Maybe these two startup agribusinesses are riding the coattails of B.C.’s wine industry. Or, maybe they’re on to something unique and innovative. Either way, they’re succeeding in farm-based ventures based on the passions of their customers, and they are thriving on the essential passion of their owners.
With the summer tourist season barely six weeks away, and with out-of-town traffic already picking up, Grant Stevely is under some serious pressure when I arrive. After five years of researching, planning, designing, investing, and jumping through bureaucratic hoops and hacking through red tape, his dream is in the final stages of becoming reality.
His production facility, tasting area and landscaping are all on track. Calls are already coming in from retailers and restaurants keen to feature his output.
“And that’s before I’ve actually produced a single product,” Stevely says.
Unfortunately, he’s got one fairly major problem. The delivery of the production equipment, which had originally been scheduled to be installed and operational in April, has been delayed by two very crucial months. The holdup means Stevely won’t open his doors to the public until Canada Day… at best.
Given the seasonality of the tourist business, he’ll have to hit the ground running from day one, and he is crossing every finger and toe that there are no additional delays.
Still, for a guy with an ever-building mountain of startup costs on the one hand, and little in incoming cash on the other, he’s surprisingly cool under pressure. His calm comes from a total confidence in the business plan, he tells me. But it also comes from his respect for his craft, and from his eagerness to begin showing what he can do, and educating consumers on his product.
Of course, the whiff of whisky at 9 a.m. just might help a little too.
Don’t be alarmed though. Any early-morning sipping is all in the name of research. Stevely is a passionate connoisseur of all things whisky, a keen advocate for the expansion of B.C.’s craft alcohol industry, and the owner and soon-to-be distiller behind Canada’s newest craft distillery, Dubh Glas Distillery in Oliver, B.C.
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Meanwhile, a valley away, Jyl Chegwin and Roger Hol are also well aware of the clock ticking down to tourist season, and when I join them, the hammering in the background — today it’s a deck under construction — and Hol’s rapid-fire directions to staff punctuate Chegwin’s description of their business vision, and prove the to-do list still has a ways to go.
“When you really like something, you put more effort into it. And we really, really love what we’re doing here. But yes, we’re running flat out,” Chegwin admits with both a sigh and a laugh. “We want to cater to the high-end market, but it takes a lot to get things really polished.”
Hol and Chegwin’s just-about-to-open agribusiness is ambitious to say the least: a vineyard, winery, three-unit (hopefully growing soon to 10-unit) tourist accommodation, event location for up to 350 people, and hands-on agri-tourism experience which together make up VineGlass Winery in Cawston, B.C.
“What are we? We are farmers first. But, we are hosts too. We like to say what we offer is experiential tourism. We encourage our guests to walk through the vineyard; learn about the vineyard; see what stage the grapes are at; participate in whatever vineyard tasks we are working on that day. Basically, to step into the farming life,” says Hol.
“Our primary guests are city people who love wine and nature but have never had the opportunity to learn about a vineyard, who want to see how things are grown and get their hands dirty,” continues Chegwin. “There has been a growing movement toward knowing more about your food and finding your rural roots. People in the city want to connect with the country so they can get to know where their food — and their wine — comes from.”
Only 20 years ago, B.C.’s Okanagan and Similkameen valleys were characterized by countless acres of apples, peaches, cherries and plums. But the consistently hot days of summer, the cool evenings, and the long fall that produce excellent tree fruits also suit a somewhat easier to grow and (usually) more lucrative crop: wine grapes. Today, the majority of fruit-growing ground in the valley bottoms, as well as much of the desert hillside above, has been repurposed as vineyard.
It’s a change that has created its own economics. Cactus- and sagebrush-covered hillside that, until recently, was relatively worthless is now priced at $120,000 per acre and more.
The growth of the wine industry in the Okanagan and Similkameen is nothing short of phenomenal. Where in 1990 there were just 14 wineries in these neighbouring valleys combined, today the Similkameen has 15 and the Okanagan boasts a whopping 123 large-scale and boutique wineries.
The Okanagan was recently selected as the top wine tourism destination in the world by the Huffington Post, an honour that will help increase the $140 million in economic impact wine tourism generated last year for the valley. And, 20 minutes to the west, the Similkameen Valley now happily sports the title of “one of the world’s five best wine regions you’ve never heard of,” as dubbed by EnRoute Magazine.
The wine industry trajectory appears to be pointed firmly upwards. Wine tourism continues to grow on a year-over-year basis. More and more wineries are popping up each year in the Okanagan and Similkameen, and higher and higher hillsides are turning from desert yellow to vineyard green.
Both Dubh Glas Distillery and VineGlass Winery intend to benefit from wine tourists’ enthusiasm for the region. They both believe that what they plan to offer ties in nicely with the existing wine industry, yet is unique enough to set them apart in the competition for tourist attention and dollars.
“Craft distilling is a great complementary industry for wine tourism,” says Stevely. “We can make a whisky that is uniquely Canadian, uniquely Okanagan. I want to mature our whisky in Canadian wine barrels to create a lighter, fruitier whisky. And I can make fruit liqueurs — eau de vies and schnapps — from the area’s peaches and cherries; fruit that is perfect but might not be the right size or the right shape to sell on a grocery shelf. I love making something out of fruit that would otherwise be landfill.”
“When we first started thinking about opening VineGlass, the Napa Valley (California) had over 2,000 wineries, more than 600 restaurants, and something like 30,000 tourist beds in an area the same size as the Okanagan and Similkameen,” says Chegwin. “People want variety. A study done a decade ago said we need hundreds of wineries in this area; there’s so much potential. It said there’s not nearly enough restaurants, not nearly enough high-end accommodations. Since then, there’s been a proliferation of wineries and it’s turned into an industry. But there’s still so much room for growth and creativity. And in our area, there is no high-end accommodation at all, no one offering a hands-on experience.”
Dubh Glas (since everyone asks) is pronounced “Douglas,” as in Stevely’s middle name. It’s fitting that his business name is a twist on his own name since this business has consumed Stevely from vision through execution.
The original concept was born in 2009. To bring it to fruition, Stevely took a giant leap of faith: he went back to school to develop a business plan, sold virtually everything he had, quit his job, and travelled to Arizona to educate himself on the science and magic of distillation. Finally, after much research into where the most wine industry traffic might be and where the liquor laws would be most receptive to craft distilling, he uprooted from Alberta and moved to the “Wine Capital of Canada”: small-town Oliver, B.C.
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“When people sample a product, they feel an attachment to it and to its story, so the key for me is getting people in the door,” Stevely says. “Twenty-two per cent of winery visitors are drive-by; 37 per cent are referrals. I knew I had to have a location with a high profile so I could capitalize on drive-bys, and I needed to be in a community with a strong referral market. I began to realize the Okanagan was the place I had to be.”
He’s hopeful the craft distilling industry will grow into a destination industry of its own.
“The craft distilling industry in the United States has blossomed; there’s been absolutely huge growth. Usually we’re reflective of what happens there. And, last year’s changes to B.C. liquor regulations really improved things for us. Under a craft distilling licence, if you make your product with 100 per cent B.C. product, you can sell directly to licensees now, which is a really big deal for us,” says Stevely.
B.C.’s proposal to allow craft distillers to sell their products at farmers’ markets, likely as soon as this summer, make the province even more conducive to small-scale distillers.
For its part, VineGlass is the product of a shared vision a decade old.
“Back 10 years ago, we had 75 acres of grapes but there wasn’t much beyond a living from it; we were just barely squeaking by with many years in the red. I explored added-value avenues for the vineyard, but the winery we were growing for would not let us make our own wine. After 30 years of farming, we realized there was no way for us to make a living as a traditional farmer doing what we were doing. So, we sold the farm eight years ago to the winery and moved down river,” explains Hol. “Our intention from the beginning when we bought this property was to combine a winery with accommodation and agri-tourism. We have always felt that that would be the most successful model.”
The most successful, and the most personally satisfying for these two agri-tourism advocates. Both Hol and Chegwin have been actively involved with the B.C. Agri-tourism Alliance (BCATA), and Hol sat on the board of the B.C. Wine Institute (BCWI). Both were directly involved in putting together a study on behalf of these two organizations about the agri-tourism industry.
In addition to farming and agri-tourism experience, Chegwin brings another perhaps more rare skill to their business. She boasts several years’ experience building corn mazes in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, which gave her the know-how to help design and build VineGlass’s most memorable attribute: the image of a giant wineglass etched into the vineyard itself.
Hol and Chegwin hope to grow their facility to accommodate more overnight guests and develop their event-hosting reputation. VineGlass’s quiet location, on-site catering facilities, three acres of gardens and gracious pool area, combined with an authentic and accessible farm experience, lend themselves well to corporate training and team-building workshops.
With recent personal experience with cancer, Chegwin also sees a connection to wellness. “This is the most incredibly peaceful place to be. Even after being here for eight years we still don’t take it for granted,” she says. “It is the ideal place to get away from outside pressures and focus without outside interference.”
Stevely is confident in his product. He has enlisted the consulting help of one of the greats in the business: Mike Nicolson, a master distiller for 36 years at six of Scotland’s top distilleries, who also assisted in the startup of Shelter Point Distillery in Comox. And, when the production equipment finally arrives, it will be new and high tech, which means Stevely will be able to produce a very high-quality product in a short amount of time. (“It no longer needs to be old to be good. Especially if you age it in small barrels, it can be three or four years and superb,” he explains.)
Stevely has big plans for what he’d like to accomplish in the short-term future: a minimum of 2,500 litres of whisky in pre-sale casks, and as much gin and fruit liqueur (both of which are produced relatively quickly) as the market will bear. He is currently pre-selling half-casks (44 bottles) of whisky for $2,000 and has had impressive demand despite not yet even having publicly announced the offering.
“This is my passion — I absolutely love whisky, so I don’t want to be too big. I want to be an integral part of the business over the long haul,” Stevely says. “There have been tough days when I’ve thought it was easier collecting a paycheque. But it will be worth it in the end.”
Chegwin and Hol are similarly positive.
“We’ve been very intentional about where we are, what we’re building, and how we’ve gone about doing it,” says Hol. “It has been a daunting startup but it’s always difficult to start something brand new. Like any new business, it takes three to five years to get it going. But we’re sure that we can make this work.”