Friday, August 3, 2012

Blue Grouse Estate Winery has new owners

Photo: Blue Grouse owners Cristina and Paul Brunner and daughter, Paula. Photo credit Deborah Price Photography

Blue Grouse Estate Winery, one of the low-key winery gems near Duncan in British Columbia's Cowichan Valley, has changed owners.

Retiring founder Hans Kiltz (who was born in 1938) and his wife, Evangeline, have sold the winery to globe-trotting wine and grappa enthusiasts Paul and Cristina Brunner, who are currently residents of Lima, Peru.

The Brunners – he is a mining engineer – would like to expand production and business at Blue Grouse, which has been making between 1,500 and 2,200 cases annually, exclusively from its 10- acre vineyard. In addition to planning to plant more vines, the Brunners are canvassing other projects for the property’s attractive landscape.

The vineyard takes up about a third of the property. There is more plantable land available on an excellent southwest slope bordered at the bottom by a bucolic creek. There is room beside the creek for accommodation for winery visitors. “We will look at the possibility of doing a farm-style inn,” Paul says.

A German-born veterinarian, Hans acquired the property in 1989 and licensed the winery in 1992. The small vineyard already there when he bought the property had been planted by the late John Harper, a pioneer grape grower on Vancouver Island. The vineyard now grows primarily Bacchus, Ortega, Pinot Gris, Müller-Thurgau, Siegerrebe, Pinot Noir and Black Muscat. The latter variety is exclusive to Blue Grouse.

Paul was born in Colorado in 1950, the son of a Swiss-born carpenter and developer. The Brunner family moved to Canada in the 1960s, first to Powell River and then to Nanaimo, soon taking out Canadian citizenship.

After high school, Paul got a mining technology diploma from the British Columbia Institute of Technology, worked a few years in Yukon mining and then finished his engineering degree at the Colorado School of Mines. He returned to the Arctic to work at the Nanisivik lead zinc mine (now closed) on Baffin Island,

After several years there, he went to the Harvard Business School for a master’s in business administration. He returned to work in the mine service field, fashioning a long career with an international drilling services company called Boart Longyear. He was the company’s chief executive in 2008 when he retired.

“My wife and I have gone through these various phases, starting with drinking beer,” Paul says, explaining how he developed an interest in wine. “We somehow got to scotch and from there we got to cognac and then grappa. I am still a big fan of grappa. From grappa, we ended up in wine.”

The Boart Longyear career led them to live in numerous wine-producing countries, including Chile, South Africa, Australia and the United States. He became a collector of good wines, although every international move in his career disrupted the cellar. What is left of the cellar is currently in Lima, where he and his Peruvian-born wife, Cristina, have been living for four years.

As his wine interest burgeoned, Paul began to look for an opportunity to buy a winery, perhaps in Argentina or in the United States. He began looking at Vancouver Island because he still has family on the west coast, including brothers in Yukon, in California and in Nanaimo.

Blue Grouse has been on the market for about five years. It was originally listed about 2008 for about $4 million, just in time for the economic slowdown to deter possible buyers. The winery was listed again in the summer of 2010 for $2.75 million and this time generated some interest (although the exact sale price has not been disclosed).

“My wife actually found this winery [listing],” Paul says. “We had been looking for a vineyard, or a ‘lifestyle’ type of thing for a long time, six or seven years anyway. And she came across this winery.”

When his brother Steve from Nanaimo reported that Blue Grouse was an appealing property, Paul flew up from Lima. He was equally impressed and took some wine back to Lima for Cristina, who agreed they were good.

“We see ourselves as stewards of what is an absolutely fabulous farm,” Paul says.  “It is a beautiful spot; we hope to improve that a bit. And it has great wines.”

The Brunners, who have just taken over Blue Grouse, have installed a veteran wine industry marketer, Corine Webster, as general manager, and have hired Bailey Williamson to manage the vineyard and make the wine.

A 1996 culinary school graduate, Bailey came to embrace wine while working in various professional kitchens, including Sooke Harbour House. He moved to the Okanagan in 2001, taking Okanagan University College’s wine programs while working as a cellar hand at the Sumac Ridge, Jackson-Triggs and Township 7 wineries.

From 2004 to 2006, he was assistant cider maker at Merridale Ciderworks on Vancouver Island. Then he returned to the Okanagan, where he was assistant winemaker at Road 13 Vineyard from 2006 to the end of 2011.

Bailey had a major role in developing Road 13’s sparkling Chenin Blanc. That experience has Blue Grouse thinking of adding a sparkling wine to that winery’s portfolio. “We are looking at sparkling,” Corine says. “In my opinion, that is a bit of a missing link on the island.”

Blue Grouse has always produced exclusively estate-grown wines. Paul does not rule out bringing grapes from elsewhere but, if that happens, those wines would be released on a different label.

“I think staying true to the island in terms of the Blue Grouse label is important to us,” Paul says, recognizing the integrity behind the Blue Grouse name. That is one of the reasons that the wines are so well known on Vancouver Island and can be found in most leading restaurants.

“The biggest challenge for us is getting the grapes,” Paul says. “Certainly taking the winery up to a much bigger capacity is financially possible. The problem is where will we get the grapes? That will be one of Bailey’s first challenges. If we started tomorrow, it is still four or five years before we get any production from additional plantings.”


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