Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Report from: ASAP Meeting - June 20, 2007

The Toronto chapter of ASAP (Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals) invited Richard Johnson (owner of By Chadsey’s Cairn Winery) to speak at their June 20th meeting; yours truly also attended, wanting to hear what one of the driving forces behind the budding Prince Edward County wine industry had to say. The talk was suppose to be about Strategic Alliances and how they benefit business, in this particular case with regard to the wine industry … instead Richard spent most of his time giving the history of The County, both past and present – which I have to admit was incredibly fascinating.

Let me stress that Richard is not a born-and-bred County-boy, but his knowledge of the area was amazing, he sure did do his research before moving there. He knew about the missionaries that settle the towns and villages back in the 1600’s; how barley was the mainstay crop in the 1850’s and 60’s and fed the beer industry of the United States with its main ingredient right up until the trade wars of the time, which ceased the usefulness of growing barley for the area. In the 1940’s and 50’s The County was the heart of the canning industry for all of Canada, canning both fruits and veggies; but than in the 60’s the economy stagnated; a mass exodus from Prince Edward County began and land prices plummeted. Around the same time the artistic community was growing tired of Toronto and the rising cost of living; looking for something a little more rural and serene they made their way to The County snapping up PEC land for a song. Also migrating to The County were wealthy Torontonians looking for lakefront property to settle into their quiet retirement lifestyle. The gentleman who thanked Richard after his talk made mention of how “woefully low” his personal knowledge of that area of the province was and that Richard truly did enlighten many as to the highs and lows the area had faced.

Sporadically Richard peppered his discourse with talk of the alliances that were formed; I got the feeling that although they were instrumental in what PEC has accomplished he isn’t used to talking directly about them – instead the focus is on what they accomplished not who accomplished it. He spoke highly about the 8 start-up grape growers and how they banded together in 1998-1999 as they were all contemplating sticking vines into the ground. How they learned by looking to Niagara as a model for both the right way and wrong way of building a wine industry. The history of PEC grape growing was also touched upon … he told the brief story of 3 who had tried back in the 70’s, which proved to be a dismal failure, mostly because they looked at it as competing with one another instead of trying to learn together. By aligning themselves together the 8 growers learned what worked best in these harsh conditions known for Eastern Ontario winters. As example, just this past winter PEC averaged 8 degrees colder than Niagara, and don’t get Richard started about the wind.

Today those 8 have turned into 40, and in 8 short years have turned the “crazy notion” of producing wine in Prince Edward County into a viable working wine industry and who’s most recent accomplishment was becoming Ontario’s newest DVA (Designated Viticultural Area). How they did it is the amazing story. From the beginning they decided that their standards had to be higher if they were to make it work. They did soil tests (there are 15 different types in The County); divided The County into sub-appellations (currently not in use on their bottles, but could be when the time is right) and most importantly raised the standard for Prince Edward County labeled wine – it had to be 100% PEC fruit in the bottle (current regulations state that VQA wines, while always 100% Ontario grapes, can have 15% of their fruit from somewhere else in Ontario). They also had to learn, by trial and error, how to grow grapes, not hybrids, which flourish in these conditions, but the more temperamental vinifera … one of the keys was to bury the vines to protect them from the elements in the dead of winter – this was not learned until year three.

The County also has many of the parts in place to lure tourism, with more on the way as they continue to blossom into a full fledge get away destination. Restaurants (with well known chefs), local farmers (to provide the ingredients), wineries (to provide the pairing for food) and cheese manufacturers (to provide … the obvious) all working together in a strategic symbiosis and using their alliances to strengthen not just their own individual industries, but the area as a whole – making it better for everyone involved. From a financial standpoint the effects of all this working together has become quite apparent: Richard bought his land for $800 an acre in 1995, just this past year his neighbour sold off some of his land for $16,000 an acre … all because the infrastructure has been built up that makes PEC a place to live, thrive and survive.

In closing Richard said that he finds it amazing what can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time if you cultivate the right alliances. 8 short years to DVA status … three of those years with no crop at all, due to those harsh winters. This year PEC will hit the million-bottle mark for the first time as a region. Lots to be proud of … lots of hard work … and lots of the right-minded and like-minded people. I also picked up on the “theory of 8” that seem to run through the story of Prince Edward County’s new renaissance … 8 growers started; 8 degrees colder; 8 years to DVA status – I wonder, and look forward to, what the next 8 years will bring and what the next “8” will be within their realm of accomplishments.

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