Necessity is the mother of invention, or innovation in the case of British Columbia’s wine industry. While custom crush has played an essential role in New Zealand and California, BC has lagged behind in developing licensed wineries specifically designed to vinify grapes on behalf of other brands.
Established in 2011, Okanagan Crush Pad finally filled that gap. Yet co-owners Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie did not set out to enter the custom crush business, or even make wine. Their venture began 2005 when they bought a 10-acre (4-ha) fruit orchard near the town of Summerland in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia’s main wine growing region. To generate revenue, they converted five acres to Pinot Gris vines. The intention was to sell the grapes but by the time they harvested their first crop in 2009, they had been convinced to make their own wine.
For the first two harvests, the couple had to find a winery that allowed them to vinify under its roof. They paid C$150,000 ($112,700) for the use of space but had to provide their own winemaker and tanks. “Even with this we felt [we were] not valued and felt like an inconvenience. We were shoved in a corner, moved outside,” Coletta recounts. The experience inspired the idea to build a custom crush facility. “If we were looking for this service, we knew others must be too,” she says.
Coletta and Lornie’s collective expertise enabled them to make it a reality. After serving nine years as executive director of the BC Wine Institute and another 14 running her own wine PR company, Coletta was well-connected and very familiar with the BC wine industry. Her husband, Lornie boasted 38 years of experience in construction qualifying him to oversee planning and building.
Before breaking ground, they visited facilities in Sonoma and Napa and spoke with winemakers from around the world. “What was clear is that our model had to be large and full service or small and focused on quality,” says operations manager Julian Scholefield. They opted for the latter as the intention for their own production was premium wine.
Construction started spring of 2011 and was completed by the time the first grapes arrived on September 28th. Designed to look like an old fruit packing plant, the 7,750 square foot winery is plain but highly efficient. It can handle up to 700 tons of fruit and produce 45,000 cases, a medium size winery by BC standards. “The initial investment was C$2.5m but has increased as we have added space and equipment,” says Scholefield, adding that family and close friends own 78%. The remainder is owned by investors who will be paid out within the next two years. They also hired an in-house winemaker who oversees the entire process and provides guidance on style as clients require.
“When we started, we didn’t know who our customers would be,” says Coletta. In the first year, OCP’s own brand Haywire accounted for one-third of the production and two-thirds was custom crush. They attracted clients essentially by word of mouth averaging seven to 11 per year. The main stipulation is that the wine has to be for commercial purposes with a minimum production of 500 cases, though there have been exceptions. Once a contract (renewable on an annual basis) is signed, most use the facility for two to three years before moving into their own winery, a model that suits OCP. “If we had all the wine from all the clients still at OCP we would be making over 100,000 cases per year,” says Scholefield. Since opening, OCP has had 29 different clients and produced more than 150,000 cases for them. Comparatively, BC counts 280 licensed grape wine wineries with an estimated potential production of 2.2m cases annually based on acres planted.
The company has been essential in helping small brands establish themselves while they build their wineries. “OCP was a trailblazer,” says Wendy Rose co-owner of Bella Wines, one of OCP’s very first clients. “There were no other public custom crush options.” She adds that Michael Bartier, who was OCP’s chief winemaker until 2014, introduced them to the vineyard where Bella sourced fruit for their first few vintages.
In giving opportunities to startups, OCP has looked beyond the Okanagan Valley and focused on BC’s emerging regions. Many clients have come from outlying areas such as Vancouver Island, Lillooet and Thompson River. “These wines were somewhat disadvantaged by not having big marketing machines or reputations behind them,” says Coletta. “I felt that they needed a very good first leg up.” OCP also created a Wine Campus which gives selected local sommeliers a crack at making their own wine.
Despite good intentions, OCP’s model wasn’t without opposition. Some established wineries complained that it provided a shortcut and feared that virtual brands would take over the industry. This hasn’t happened. “Wineries that we incubated in our cellar have all grown to be successful land owning, land based wineries,” says Scholefield. Others even claimed that custom crush was illegal – which it isn’t. According to wine industry lawyer Mark Hicken, until 2011, the government branch which regulates liquor manufacturing “had no policy or rules on it and hadn’t really considered it.”
A more concrete critique is the cost. “It was expensive,” says Rigour & Whimsy’s Costa Gavaris who had a mere one ton of fruit and produced 60 cases his first vintage. Scholefield explains that fees vary by client and are based on batches, tonnages and wine styles estimating an average cost of C$6-7 per bottle for OCP’s winemaking services. “However, if you want to make five different sparkling wines each with a total production of 100 cases that is very different than bringing in 10 tons of Pinot Gris to make 600 cases of stainless ferment wine,” he says.
Debbie Etsell who co-owns Singletree Winery weighs the costs with the benefits. “You actually save money by hiring somebody that can help you out at the beginning and it reduces your risk of making big mistakes.” Singletree produced its first five vintages at OCP receiving additional business advice and help with rootstock selection.
For aspiring winemakers, the setup does have its limitations as the winemaking team is 100% OCP. “We let clients art direct but not do the physical work,” explains Scholefield. This was eventually a deal-breaker for brands like Bella and Rigour & Whimsy. However, it suits other clients perfectly. “I wanted to have my own brand, but I didn’t want to have the expense of a winery or my own personal winemaker,” says Coolshanagh’s Skip Stothert who has worked with OCP since 2012.
An industry develops
Okanagan Crush Pad may not be a one-size-fits-all or even unanimously embraced by BC’s wine industry, but its influence has been undeniably far-reaching. When Coletta and Lornie set out, they engaged international consultant Alberto Antonini. Despite the potential he saw in the Okanagan’s biodiversity, soil and extreme climate, Antonini remarks: “the viticulture was very industrial, conventional and used lots of synthetic chemical products.” He brought in soil expert Pedro Parra and together they helped OCP establish organic viticulture. Though she wasn’t the first, Coletta became an early advocate for organics. “She and Summerhill Pyramid Winery have been driving forces in switching the Okanagan over to organic production,” says John Schreiner, author of over 15 books on Canadian wine.
Antonini also helped OCP develop a style that diverged from what he saw as BC’s tendency towards Bordeaux-style reds. He proposed working with concrete over stainless steel or oak. “We were the first in Canada to use concrete,” claims Scholefield. Since purchasing their first 2000-litre concrete egg in 2011, OCP has amassed 114,000-litre or an 18,000-case capacity in concrete. “Now concrete is all over the place in the Okanagan,” says Schreiner.
OCP has played an equally significant role in the development of the natural wine sector. In particular, its Free Form brand embraces amphora, spontaneous fermentations with native yeast, minimal sulfur, skin contact whites and Pét-Nat sparkling wines. Under the direction of current chief winemaker Matt Dumayne, OCP has been a launching pad for other brands seeking to explore that route.
Finally, Coletta has helped put British Columbia on the global wine map - between bringing renowned international consultants to BC, participating in international fairs such as RAW WINE and securing distribution for OCP’s own brands in the UK and Norway.
Since launching in 2011, OCP has increased its original five acres to almost 100 acres of certified organic vineyards. The winery has also established four of its own brands – Haywire, Freeform, Narrative and Bizou+Yukon - totalling 28,000 cases per year. This now outstrips custom crush production which accounts for another 12,000 cases. It is the latter which enabled OCP to achieve the former. “We weren’t doing it to be good citizens,” says Coletta. “There was a practical business application and it paid for most everything you see.”
Despite bringing in an average of C$750,000 per year from the custom crush business, OCP is slowly getting out. “It is blocking us from doing other things,” says Coletta. She also cites price competition from an increase in wineries now offering custom crush on the side and admits that it is painful to watch clients make the same mistakes over and over again. Following advice she received early on, Coletta has an exit strategy. As clients move on, OCP isn’t actively seeking to replace them. “It is more rewarding to replace with your own wine and [that] allows you to focus on what you are doing.”