Winemakers operating without a permanent location
Like it does nearly every day with very little fanfare, the UPS delivery truck zooms down the lane that leads to Marynissen Estates in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
But this day is different. In the cargo bay is a special delivery, a box that is a crucial, and rather symbolic, piece of the puzzle that is Jeff Hundertmark’s future. The entrepreneurial yearning that has driven the 49-year-old throughout his varied career is about to take an exciting turn.
He opens the package to reveal his new wine label, a stylized logo with the words “100 Marks” on it, a play on his last name, which will be carefully placed on each bottle of his dream project, a wine to call his own.
But Hundertmark does not actually own a winery, nor does he own vineyards or even have a licence to manufacture wine.
What he does have is the drive and passion to own a piece of the wine business. Hundertmark is the winemaker at Marynissen and is the newest member of Canada’s growing fraternity of virtual winemakers.
It’s a trend that continues to gain momentum across the wine regions of Canada, with more and more winemakers making the leap from employee to master of his or her own destiny.
Hundertmark is typical of the new wave of winemakers taking advantage of web-based sales and sophisticated consumers looking for unique, handcrafted wines.
The first step for virtual wineries is finding a physical location to make their wines. They have to make it under an existing manufacturing licence and need the use of crushing and fermentation equipment provided by the winery. That’s why so many virtual wine owners have day jobs at established wineries.
Hundertmark, who has been crafting wines at Marynissen since 2007, feels fortunate that his employers agreed to rent him space at the winery to make his wines. He purchases grapes from top growers, buys his own oak barrels and makes the wine on his time.
“I don’t have a million dollars to buy my own winery, but I can buy a few grapes and make some wine,” Hundertmark says.
Like many virtual winemakers, he doesn’t see himself ever building his own winery but, at the same time, he doesn’t want to impose on his employer forever, either. “I would love for someone to come in and build something like the Okanagan Crush Pad [a custom crush facility in Summerland, B.C.]. That would make a lot of sense. I don’t want to depend on Marynissen forever,” he says.
Hundertmark’s first wine, released this spring, is the 100 Marks Red 2010, a blend of pinot noir and gamay. The 100 Marks label follows on the heels of other recent successful virtual brands launched in Ontario, including former Le Clos Jordanne winemaker Thomas Bachelder who just unveiled a trio of chardonnays, one each from Niagara, Oregon and Burgundy.
In B.C., the concept of virtual wineries caused controversy when some confused the category with large-production second labels released by larger wineries. Since there is no clear definition of “virtual” winery, it’s easy to see why there is confusion out there. Most large wineries make multiple brands that aren’t always clearly linked to the parent company. True virtual wineries depend entirely on another winery’s licence to make their wines.
Christine Coletta and her husband, Steve Lornie, started as a virtual winery in the Okanagan Valley with their Haywire brand, but, as volumes grew, they were quickly running out of wineries large enough to make their wines. The idea came to Coletta for a wine commune of sorts for virtual winemakers to come together in one big working playground with a one-stop facility to make their wines.
“Obviously, there is a need for a crush pad,” says Coletta. “People were making it quietly in the shadows. It was kept on the down-low. We decided to bring it into the limelight.”
Her company, Okanagan Crush Pad, was opened in September 2011, and offers winemaking, branding, marketing, business planning and sales through a retail store. Several virtuals have signed on, including Bartier Brothers, Bartier-Scholefield, Rafter F and Harper’s Trail.
It’s a venture that has been so successful right out of the gate that it’s quickly running out of space. “We already have a problem. There’s more demand than space,” Coletta says of the 20,000-case facility.
Which is a very good problem to have and one that points to a side of the industry that appears to be just getting started.