Investing in Essex County's wine industry

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

By Ted Whipp, The Windsor Star

By Ted Whipp, The Windsor StarMay 23, 2012 1:03 PM

The vineyard and red barn on an old family farm may not look like such a lucrative business bet right now.

But give Scott Wilkins time. He'll plant more vines and ramp up the operation to grow five acres of vineyards.

As more vines are planted and mature for production, Wilkins plans to build a retail store and tasting bar to attract commuters and visitors passing by the farm, on County Road 9 (Howard Avenue) north of County Road 20 between Harrow and Amherstburg.

Dancing Swallows Vineyard, named for the swallows that flit among the vines, is expected to open by 2015.

Wilkins, 56, who worked 25 years with the former Ontario Hydro, already knows all too well the joke about the winery industry: if you want to make a small fortune in wine, start with a large one.

His craft winery venture may eventually cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, take several years to produce retail wines, and require the patience and persistence of a county farmer.

"It's all upside potential," said Wilkins, who is passionate about wine, winemaking and the area's capability for both. "We've got this amazing climate. We can produce these amazing wines. It's a destination industry" for tourism here, he said.

"And I think it will all start to fall in line if we can get the 20 wineries here and get a breakthrough to reach out to London, Kitchener-Waterloo. I think Toronto is the one that has to be broken open. That's my opinion."

Wilkins considers his investment in the area's wine economy a good one with potential for long-term growth.

He is not alone. At least three more new wineries plan to open around the same time as Wilkins' winery store. They include North 42 and Oxley Estate near Colchester, which expect to open this summer and will bring number of area wineries close to 20.

Together, they'll provide the critical mass needed to attract more hospitality infrastructure, such as accommodations, transportation and attractions.

"When we looked at our five-year, regional economic roadmap we realized this industry has great, future potential," said Karolyn Hart, the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation's vice-president of community development and strategic initiatives.

"The industry is farther reaching than most realize," she said.

The number of bed and breakfast businesses has grown to more than five dozen in Windsor and Essex County. New business startups include a bicycle tour and rental business near Colchester, Farm Dog Cycles, that is co-owned by Megan Balsillie. There is also a tour-bus venture that includes weddings by Harrow travel agent Paula Rigg.

Young professionals, such as Rori McCaw, winemaker at Cooper's Hawk Vineyards in Kingsville, and Jeff Wright, who has a Harrow-area catering business, have staked their professional careers in the area wine industry.

Winemaker Lawrence Buhler moved from Niagara's large Peller Estates to the smaller Colio Estates winery in Harrow recently because he saw potential in the Windsor-Essex region.

Recent investments in the area's wine economy include the new event centre being built at Kingsville's Mastronardi Estate Winery.

Eadie Mastronardi, who operates the popular winery with her husband Tony, said the facility for staging events that already bring in hundreds of visitors will cost $1 million.

Major improvements were announced last year at nearby Pelee Island Winery, the largest winery in the area, and Colio, which is also among the five largest wineries in Ontario.

Erie Shore Vineyard plans to add eight more acres to the existing 16 vineyards, said co-owner Alma Hollingshead.

The industry includes 15 wineries, harvests 800 acres of vineyards and employs 400 full and part-time workers. It has an annual retail value of more than $13.5 million, states a recent report by the economic development corporation.

A report from KPMG for the Wine Council of Ontario points to the wider industry potential, with wine tourism expected to grow 20 per cent over the next five years. BMO reported on prospects for the wine industry last year that showed the room for growth, including increasing demand for wines from aging boomers and its rising popularity among younger people.

The wineries are viewed as integral to economic and tourism growth by the development corporation and Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island. Both are working closely with the recently renamed Essex Pelee Island Coast Grape Growers Association.

The association launched its new brand and look this week and the marketing efforts will include the many awards local wineries took home from a recent national competition for Canadian wines.

"This area needs to understand it is a tourist destination," said Doug Beatty, vice-president of marketing with Colio Estate Wines. "We haven't maximized our potential."

He sees opportunities for spinoffs with more tour businesses and amenities. "People have to eat and they need the attractions," he said.

Beatty helped with efforts in recent months to bring LCBO representatives to visit the area. In April, LCBO stores from Windsor to London featured five wineries in a special local wine promotion.

"We grow great wines and we know it. We know we can be competitive," Beatty said. "It's just a matter of time for this region to explode."

Wilkins, at his new winery venture, would wholeheartedly agree. "To me, this region has this amazingly raw potential just sitting here to be a tourism area for the wineries."

His winery is on his late wife's family farm. There is flat land all around and the nearest communities are a few kilometres down the road.

He said his wife's parents had died several years ago and she didn't want the Hutchins' family century farm sold. His late father-in-law, Edwin Hutchins, had always referred to it as the best farm in Essex County, he recalled.

"And why do I go into it?" Wilkins said of his winery and farm venture. "Because if I waited five years, it would be a lot harder to get in. The 30th winery is not going to get as much support as the 20th."

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