If you believe Victoria Day weekend is supposed to conjure celebratory visions of our heritage, consider this: the distinction of being the most successfully launched wine ever in Ontario actually belongs to a new Ontario winery, populated by regional farmers and a fifth-generation Ontario wine maker. It happened when 20 Bees, a co-operative of 19 Niagara grape growers and globally acclaimed wine maker Sue-Ann Staff, launched its humble line of wines last year, which were picked up by 300 of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's 780 stores.
That was huge. If justice prevailed, 20 Bees would have been picked up by them all — after all, it is the liquor board of Ontario, and 20 Bees is a primo Ontario product — but that's another point. 20 Bees hit the mark, and Staff, a University of Guelph alumnus, joined the annual meeting of the Eastern Canadian Farm Writers Association in London recently, to explain why.
First, it's significant to note why 20 Bees, rather than one of the other 129 wineries in Ontario, was invited to address 50 captive journalists at the meeting. Mainly, it's because 20 Bees has a great story to tell about Ontario, entrepreneurialism and especially how it takes great pains to associate itself with farming. That effort won 20 Bees, which officially operates as Niagara Vintners Inc., an Ontario Agri-Food Innovation award earlier this year. "Recognizing and encouraging innovation on the farm will help Ontario's agri-food sector get ahead in a challenging marketplace," said Guelph-Wellington MPP Liz Sandals, in making the awards to area winners, in Guelph.
But to really understand the farming connection, look at 20 Bees' website, www.20bees.com, and note who gets the glory — it's the 19 growers, clad in sneakers, blue jeans and T-shirts, engaged in conversation while mulling about on bales of hay in front of a building that looks like it's right out of the Country Heritage Park in Milton. These aren't wine snobs — not outwardly, anyway — these are producers who sweat it out like every other farmer of every other commodity. And the honest image they're promoting should serve the company well as the local-grown food movement gathers steam.
As farmers, they're particularly proud the fruits of their labour started in their own fields. 20 Bees is produced from 100 per cent Ontario grapes, which makes it further unique among wineries. Some companies use imported product, but can still claim their wine is cellared on Ontario. The public ends up getting duped in the liquor store when it sees confusing claims, with an Ontario-cellared wine next to — and basically indistinguishable from — a homegrown Ontario wine, until you read the fine print, pop the cork or unscrew the top and grimace.
But despite the down-home, little-guy image of 20 Bees, it's serious about being a contender in the market. The 19 growers that came together to form Niagara Vintners Inc. already represented 40 per cent of the Niagara region's production. They produced 3,700 tonnes of grapes last year, but plan to boost that production appreciably, and have a five-year goal to be turning out 20,000 tonnes by 2012.
And rather than wait to see how the liquor board was going to like its wines, 20 Bees took the unusually proactive measure of going to the board first and asking what its customers were looking for — good move . . . the board is the world's biggest single purchaser of spirits. Then the company proceeded to try to address consumers' needs with a contemporary, quality, reasonably priced product.
The coup for 20 Bees, however, was securing winemaker Staff, who was named one of the world's top women in wine in 2004. She's a young and accomplished Niagara region native, with a long pedigree of grape farming and wine making. The wines she produced with her previous employer started winning international awards as far back as 1997, and she's certain to take 20 Bees to similar heights. I'm looking forward to introducing 250 or so global agricultural journalists to 20 Bees wines when they arrive in Guelph in 2011 for the annual International Federation of Agricultural Journalists congress, and showing off what "new world" wines are all about.
The federal government is helping spread the good word about Canadian wine. Earlier this month, at Creekside Estate Winery in Jordan Station, Ottawa announced $225,250 in support of the ongoing international market development efforts of the Canadian Vintners Association, which has a goal of doubling Canada's export growth over the next decade. No doubt 20 Bees will be part of that growth, and that's great for the image of Canadian agriculture.
Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.