Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Okanagan Crush Pad will incubate new wineries

Photo: Christine Coletta

Legendary for her contributions to successful British Columbia wineries, Christine Coletta has come up with another ground breaker: an incubator winery.

Along with several partners, she has announced the Okanagan Crush Pad Winery, to be open by this fall. At least four labels will be produced here, including her own Haywire Winery, which began marketing its wines last year.

This is not the Okanagan’s only custom crush or incubator winery but the concept is not as developed as it should be due to barriers in liquor licensing regulations. Coletta and her colleagues, one of whom is David Scholefield, have asked for a meeting with the regulators to resolve the grey areas.

She has the necessary credibility with both government and the wine industry; as executive director of the British Columbia Wine Institute in the 1990s, she played a central role in putting B.C. wine on the map. The future for incubator winemaking looks a lot more promising than the past.

Adora Estate Winery, which opened in 2003, was the Okanagan’s first custom crush winery, producing wines for other wineries (such as Calliope, Morning Bay, Cellars at the Rise, Aces Wine Group) and for its own label. In the past two years, Adora has wound down its activities but plans to relaunch with a new label, a new Summerland winery and new clients.

Various individual wineries have incubated others over the years. JoieFarm and Painted Rock Estate Winery made their first vintages at Poplar Grove Winery, for example. Foxtrot Winery had its first three vintages made at Lake Breeze Vineyards before building its own cellar.

Last year, Alan Dickenson and several partners opened Alto Wine Group in Okanagan Falls. It makes wine for labels that the partners are launching and it offers custom crush services to other boutique producers.

Proper accommodation and regulations for incubator wineries is long overdue. There are successful models operating in the United States, New Zealand and no doubt elsewhere.

Regulations in British Columbia require land-based wineries to have at least a minimal vineyard and a processing facility on the same site. That has not been enforced strictly (thank heaven). Neither Sandhill Wines nor Prospect Winery ferment wines on their vineyards; they ferment their wines in the commercial wineries owned by their parents. Some in the industry see that as an example of a grey area.

The argument for incubator wineries is obvious. The cost of starting a winery is a major barrier when every new entrant is expected to have a standalone winery on a vineyard. You would need at least $1 million to get started. That is why almost none of British Columbia’s 200 wineries have been started by young vintners.

As Coletta says, it is like the Vancouver housing market where young people can’t afford the housing unless they are highly paid professionals or have inherited wealth.

The Okanagan Crush Pad Winery eliminates this barrier to getting into the wine business. Its first client (aside from Haywire) will be wine educator Rhys Pender MW who will make the first wine this fall from his small vineyard in the Similkameen Valley.

Photo: Michael Bartier

David Scholefield, a former portfolio manager at the Liquor Distribution Branch, and Michael Bartier, the former Road 13 winemaker, will use Crush Pad to produce their own label. As well, Bartier is likely to use this facility to launch a brand with his brother.

Similarly, Alto Wine has provided Tom DiBello, CedarCreek’s former winemaker, with the opportunity to launch his own label later this year.

If these vintners were expected to come up with $1 million each before starting a winery, none of this would happen and consumers would be denied what are likely to be exciting wines.

Undoubtedly, there are many others who would start boutique wine labels if given access to incubator wineries. These include the rising number of graduates from Canadian wine schools. There also are a number of growers who would prefer to turn their grapes into their own wines but cannot afford the startup costs.

Incubator wineries don’t just make wine. They provide a meeting place where vintners can help each other with everything from technical advice to marketing know-how.

Perhaps the established wineries might be nervous about all of the new competitors that Crush Pad and Alto Wine are expected to foster.

“Competition is healthy,” Coletta argues. “It gets us to the next level [of quality].”


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