One of the things I especially enjoy about driving around wine country is seeing the lush, straight rows of vines tethered to the delicate-looking trellises. I love seeing vineyards because they remind me that the delicious nectar that I so enjoy has its start on a farm.
And, when I visit a winery, I love seeing all the gleaming stainless-steel tanks and rooms full of beautiful, hand crafted barrels. At the same time, thinking about the huge investment required for all the specialized winemaking equipment makes me catch my breath.
The winery owners I’ve met come from all different backgrounds. For some, it’s their fir st or only business. For others, it’s a second career, or even a retirement project. And yet, despite the differences, they do have some things in common. The most obvious commonality is their passion for wine. But beyond that, they also are all risk takers and careful business persons (well, at least those who manage to make a go of it).
Though I’ve always assumed the business of owning a winery was risky, a recent writing assignment I got from the Chartered Insurance Professionals (CIP) Society gave me a whole new appreciation of the types of risks involved. The CIP Society asked me to write a paper on insurance issues faced by wineries. It was a fun and interesting assignment that gave me an excuse to “talk business” with people involved in the Canadian wine industry.
The primary audience for the paper was insurance professionals, so the paper is admittedly a bit technical. But, for those of you who – like me – are inherently interested in the business of owning a winery – you might find the paper interesting.
The CIP Society has graciously given me permission to share the paper – called “From Rootstock to Bottle” – with my readers. You can find it by clicking here.
I often wonder how wineries can afford all the different types of equipment needed for that precious nectar to go from grape to the bottle I enjoy with dinner. If you’ve ever been to a winery, you’ve probably seen a press, tanks and barrels. But there’s also a raft of special-purpose equipment involved in bottling and labelling.
If a winery can’t afford their own bottling equipment – or if they don’t want to tie up precious space for equipment they may only use a few weeks a year – they have to make alternative arrangements. Sometimes that means shipping their wine via tanker to another winery for bottling. Turns out, another alternative for wineries is Hunter Bottling, a company that’s been offering mobile bottling services for about 15 years. A number of Ontario wineries use them (particularly in the Niagara region, which is where Hunter started).
Intrigued by the idea, I began asking around to find out more about Hunter Bottling and their services. I soon found out that Malivoire Wine Company uses them. So, since Malivoire’s winemaker Shiraz Mottiar is very approachable, I dropped him a line and he put me in touch with Glenn Hunt, founder of Hunter Bottling.
Mottiar was also kind enough to let me stop in (in mid-May) and see the bottling line in action. Click Here to watch a short video of Hunter Bottling at work bottling Malivoire’s 2016 Gamay. Special thanks go to Mottiar for explaining the process and to the crew of Hunter Bottling who let me into the truck as they worked.
Hunter Bottling’s Back Story
Glenn Hunt, who grew up in St. Catharines, was in the winery business long before he started Hunter Bottling. Early in his career he focused mainly on the sales and marketing side (though he also had a successful virtual winery for a while). He was working at Hillebrand at the time Peller (the owner of Hillebrand) was building Peller Estates’ winery on East-West Line in Niagara-on-the-Lake. To satisfy regulations that required Peller to conduct a certain amount of processing on-site at their wineries, Peller had the idea of transporting its bottling line between its two properties: Hillebrand and Peller Estates. So, it outfitted a 53-foot semi with a bottling line.
Because Peller’s mobile bottling trailer sat idle for a fair bit of time, Hunt approached Peller with the idea of him renting the truck from Peller and offer bottling services to other wineries. Peller was agreeable and so in 2002 Hunter Bottling debuted, using Peller’s truck. At about that time, Martin Malivoire was thinking about putting a mobile bottling facility together. Malivoire’s idea was to put the bottling line in a smaller truck, as not all wineries have the space to host a full-size semi.
Malivoire designed a line that would work in a truck’s 22-foot box and Hunt bought the plans from him. Hunt affectionately described the original 22-foot box as a cute little truck and Hunter Bottling used it for quite some time. In 2012 they expanded it a bit and its current fleet is three trucks, each with a 28 foot box (40 feet overall).
In Ontario, Hunter Bottling focuses mainly on the Niagara region, though they also service wineries in various “emerging regions” of Ontario. As well, they service a number of wineries in Virginia. They’re also the Ontario sales rep for the French bottling equipment maker they use for their bottling lines.
And, in case you’re wondering – as I was – Hunt says each fully outfitted truck costs about $750,000. Obviously, it’s quite an investment. So, it’s no surprise that for many wineries it’s more cost effective to hire Hunter Bottling, rather than invest in equipment for a bottling line that sits idle much of the year.
A Typical Bottling Day
Mottiar says that on bottling day, Hunter Bottling’s truck typically arrives at the winery at about 6 a.m. It takes Hunter about 90 minutes to set up and by 7:30 or so, they’re ready to start. The bottling activity involves a combination of winery staff and Hunter staff. Malivoire’s retail staff does the repetitive manual work on the line – things like loading the empty bottles onto the line, taking the full cases of wine off the line and onto the pallets for storing/shipping. Hunter’s staff runs the equipment, cleans it out between runs, and so on.
Speed and other Variables
In terms of the speed of the process, Mottiar says it averages about 3,000 bottles per hour. A variety of factors impact the speed, including some variables I wouldn’t have considered. “It can depend on the wine – some flows quite easily. Reds with some age, for example, usually flow very well. The bottle shape also impacts how fast the bottle is filled, as does whether we’re using a screw top or cork,” said Mottiar.
Another interesting variable they’ve had to contend with is labels that don’t want to adhere. If the wine is too cold, for example, the bottles sweat and then the labels don’t always want to stay on. The day I was there was unusually hot and the stainless steel tank holding the rosé they planned on bottling later that afternoon was starting to sweat. To compensate, Mottiar thought that they’d probably end up having to turn on the air conditioning in the bottling truck to lessen the chance of the bottles sweating.
Like many winemakers, Château des Charmes’ Amélie Boury attributes a love for the outdoors and growing up on a farm as a reason she’s at home in the vineyard. But, she attributes her interest in winemaking to a creative game her mother played with her growing up. The “Nose Game”, as she referred to it, was “a simple game”: her mom told her to go outside and smell things and then come back and describe them to her.
She loved the game so much, as a young girl growing up in France, she initially thought about a career was in the perfume industry. Somewhere along the line, however, she focused her nosing talents on winemaking, and she hasn’t looked back since.
Amélie was gracious enough to show me around the cellar at Chateau des Charmes and to talk about winemaking – the unglamorous parts and the joy of seeing people enjoy the wine she’s made. Here’s a video of our chat.
I love Prince Edward County and always look for reasons to visit. This week I had a sad reason – the funeral of a friend’s mother. Because it was a planned trip on a weekday, I decided to see if Catherine Langlois – the winemaker/owner of Sandbanks Estate Winery might be in that day. I dropped the winery an e-mail to ask about meeting Catherine. They got back to me right away and we set it up a meeting.
I love meeting winemakers and have found it especially interesting chatting with women winemakers. Catherine was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to meet with me and she let me film a short video with her. Click here to watch the video.
As I mentioned to Catherine when we were done shooting the video, I think Sandbanks is an incredibly inviting place. I’ve often thought about why that is. I think lots has to do with the colour scheme and the welcoming lawn full of colourful Muskoka chairs. From the very first time a friend and I were tooling down the Loyalist Parkway headed toward Picton, as we came upon the winery, we were drawn like a magnet to stop in. I imagine that’s how lots of people “discover” Sandbanks Estate Winery.
After meeting Catherine, I now realize that the winery’s ambiance is nothing less than a manifestation of Catherine’s friendliness, enthusiasm, and warmth.
On a recent visit to Southbrook Vineyards I asked Ann Sperling, Director, Winemaking and Viticulture, about how the harsh winter of 2014 impacted Southbrook’s spring pruning.
She explained that, in general, they pruned pretty heavily. Their theory is that they wanted to ensure that the vines had as much energy as possible, so that they’d be healthy in years to come.
That said, they also experimented a bit. They did pruning trials where they pruned the same variety in different ways to see if different pruning methods have an impact on the vines next year and years to come. In the example she showed us, on one row they left one cane and a couple of spurs. In the next row (of the same variety), the pruned leaving only spurs. They’ll be taking notes regarding yield and other things and comparing the results of the differently pruned vines – making the vineyard – well, a living lab.
This week I was out at Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Ann Sperling, Director, Winemaking and Viticulture, was kind enough to show me around the vineyard.
Seems the harvest in the Niagara region is going to be late this year (by about three weeks) because of the slow start after the harsh winter and the very wet spring and early summer. Fortunately, though some of us city folk have been complaining about the heat this past week, the growers are thankful for it, as it’s good for the grapes.
Walking through the vines, it was surprising how many of the individual clusters had grapes that were green and grapes that were a deep purple. I asked Ann about this and she explained that the reason for the different stages of ripeness on the same vine is because the primary, secondary, and tertiary buds broke in stages over a period that was longer than usual. The result is grapes in different stages of ripening.
She said it’s not unusual to have some green grapes among the ripe clusters and that’s why they go through the vineyard and do a “Green Harvest”. This involves trimming out the green grapes from the other ripe grapes. Normally, when they Green Harvest they just take off the less ripe bunches and drop them.
This year, however, because there’s a fair bit of green among the riper grapes, Southbrook is going to harvest the grapes from the Green Harvest. And, in the spirit of waste not, want not – this year Southbrook will be using them to make verjus.
Though the calendar says it’s almost May, the cold weather (and today’s wind and driving rain) really make me wonder if spring will ever arrive.
Meanwhile, like many Ontario wine fans – I’m wondering what the poor grapevines are looking like. Since my March trip down to Hinterbrook to learn about how growers test bud viability, I’ve heard mixed news about what grape growers are anticipating.
A few told me they’ve not bothered testing the buds because it only tells you part of the story – for example, it doesn’t tell you whether the vine has died. Regardless of whether they tested the buds, a number of those that I’ve spoken to said they’ve modified their pruning a bit, just in case. For example, in some cases they’ve left more canes, and in some cases they’re leaving on “suckers” (shoots that grow from the base of the plant), which they would normally remove.
In mid-April, for example, Stone Church mentioned in their newsletter that they’re expecting their Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc crop to be reduced by 75%, but that they expect the rest of their grapes will come in at 70% of normal. Wes Lowrey of Five Rows Craft Wine recently reported that most of their varietals are showing about 50% bud viability, which he considers good, given the harsh winter they had. He said they’ve left a few extra buds and given the thinning they normally do, he hopes the crop levels won’t be substantially reduced. Others noted that some of their winter heartier varieties, like Marechal Foch, seem fine.
All the growers I’ve asked about possible crop damage from the harsh winter pointed out that they’ve been through tough winters before, and it’s all part of farming. They also agreed on one thing: we’ll just have to wait and see…
Our winter this year has been especially tough, but I hadn’t really thought about what it might be doing to the vineyards across Ontario until a winery owner mentioned it to me at Cuvée a couple weeks ago. Though most agree it’s too early to tell the true extent of the damage, all the winemakers and vineyard owners I’ve talked to have said that 2014 isn’t looking too good. Actually, what really caught my attention was when one vineyard owner from the Lake Erie/Pelee Island region said he doesn’t think there’ll be a 2014 vintage. Period.
When I heard this, I wondered how they can evaluate – at this time of year – the likelihood of damage. The answer lies – primarily – in the buds. Though most grape growers wait till March or April to prune their vines, they’re keeping a very close eye on them and many are out there sampling the buds to see whether they’re dead or alive.
I was told that the process involves cutting canes and thawing them and then making delicate slices through the buds. If the inside of the bud is brown, it’s dead – if it’s green, it’s alive. I was interested in seeing this first-hand, and so I contacted Andrew Nickel of Hinterbrook Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake to ask him if he’d do a bit of a show-and-tell for me. He agreed, and on Monday, March 10th I met Andrew at Hinterbrook. (Pat Anderson, a terrific photographer who specializes in food photography, came with me so that I’d have some shots for this post.)
Andrew had cut some cane samples the day before so that we’d have thawed buds to look at. The very first bud Andrew sliced (from a Merlot cane) was pretty clearly dead. The next few were also dead. He didn’t seem too surprised, since Merlot is known for being less cold tolerant than some of the other cool climate varieties.
Among the buds Andrew sliced for us we did find examples of beautiful, green insides – a wonderful sign that they’re still alive. The contrast on the inside between the buds that were still alive and the dead buds was quite remarkable – and pretty obvious.
Of course, the few canes we looked at aren’t a representative sample of all the vines in their vineyard or of the Niagara Lakeshore appellation, which is where Hinterbrook is located. Even so, Andrew admitted that he expects the bud viability for their Merlot, for example, will be pretty low this year.
He also explained that bud viability is one issue that grape growers and the industry are talking about and testing now, but it’s still too early to tell whether there has been any vine damage. They won’t know that until the leave start coming in.
Though I know – intellectually – that farming is at the heart of winemaking, it’s easy to forget the risk inherent in the business of growing grapes.
Andrew was also kind enough to let me shoot a video of him explaining the bud testing process. To watch the video, click here.
The day after I wrote about icewine picking happening in Niagara I got the Georgian Hills Vineyards’ newsletter saying they’d be picking icewine grapes on Saturday morning and that they welcomed volunteers.
Having always wanted to do that, I responded to Robert Ketchin’s e-mail and said that he could count me in – unless the travel conditions made it impossible. (Georgian Hills Vineyards is up beyond Collingwood – so 158 kms. (99.4 miles) one-way from here – and the forecast was foreboding.)
To make a long story short, I made it there and had a terrific time! I’ll write a bit more about the experience later – including more about the fact that it was too cold to press (it was -17.7° C, which is 0° F). But, it was so much fun that I simply had to share some photos photos of the 20-or-so hearty souls that made it out to the vineyard for the fun.
On my recent visit to the Lake Erie/Pelee Island area I visited a few wineries that I hadn’t been to before, and I also made a point of stopping in again at Oxley Estate Winery – one of my favourite wineries in the area.
I stopped in to find out what was going on and how their summer went. Co-owner Ann Wilson said they had a busy summer, which is great to hear. In addition to a very attractive tasting bar (one that feels like a well-appointed gourmet kitchen), Oxley has a full-service restaurant on weekends that is very popular. I stopped in on a Saturday night after returning from Pelee Island and I could not get a table on the patio because it was full. Fortunately they had a few empty tables inside, so I stayed for dinner. The dinner was delicious and the service attentive, even though I was the only guest indoors. Next time I’ll be sure to make a reservation.
As I sat down to write this blog, I e-mailed Ann to find out if they’ve started picking and she reported that they’ve already harvested Auxerrois, Bianca, Hibernal, GM318 and they are “Picking, sorting and pressing Pinot Noir right now”. So if you’re in the area over the next couple of weeks, stop in at Oxley – you’re likely to find it bustling with the buzz of the crush going on.
As well, on the weekend of September 28-29, 2013 Oxley will be featuring Micah and Delia – musicians who’ll be performing lively “east-coast kitchen style music” on their lovely patio. The duo will perform on Saturday from 5-8 p.m. and on Sunday from 2-4 p.m.