20 Years at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards: Building A Sustainable Business

In many industries, a sustainable business is the result of strategic planning, educated risk-taking, and continued innovation. In agriculture, planning for the unknown can be difficult; the wine industry is farming first and glamour a distant second. This equation for success is skewed for grape growers and winemakers trying to build a sustainable business, so when a BC winery hits a benchmark 20th anniversary, we should pay attention.

2014 marks 20 years at Tinhorn Creek. It’s a picture-perfect winery set atop the Golden Mile Bench – a distinct geological feature and the first proposed sub-appellation of the Okanagan Valley DVA. Kenn (and later Sandra) Oldfield founded the winery in 1994 with co-owners and friends Bob and Barb Shaunessy. “It was one of those ‘have you ever thought you’d like to do something completely different’ conversations,” says Kenn. After lengthy research, the friends spent a weekend in the Okanagan and decided to take the plunge: it was the night before the Blue Jays won the 1992 World Series. “I remember we were sitting in a Penticton hotel pub watching the game, and we said ‘let’s do this.’”

Property considered included land near Blue Mountain Winery, an acreage on Black Sage Road, and the current Tinhorn Creek site. Being mindful of that formula for business success, they evaluated their skill sets. “Our weakest was obviously grape growing,” says Kenn with a laugh. “That’s why I enrolled in UC Davis.” It’s where he met his future winemaker and wife, Sandra. By August of 1993, Kenn had given notice at his job and traded Red Deer, Alberta, for sunny California and campus life before permanently relocating to the Okanagan.

While Kenn and Bob were deciding to start a winery, Sandra was working at Macy’s and looking for a way out. “I figured if I could sell dresses, I could sell wine,” says Sandra. She took a wine appreciation class and was soon enrolled in a full winemaker load at UC Davis. Sandra was the first woman to work in the campus cellar as an assistant; challenging the status quo is something of a theme.

On campus, Sandra met a viticulture student. She knew he was from “somewhere north” but understood that to mean Oregon or Washington. “I didn’t know Kenn was from Canada,” says Sandra, laughing. “I lived in California. The map stopped at the Washington border.” Sandra came up for Tinhorn Creek’s inaugural vintage in 1994, and by the following June she drove her 1966 Mustang across the border to start life in the Okanagan as a winemaker. Sandra and Kenn were married in 1995.

The distinguishable Golden Mile view

Sustainable Goals

From day one, the goal for Tinhorn Creek has been to reach 40,000 cases per year – even if they only produced 1,000 cases in that first year. “We were making wine in a gutted out house,” says Sandra. “The lab was in the kitchen, we had plastic tanks in the living room, and one of the bedrooms was the barrel room.” Space was so cramped they had to remove the doorframe to get the barrels through. The numbers slowly increased as more acreage was planted and came online: an initial 1,000 cases eventually grew to become 40,000. “Except one particular year when we went to 42,000, but we won’t talk about that one,” Sandra says with a laugh. Around BC, 1999 was known as a challenging vintage and for many it was a lesson in what not to do. Those wineries that learned from it grew stronger.

Planned growth has been a factor in the sustainable business model, but it also meant a few growing pains. When the Tinhorn Creek winery was first constructed, they occupied only half of the building. “We played floor hockey in the other half,” recalls Sandra. “And one year I parked my Mustang in it for the winter.” Despite the best intentions, some measurements don’t always translate accurately. “Converting a barrel or tank of wine to case box [the finished product], you lose some floor space.” Subsequently, they built a barrel cellar to help lighten the storage burden.

 

Sustainable Quality

Through the 1990s, Tinhorn was undergoing adjustments as the company grew. This included the development of a quality control (QC) program led in part by assistant winemaker Korol Kuklo. Coming from a career in the health industry’s food services, Korol had been thinking QC long before working at Tinhorn. “I never thought it would lead me to this,” she says. “And this is awesome.” Korol was born in Kelowna and eventually moved to Vancouver. “I was always a big BC wine supporter. If you were coming to my house for dinner, you were bringing BC wine.”

After more than a decade in the health industry, Korol began considering a career change; like Sandra, Korol thought she might want to go into wine sales. “I thought if I could learn everything about wine I’d be awesome at sales.” The lure of the cellar proved strong, and so Korol applied to four wineries she wanted to work with – Tinhorn being one of them. “In 1998 I started in the tasting room,” she recalls. “Then I moved to bottling, and by 1999 I made the transition to the cellar.”

 

Cabernet Franc in the demonstration vineyard

The next year, Korol and Sandra began looking at screw cap closures as part of QC – in their opinion it’s also more sustainable. “It seemed we were battling cork taint all the time,” says Korol. “When you put your heart and soul into something and statistically a percentage is going to be faulted no matter what you do, it’s heartbreaking.” While bottling, the duo made small trial batches of other closure options alongside traditional cork to provide accurate comparisons: the same wine was put into bottles at the same time.

In 2001 Tinhorn put 10% of their production under screw cap – including their biggest reds. “It was awesome,” recalls Korol. “Those were fun and exciting days.” By 2003, the Oldfield Series was 100% screw cap and Tinhorn was one of the first wineries in Canada to use it throughout their product line. “That’s Sandra,” muses Korol. “She’s brave like that.” Decisions like these help Tinhorn move forward as a business.

Among the many duties as assistant winemaker, Korol also now runs the bottling line. Pushing boundaries and helping others do the same is one of Sandra’s qualities Korol speaks highly of. “I believe in destiny,” says Korol. “And the reason Sandra’s here from California is to help the BC wine industry.”

 

Sustainable Farming & Innovation

An increased focus on environmental sustainability eventually became integral to maintaining a sustainable business model.  “It was really spearheaded by Andrew Moon coming to us in 2009,” says Sandra. “It’s easier to see the vineyards and winery more sustainably when you’re looking at systems.”

Andrew has spent much of his first five years at Tinhorn on an irrigation project involving 200 acres of vineyard. “I come from large scale farming,” says Andrew. “The biggest difference [between Australia and here] is mechanization – or lack thereof. And irrigation. The Okanagan is about 10 years behind Australia.”

Common practice in Australia and other growing regions with larger tracts of land, mechanized vineyard work is the norm while only a handful of BC wineries and vineyards use machines for harvesting or pre-pruning. In the last decade, mechanical harvesting has advanced dramatically and internationally is no longer viewed in the less than perfect light of former years. Additionally, developments in irrigation have meant drastic changes in how farmers think about water usage and distribution.  “That’s a historical thing,” says Andrew. “People here are still farming based on how their grandfathers used to. Sometimes that’s good, but in this valley there needs to be a cultural shift regarding water use.”

Material and design of irrigation might not be the sexiest topic, but hearing that 100 acres used 1/3 of the water than that of a 30-acre vineyard can get even the least agri-savvy people (like me) to take notice.

Tinhorn Creek Vineyard

Location: southeast facing, on the Golden Mile Bench

Size: 50 acres

Irrigation: 100% drip

Soil: alluvial fan material on a raised terrace, rocky clay loam

Planted: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Kerner, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Syrah, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Muscat, and Petit Verdot

Thanks to Andrew, Tinhorn Creek is one of a few BC grape growers using a product known as HDPE (high-density polyethelene) instead of traditional PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipes. The differences: HDPE needs less labour to install (shallower and narrower ditches), requires less bedding material (sand) under it, can have the excavated dirt thrown back on top of it (instead of discarded), and requires no maintenance once installed. “It’s the way of the future,” says Andrew. “It’s taking over the irrigation world.”

Diamondback Vineyard

Location: southwest facing, on the Black Sage Road

Size: 100 acres

Irrigation: 100% drip

Soil: sandy loam with low organic matter

Planted: Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Semillon, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon

All 200 acres at Tinhorn have been converted to drip irrigation and use HDPE as part of a $1.2M multi-year project. While HDPE costs 30% more than traditional PVC pipes, reduced labour and other installation costs (plus the almost zero-maintenance aspect) make it an innovative and strategic investment. There’s only one distributor in Canada and a few in North America, so sourcing materials takes extra time. “It’s been hard,” he says, and then he smiles. “But the project is almost done, and I love the attention to detail. I have the same mindset when it comes to grapes.” Andrew’s days haven’t been all about irrigation. “Since I’ve been here we’ve made massive canopy technique changes and have done a fair amount of replanting. I’m just getting started.”

A sustainable vineyard includes mitigating risk. “It’s a farm,” says Andrew. “1 in 5 years, the farm fails.”

To manage risk to the winery, Andrew augments Tinhorn’s vineyards with 15-20% purchased fruit. If you do the math, that figure falls right in line with the 1 in 5 ratio. “Say there’s a new fad. It makes you flexible. You don’t want to be product [planted vines] driven. You want to be sales driven.” In one of those farm-fail-years having growing partners means transferring some of the risk from Tinhorn to the contracted grower, a message that could just as easily come from a business strategist. Andrew sees a viticulturist’s job as keeping the client happy – and his client is the winery. “It’s my science, my art, my education, and my experience that makes me able to meet those requirements.”

Getting Social

Spearheading the @TinhornCreek Twitter dialogue is @sandraoldfield, who at last count had more than 10,000 Twitter followers and has sent over 71,000 tweets; when she has time, she also blogs at www.sandraoldfield.com. Each week since December 2011, Sandra (or occasional guest) hosts #BCwinechat – previous chats can be viewed at www.bcwinechat.com.

Sustainable Evolution

For the first time since opening its doors, Tinhorn Creek hired a new winemaker earlier this spring: Andrew Windsor. After working with medium to large wineries in Niagara, McLaren Vale, northern Rhone, and Marlborough, Windsor brings a different perspective to the Tinhorn team. This laid-back Ontario-educated winemaker has substantial experience under his belt.

The history of a place and its story are helpful, but for Windsor it’s the nuts and bolts that are important. “With all of those things already at Tinhorn, I knew I had a good opportunity,” he says. “It gave me the confidence that I could help contribute to its success.” Windsor is looking forward to assisting with the ongoing evolution of Tinhorn Creek. “95% of the wine flavour is already decided – the barrels are ordered, and the vineyard is here. But we’re going to go over every single wine [not bottled] and discuss them formally. Do more trials. Take a few calculated risks.”

Part of those risks could involve introducing more natural elements to the existing processes, adding to the complexity of what Windsor says is already there. “You take bits and pieces from everywhere you’ve been,” he says, and then he grins. “This is going to get boring and technical. Now, take the 2013 Pinot Gris. It’s perfect…” With enthusiasm, Windsor launches into a high-level explanation of winemaking that goes well beyond the knowledge of most of us. Ultimately, Windsor’s message is this: he’ll continue exploring the terroir originally discovered by Sandra, Kenn, and the rest of the Tinhorn Creek team through strategic planning, taking educated risks, and by way of innovation – the same elements that helped create a successful first twenty years.

As Sandra hands over the winemaking helm and fully embraces her role as CEO, there’s a subtle but noticeable shift at Tinhorn akin to a cast settling into their roles after a number of solid performances. It’s a confidence and ease of being that permeates the place, from vineyard to tasting room to bottle.

As I sit on the sun-warmed lawn with a glass of 2013 Cabernet Franc Rosé and listen to the comfortable banter between Andrew (vineyard) and Andrew (wine), I realize awards and accolades are all well and good – but longevity might be the ultimate gold medal. Twenty years on and countless awards later, Tinhorn continues to strive to reach the next level – and for us wine drinkers, that is a very good thing.

 

Contact Info:

Website: Tinhorn Creek Vineyards

537 Tinhorn Creek Road
Box 2010
Oliver, BC V0H 1T0

Phone: (250) 498-3743
Toll Free: 1-888-484-6467
Fax: (250) 498-3228

Written By:

Jeannette is EAT's Okanagan writer. With her rural Canadian roots and love of grand experiences, Jeannette is equal measures country and city. Since moving from Vancouver to the Okanagan in 2007, she quit her day job ...

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