Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Calona Vineyards reaches 80

Photo: Winemaker Howard Soon

British Columbia’s oldest winery, Calona Vineyards, turned 80 this year, marking the anniversary with a party at the winery that was far too modest, considering the history.

Those 80 years are filled with colour, drama and trend-setting wines. Calona’s wines have not always had the respect they deserved. However, with the possible exception of the unsuccessful apple wines that the winery started with, the wines always have been in tune of the consumer palates of the day.

The first colourful person in the Calona story was Guiseppe Ghezzi who in 1931 organized a syndicate of Kelowna investors to finance what was originally called Domestic Wines & By-products. That name was changed a few years later. The winery invited consumers to make suggestions and awarded a case of wine to the person who came up with Calona.

When the Ghezzi group exhausted its funds in the first year, he turned for help to Kelowna grocer Cap Capozzi, with the result that the Capozzi family usually is credited as founders of the winery. They were not – but without the Capozzis, it is doubtful Calona would have survived, let alone thrive.

To help raise more money, Cap brought W.A.C Bennett into the partnership. Bennett, the future premier of British Columbia, was a teetotaller but, as a Calona businessman, he realized that the winery jobs were vital at the time (and still are). The two men travelled through the mining towns of the southern interior, selling shares to raise capital.

One trick was staging the arrival of a telegram announcing new wine orders just as the presentation was beginning to potential investors. If there were sceptics in the crowd, they were right. Calona’s sales only got on a sound footing when a Kelowna priest persuaded the Catholic Church to buy sacramental wines from Calona, not from Spain.

Bennett also agreed to be the winery’s president. He resigned and sold his shares when he went into politics in 1941. Kelowna car dealer Jack Ladd succeeded him as president, holding that office until he died in 1957.

Other than buying shares to get control of Calona, the Capozzi family only emerged as managers of the business in 1961 on the retirement of Carlo Ghezzi, Guiseppe’s son. (Guiseppe, a debonair figure who died in 1943, had returned to Italy and married a soprano from the La Scala opera company.)

Cap’s three sons took over the business. Joe, the oldest, managed the winery and flew the company plane (he had been a pilot during the Battle of Britain). Herb, the middle brother, parlayed his fame as a football player and general manager of the B.C. Lions to be the occasional ambassador for Calona wines. Tom, the youngest brother, had a talent for sales and was also the company’s president.

The brothers ran the business for a decade before selling it to Standard Brands in 1971. Borrowing liberally from the brands at Gallo was creating in California, the brothers had turned Calona into a national brand.

Standard Brands updated the Calona portfolio (heavy with fortified berry wines) by adding European-style table wines. The most notable home run was Schloss Laderheim, created in 1977 and for a time the best selling white wine in Canada. The brand is still being made and is now primarily a blend of imported wine.

Calona’s ownership eventually ended up with Hueblein Inc., an American conglomerate that had absorbed some of the Standard Brands assets. In 1989, Hueblein sold the winery to International Potter Distilling Corp. of Vancouver. Ownership during the 1990s was a bit chaotic, with control for a time in the hands of Vancouver stock promoter.

Potter changed its name in 1995 to Cascadia Brands and control moved to a company in Switzerland. Cascadia partnered with Burrowing Owl Vineyards in developing vineyards on Black Sage Road and financing the Burrowing Owl winery. That partnership eventually ended but not before Calona had launched its highly successful Sandhill Wines.

The Sandhill project revealed the remarkable winemaking talents of Howard Soon who had joined Calona in 1980 after five years in the brewing industry. The Sandhill concept was then fairly unique to the Okanagan: all wines are single vineyard wines in order to express terroir in a way that multi-vineyard blends do not.

Sandhill  solved Calona’s perceived image problem. Thanks to its history, Calona did not have a premium wine image. In fact, the conglomerate owners of the 1970s and 1980s kept creating new labels. Example: the Springhill Vineyards label was introduced in 1984 for a Chablis and a Burgundy but only lasted a few years.

Sandhill benefited initially from its association with Burrowing Owl (for a few years, the Sandhill label even sported a little owl). Sandhill now stands on its own feet as a premium brand and a regular award winner.

Calona and Sandhill were bought in 2005 by Andrew Peller Ltd. (the Swiss company had gone bankrupt). Today, the sprawling Calona winery in downtown Kelowna makes the Calona, Sandhill and Peller brands, all under the direction of a winemaking team under Howard Soon.

Happily, no owner walked away from the Calona name which graces, among other wines, a series of well-made but reasonably priced VQA wines. These include the variety, Sovereign Opal, an exotic Okanagan-developed grape that is exclusive to Calona.

If the name had been discontinued, we might never have heard amusing story about the name occasionally told by Greg Capozzi, one of Cap’s grandsons. He was a lad going into Grade Two in a Vancouver school after a summer with his relatives in Kelowna. Asked for an essay on his summer, he wrote that he had been in Calona.

When the teacher corrected his spelling, he was indignant and returned to class the next day with a bottle of Calona wine to support his spelling.


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