Vineland Estates: Winning wine

Written by Jack Kohane

Fancy packaging might land you the first sale, but to keep a customer coming back, you’ve got to have the quality behind the label, says John Howard, president of Vineland Estates Winery in Vineland, Ont.

His focus on quality — plus a couple of creative marketing strategies — has helped get this Niagara-region winery ahead, despite many challenges.

Some of Howard’s obstacles are inherent to the industry. For example, it takes many years just to produce the product. Winemakers must buy land, sow the vines, wait four years for the plants to mature and a further two years for the juice to age in the cellar. “All the while keeping the bankers at bay until you sell your first bottle,” says Howard. Furthermore, the whole process depends on the kindness of Mother Nature. If the weather is too hot and dry, too cold, too rainy or too little snow, a crop — and the year’s profits — can quickly die on the vine.

Howard also has to overcome the negative perception of Niagara wines. “Twenty years ago, Niagara wines would have made good marmalades,” he says. “It’s our mission to convince Canadians and the world that we’re as good as anyone making wine anywhere.”

That mission just became easier. Vineland Estates Winery recently captured the World Cup of winemaking: it won the Premio Speciale Grand VinItaly 2003 in Verona, Italy. The VinItaly win, which recognized not a specific wine but the winery itself, marks the first time a Canadian winery has snagged the award. The firm competed cork-to-cork against 95 other medallists and over 3,500 wines from 31 countries.

The win, which confirms the quality of his product, has mellowed Howard against the daunting challenges he faces and allowed him to focus on sales. His primary marketing strategy to drive sales: promoting free taste-tests to visitors, but especially to wine industry analysts, critics and journalists, who wield the power of the pen to whet or wither a vintage’s appeal. An estimated 140,000 people are expected to pass through Vineland’s 375-acre winery in 2003. “We promote sampling heavily because we want to showcase the results of our hard work, and because the vast majority of those who taste our wine will buy the product,” explains Howard. “Very few leave here without purchasing three or four bottles while at our store.”

Howard is also counting on a new, innovate service to drive sales. In early 2002, he pioneered the home delivery of wine in Ontario. Customers order their favorite brand through the Vineland Estates toll-free number, and they receive their bottles on their doorstep within 24 hours. Home delivery, Howard says, is the fastest growing segment of his business. “In the beginning, this department was run by a single part-time employee; now, it requires a staff of three full-timers to handle the demand,” he says. “Getting product to your customers quickly and hassle-free is the essence of the winemaking business.”

Read about other Winners — promising Canadian businesses or business people.

© 2003 Jack Kohane

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