be Cherry Point’s legendary blackberry wine. Traditionally, this has been made from wild berries purchased from freelance pickers. However, the government has required the winery to plant two acres of blackberries. This so that Cherry Point (and others making blackberry wines) complies with a regulatory requirement under the land-based winery license rules of growing some of its own raw material (however stupid it is to force anyone to plant more of an invasive species that would take over Vancouver Island if allowed).
Cherry Point was opened in 1994 by Wayne and Helena Ulrich. When they retired 10 years later, they sold the winery to the Cowichan Indian Band. The band had been motivated by the Osoyoos Indian Band’s success with Nk’Mip Cellars, the first Aboriginal-owned winery in North America.
Perhaps because the Cowichan had not, unlike Nk’Mip, partnered with a major wine producer and marketer, Cherry Point has not experienced Nk’Mip’s success in sales. Last fall, after running it for five years, the Cowichan put the winery on the market.
Bonilla, as it happens, had tried to buy Cherry Point five years ago but those negotiations fell through. He and his wife, Maria, were thinking of returning to Colombia last fall when Cherry Point came on the market again. “I said, let’s go, this is what I have wanted all my life,” says Bonilla, who was born in 1947.
He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a master’s degree in agriculture. He has worked as an agricultural economist for three Colombian presidents while also operating a 50-head dairy farm an hour outside Bogota.
Over the years, he became increasingly interested in wine, acquiring a good knowledge of Spanish wines during several trips to European vineyards. He even canvassed some potential vineyard sites in Colombia and Ecuador.
However, in 2000 Bonilla and his wife, trained as a translator, moved to Vancouver so that their two children could enrol at the University of British Columbia.
To put bread on the table, as he puts it, he went into business for himself in West Vancouver, first with a professional lawn care franchise, then a coffee-roasting business and finally a restaurant. As each business succeeded, he accepted offers to sell them. With their children almost done at university, the Bonillas would likely have returned to Colombia (they still have a house there) if Cherry Point has not come along last fall.
Bonilla and his new winemaker, Australian-trained Dean Canadzich, are not shaking up the Cherry Point portfolio but plan to continue producing the eight or so wines made from the 12 varietals grown in the 19-acre vineyard.
“We make fantastic blends,” Bonilla believes. “I think the magic of good winemaking is blending. That’s what I learned in Europe. Nobody cares what grape it is. They want to know which land it comes from. You really taste the flavour of the land at Cherry Point. With our Pinot Noir you get this prunish flavour on the finish which is unique to this land.”
In addition to Pinot Noir, the vineyard grows Ortega, Pinot Gris, Siegerrebe, a little Gewürztraminer, Agria and Castel, among others. Some underperforming vineyard blocks are being replanted with two new Swiss-developed hybrids: an aromatic white called Epicure and a red called Petit Milo.
One possible change in style will involve the blackberry wine. Currently, Cherry Point offers Cowichan Blackberry and Solera Blackberry. Both are port-style wines. The Solera is a blend of several vintages from a succession of barrels in the time-honoured solera method of sherry-making. Bonilla is considering using the solera process for all of Cherry Point’s blackberry wine.
Using her experience from their West Vancouver restaurant, Maria Bonilla has taken over Cherry Point’s Bistro. A popular wedding venue and a favourite stop for wine tourists, the bistro was launched by the winery’s original owners and expanded by the Cowichan. It has proven one of the winery’s strongest connections with the community.
“What I liked about Cherry Point was its commitment to the community,” Bonilla says. “The community feels a part of the ownership here and I like that.”