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Change Makers: Trail-blazers? mavericks? gamblers? Success for Chris and Betty Jentsch is all about winning at change

Harvest was wrapping up when I arrived in wine country. Up and down the valley, grape growers were breathing almost audible sighs of relief as final bins were hauled from the vineyard to crush. Seemingly overnight, the valley had shifted from the vibrant oranges, golds and deep purples of fall to the browns and greys of coming winter, and November’s heavy clouds were crowding in.

As the season’s last straggling carloads of tourists packed up for home, locals were battening down, slowing up, tucking in for the coming quiet of winter.

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Well, most locals, anyway. But definitely not Chris and Betty Jentsch.

After 30 years operating on adrenaline, willpower and undiluted ambition, the Jentsches don’t seem to have a slow gear, especially now with an estate winery to keep afloat, making 24-7 their way of life every day of the year.

* * *

Ambition and success have a glow to them: a shininess and heat that make bystanders want to step in close in hopes that something rubs off. Maybe that’s why I’ve been looking forward all week to sitting down with Chris and Betty. More likely, it’s because I’ve never quite shaken my 10-year-old-self’s impression of the larger-than-life Chris Jentsch.

I remember, 25 or 30 years ago, riding shotgun beside my dad in an old red five-ton flat deck we called Old Snort. As we pulled up at Chris’s cherry packing plant — a brand new, teal blue warehouse that seemed impossibly big for just one farmer to fill and run — I asked my dad why Chris would want his own packinghouse when virtually all of the rest of the valley’s farmers shipped to the local co-ops.

My dad glanced sideways at me and said, “’Cause he’s Chris.”

Then, he added, “No one works like Chris. No one can keep up with him. He’s either going to be the most successful farmer in this valley or he’ll destroy himself trying. Either way, it’ll be quite the show.”

To a little kid, everything about Chris seemed huge: linebacker shoulders, hands that could pick four apples at a time, a booming laugh and (reportedly) a temper to match. But it wasn’t his bear-like size or high-energy personality that made him then — and now — a well-known name in our little town. Chris’s claim to small-town fame has always been his work ethic, his stomach for risk, and an ambition and vision that skate the thin edge between the admirable and the outrageous.

That combination — together with the logical brain and calm voice of his college sweetheart and now wife Betty — have carried Chris through enormous change and volatility in the tree fruit and grape markets.

* * *

Chris and Betty waited for me in the office at the top of the hill. Though I hadn’t seen him in 20 years, he was just what I remembered: a little too big to fit easily into an office chair; a little too energetic to be constrained by indoors; a whole lot of graciousness and warmth.

At 53, he’s a tornado of energy. With harvest wrapped up just the day before, he’d jumped from intense manual labour in the vineyard to equally intense administrative and managerial catch-up. While we chatted, he deftly stickhandled phone calls, staff drop-ins and emails (300 so far today, he reported, courtesy of a wine club’s recent recommendation). The multi-tasking is a vital component of the success of their operation, even if the smartphone looks like a child’s toy in his huge hands.

Betty laughed as I suggested she join us. “Unh-uh,” she says, shaking her head. “Chris is the talker.”

And so, with the most spectacular of panoramas spreading out behind him, he talked. I couldn’t help thinking that the picture-perfect vineyard — each plant manicured, each row arrow straight — oozed romantic history as though it’s been in place forever.

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photo: Shari Saysomsack Photography

In fact, this vineyard was orchard barely a dozen years ago. How that came to be is a lesson in industry history and change management. While some of those changes had been deftly planned over the years, others have been foisted on the couple.

As Chris says, “We’re here. We’re surviving. Like 10,000 other farmers across this country, we’re doing what we need to stay in the game.”

“As I say to my three girls, if you want to be successful you need three things: you have be able to recognise when you need to change, you have to have the capacity to change, and you have to be able to maximize the parameters at hand. If you’re a dinosaur, you’re not going to make it.”

Step 1: Take advantage of your youth

Chris and Betty come by farming naturally. Both were raised by orcharding parents right here in the valley, and they’ve lived the seasonality and the intensity of farming every year of their lives.

After dropping in and out of college a time or two (“We got two diplomas between the two of us,” Chris says of himself and Betty. “They just both happen to be in her name.”), Chris committed himself to full-time farming. Right away, he bit off more than anyone thought they could chew, renting and operating first one, then two, then a handful of local orchards.

But something didn’t sit right.

As Chris came to realize, the real money in farming rarely flows to the farmer.

“There’s this thing in me that says you need to value add,” Chris says. “Farmers do so much work but get such little return. You carry all this risk and do this incredible amount of labour yet margins are so, so tight. When I got into growing fruit in the late 1980s, I didn’t want to just send fruit to the co-op and let a board make all the decisions for me. I wanted to come up with a better way to add value.”

Drive through the Okanagan today and you’ll find countless independent fruit retailers, fruit packers, and fruit wholesalers dotted along every highway, lane and back road. Back in the 1980s, though, value adding and selling independently was a brand new concept. In fact, until just a few years before, it wasn’t even legal for independents to sell fruit.

As Chris and Betty got into farming, the industry started to test the concept of private sales. To the two new farmers, forging their own path seemed the obvious right step.

So, 25-year-old Chris headed to the bank with what would become one of many loan requests.

“When you’re young you can work 24 hours a day and it’s exciting. Banks are willing to invest in youth. That’s when you have to jump on making something happen,” he says.

The bank approved a sizable loan to build a packinghouse building and equip it with high tech sorting line equipment. Then Chris started renting orchards “all over the place” so he’d have fruit to fill up his new building.

Step 2: Swim against the tide

As Chris and Betty got rolling in the late 1980s, the cherry market was falling hard. The market, already heavily saturated by heavy planting, struggled under a glut of cherries caused when canned cherries fell out of consumer favour. Not surprisingly, farmers started to cut their losses by pulling cherry trees.

Chris started planting them. Lots and lots of them.

Talk to Chris for two minutes and you’ll realize this is a man with his finger on the pulse of the industry. His success is built on more than just understanding and reacting to his industry: he seems able to anticipate consumer and marketing shifts before anyone else sees them coming.

“The commodity price for old-style, June cherries was falling through the floor. But if you could get your cherries out late, like July, we could see that there was this window in the market that was wide open,” he says. “And export conditions were favourable: Taiwan especially was starting to import a lot of cherries.”

They opted for new, high-density, late-producing varieties like big, solid Lapins; heart-shaped, black-skinned Staccato; and bright red, extra-late-ripening Sweethearts.

The move proved almost immediately successful.

Meanwhile (one quickly learns there’s always a “meanwhile” in Chris’s world), Chris was pushing dirt on the first properties he’d purchased. Huge quantities of dirt.

Through the early years of farming, ravines were used as dumping grounds for all manner of garbage. Chris bought unfarmable, garbage-filled ravine land, then recontoured it, “folding it” into something something usable. While Chris insists he wasn’t the first to use big machinery to reshape the farming landscape, his ability to see what others didn’t added significant value to his operation.

Step 3: Make yourself a front-runner

Then entirely unexpectedly, Chris’s father died of a massive heart attack during routine surgery. To keep his mom at home, Chris and Betty subdivided his parent’s property and then bought out the family orchard: almost 60 acres of prime, sandy-soiled, southeasterly exposed, rolling hill.

Right away, he started converting the home lot’s apples into cherries. Aided by the provincial government’s treefruit replant subsidy program, Chris and Betty soon had 55 acres to cherries — a daunting task to manage, pick and pack.

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photo: Shari Saysomsack Photography

While labour shortages are the bane of virtually every independent packer, being an industry front-runner means you beat the labour crunch.

“Labour problems come after a commodity starts to peak. We were in early so we didn’t have an issue. We had 30 people in the warehouse — predominantly older, retired packinghouse women — and they were awesome. And in the orchard we had a transient picking force of 50.”

Meanwhile, cherry packaging technology started to explode. From labour-intensive sorting lines, technology shifted to automated, optic sizing. The Jentsches knew staying ahead meant investing in serious infrastructure, so they made capital upgrades so big and so gutsy that they became a topic of great discussion among more conservative growers.

The move proved correct and the dollars followed.

Yet Chris knew it couldn’t last.

“We weren’t going to be the only ones who found that late-variety window. Americans started planting later varieties and at higher elevation, and those cherries started to sweep over our little window. I could see the writing on the wall in 2004.

“I knew the heyday was over.”

Step 4: Know when to change directions

With their young cherry orchard just reaching peak productivity in 2004, Chris and Betty made an impossibly hard call.

“You have no idea how difficult it is to fire up a ’dozer and rip out picture perfect cherries. That was tough,” Chris recalls. “But it’s either in or out for me. I found a buyer for the packing line equipment and then we pulled the whole works of the trees out.”

Of course, Chris had a plan.

“By 2004, the vineyard industry’s renaissance was already in play. So grapes it was.”

Chris and Betty talked about opening a winery right from the get-go but Betty (wisely) recognized how overwhelmingly massive the undertaking would be, so the two opted to grow their grapes for existing wineries instead.

The grapes grew fantastically on Chris and Betty’s premium, southeasterly facing slopes. Demand proved steady. All seemed smooth.

Once again, Chris knew it couldn’t last.

Step 5: Above all, be brave

As farmers up and down the valley jumped on the grape bandwagon, apples, cherries, sagebrush fell victim to the push for more vineyard. Good land and increasingly marginal land alike all suddenly sprouted posts, wires and young grapevines.

As grape production shifted into oversupply in 2012, demand suddenly dropped precipitously. From one month to the next, independent growers — even some contracted growers — couldn’t move their crops.

For sale signs popped up everywhere. Grapes left hanging on vines slowly dropped to the ground over the winter, a depressing reminder of the sharp market downturn.

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photo: Shari Saysomsack Photography

Chris knew the storm would hit them too. Still, it was a serious kick when, in May of 2013, Chris and Betty found themselves with no buyer for their coming crop.

“Our plan was to be happy just growing grapes. But then suddenly, you couldn’t even give away your grapes,” says Chris. “It’s hard to believe in yourself in times like that. There was a lot of pain in the industry. Even though you know success comes in ebbs and flows, when you can’t move your crop, it’s hard.”

It was a make-or-break time for the industry and individual growers.

“We had to do something. Otherwise we would have lost it all; we couldn’t have survived,” he says. “We had a warehouse and we had grapes, so we decided to open a winery.”

“If we’d known then what we know now…” Betty looks up from her computer to interject, before trailing off and shaking her head.

“As usual, ignorance saved the day,” Chris says. “If we’d known what was involved we’d gladly have opted out of the farm and done something else. But we didn’t know, so we jumped in. And the prime directive — to make the farm profitable — that was a constant. We didn’t know anything about winemaking at all but we knew the winery was an extension of value adding.”

Step 6: Keep on keeping on, despite uncertainty

The investment required to start up a winery, between the capital costs of winemaking and bottling equipment and the variable costs of winemaking expertise, is more than daunting. But the dollars and cents proved worse than just that.

Whereas the average farm family gets paid for its commodities at least annually, that isn’t how it works in the wine business. Investment doesn’t translate into immediate income because wine takes time to sell.

“A well-oiled corporate winery might be able to carry the costs for four years. When you’re a mom-and-pop, a Betty and Chris, it’s a whole lot harder to stay afloat until the dollars start coming in. I naively thought we’d bang out some wines and sell to a bulk market. When that wasn’t possible, we realized we needed to build a brand and convince people to invest in our product. That’s no easy feat. Here we are competing against great big marketing machines — and even at that level, those guys struggle too.”

What has played in Chris and Betty’s favour is a little timing, a little luck, and that unflagging, never-say-never work ethic.

A year before deciding to invest in a winery, Chris and Betty had found themselves with grapes on their hands as market demand slowed.

“I didn’t want to dump them,” says Chris. “Betty thought I was crazy, but I decided to crush them at a custom crush facility up-valley.”

The crush produced 1,700 cases — a very small run by industry standards. Though expensive by the bottle to produce, the upside of the run was that it introduced Chris and Betty to the regulatory side of wine production and allowed them to work through some of the myriad winery startup tasks, from brand development to label creation to administrative organization.

And it officially gave them their first vintage.

Step 7: Believe in what you do

Chris and Betty are three real years into building CC Jentsch Cellars. It’s a labour of self, of love and of tireless commitment in more ways than one.

The CC Jentsch name references Chris and Betty’s middle names (Carl and Coelho). The wine names themselves — “The Chase,” “The Dance,” “The Quest” — play on the theme of the couple’s enduring love story.

Today, they see light at the end of the startup tunnel.

“We’ve approached the winery the same way we approached sending fruit to the final customer. The buyer has to feel that they got good value. It’s not that first sale that will carry the day, it’s when they come back and want to buy more.

“Every wine bottle is our ambassador. We need people to buy it again and again.”

Step 8: Always look forward

What’s next for Chris and Betty Jentsch and their CC Jentsch Cellars?

“We’re always looking ahead,” says Chris. “Tomorrow morning, we could wake up to a -25 C morning and we’ll have to start all over again. So all the options are open.”

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