On 200 acres of lush farmland, with 2,000 feet of shoreline on Okanagan Lake, sits the Stewart family homestead. “Growing up there was like endless summers,” recalls Tony Stewart. “Only, during the day, they made us work.”
In the 1960s, when the Stewarts’ horticulturalist patriarch realized the future of B.C. business was in wine, the family planted grapes. Tony’s brother—who still lives on-site in the family home—began Quails’ Gate Winery in 1989. Tony partnered with him three years later, as did two sisters. These days, children, nieces and spouses so fill the staff roster that they’ve earned a nickname: “We call the new generation G3s,” says Stewart.
Needless to say, Quails’ Gate is family-owned, an estate winery focused on producing quality premium wines (primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). Seventy full-time and 200 seasonal employees make, bottle and sell 70,000 cases of fine wine to Canadians (and a few U.S. buyers). At one of the highest price points in the Okanagan, Quails’ Gate wine is not cheap, admits Stewart, but the product has integrity. “In this business, you have to make a quality call every time. These decisions are often based on cost, but we don’t do that.” Case in point: In 2010, when Stewart’s team determined the year’s crop “lacked intensity,” the $50 reserve was downgraded to $25. “Always make the quality move, I tell the staff,” he says. “Don’t look at the dollar.”
That might seem a rare sentiment from a for-profit business, and it’s one Stewart credits to Quails’ Gate’s family roots. “My mother always taught us to be good hosts and make people comfortable here.” This applies to visitors—over 250,000 of them visit the Kelowna property annually—but also to staff, which include both full-time lifers and students on quick summer stopovers. “We guarantee we’ll invest in you, no matter how long you’re here,” says Stewart. “Even if you’re an accountant, we want you to learn and be passionate about wine.”
How do you get your winery staff to be even bigger on wine? Quails’ Gate offers all the usual perks—profit-sharing, ample benefits—but tops them up with pig roasts, fill-up-your-cellar programs and Wine Fridays. For 20 years and counting, each and every Friday at 4 p.m., staff members blindly share a bottle of wine from another producer and compare notes. Beyond the buzz, employees become wine aficionados eager to learn more, which the company nurtures by offering complementary sommelier courses. The policy has been known to spoil other wineries for employees—including Stewart’s son, who just finished a winemaking program in New Zealand. “He’ll work outside the family business for a few years,” Stewart says, “then we suspect he’ll be back.”