ExportWise is counting down our 10 best performing stories from 2016. This story, first published on May 11, is #5 on our list.
Selling Canadian wines to the rest of the world requires both patience and persistence, says John Skinner, owner of one of British Columbia’s most-touted wineries. But it also helps to also have the good fortune of meeting the right people at the right time.
Skinner’s Painted Rock Estate Winery is one of several from the Okanagan Valley currently riding a wave of popularity in London, U.K., thanks to supportive reviews from some of the world’s best known wine experts.
“We have really managed to achieve some brand traction, which is something that took some heavy lifting when we first went into London, where many didn’t know that Canada produced anything but ice wine,” says Skinner.
Ironically, the former investment industry executive used to hate wines from his province. “I was not a champion of B.C. wines. I had a very large cellar and less than one per cent of it was B.C. wines.”
Despite his early distaste of local wines, Skinner left the securities industry more than a decade ago to plant his own vineyard, perched high on the bluffs overlooking Skaha Lake, just south of Penticton. His first exports in 2011, however, were not to the tony men’s clubs of London, but to a budding middle class in China eager to find ways to enjoy its newly acquired wealth.
“I went to China before everyone else went there. The first person I sold wine to led me to the second contact,” he said. “And now I have a very powerful group that buys about 40 per cent of my production of 6,500 cases.”
Demonstrating that Painted Rock wines received kudos was important to his success in China, he said. “We had just won four (B.C.) Lieutenant-Governor awards, and I brought them over with me. They really paid attention to those, and not so much to other awards with which they weren’t familiar.”
Wine consumption figures suggest Skinner’s choice to target China was a good one.
The latest available figures from Vinexpo and International Wine and Spirits research show that China is the fifth largest consumer of domestic and imported wine in the world and the market is growing rapidly. About 2.17 billion bottles of wine, mostly red, was consumed in 2014, up a whopping 136 per cent since 2008.
Skinner is not resting on his laurels though. With solid Chinese demand for his production assured, and the headwind of a 75-cent Canadian dollar giving his wines a competitive advantage, he is turning his sights to a bigger prize—winning over the centuries-old European wine world.
“The London market is not one where any exporter is going to make money because they are really inundated with wines,” he said. “It’s where you go to achieve a brand, where you go to get written up by the most powerful wine reviewers in the world.”
A friend and fellow wine lover in Vancouver, Dr. Martin Gleave, put him in touch with his brother David Gleave, owner of Liberty Wines, one of Europe’s leading wine merchants. “David told me, ‘I understand you want to grow your export. Then you need to get to London and rebrand Canadian wines away from ice wines,’” said Skinner.
Skinner sought out help from Global Affairs Canada, the federal government department that manages Canada’s diplomatic and consular relations and encourages the country’s international trade. “There is a lady named Janet Dorozinsky who facilitates all this stuff and she is dynamite. A few days later, she phoned to say, ‘I can get Canada House, May 24.’”
The event – held at the iconic home of Canada’s High Commission in London’s Trafalgar Square – attracted the wine world’s biggest names, including Jancis Robinson, editor of the Oxford Wine Companion, and noted wine author Hugh Johnson, plus many other key sommeliers, buyers, and distributors. Robinson later wrote up the event, putting Canadian wines on the world map.
Wineries from B.C., Ontario, and Nova Scotia attended the event. After it was over, Skinner said some of them expressed disappointment that they had not landed some orders, but Skinner cautioned them to be patient.
“You can’t expect an order. You can’t go there thinking one trade mission is going to (find) the Holy Grail. One trade mission is going to establish a beachhead. It’s going to help you grow this brand. Then you do it again and again, and all of a sudden it becomes somewhat viral.”
Q&A with John Skinner, Founder, Painted Rock Winery
What was your first export sale?
My first export sale was 800 cases to China in 2011.
How did that first export opportunity arise?
I was introduced to a Chinese importer by Jim Stewart, who was selling them his Paradise Ranch ice wines. My wines were not competitive with his. Jim had very significant export experience and most importantly, he knew this customer was real. Wineries are constantly approached by (so-called) ‘importers’ for the Chinese market. Discerning who is real is important. You can waste a lot of time chasing this business so that (market) intelligence was invaluable.
When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Most importantly B.C. and Canadian wines need to get on the road. The international market is very receptive and there is a ripe opportunity to export. We must grow our Canadian wine brand and educate the world. Happily I’ve found a group of like-minded wineries who recognize this, and have received wonderful support of Global Affairs Canada. We’ve just returned from an event in Germany and are headed to London this May. Previously, I trusted my instincts and very aggressively pursued exports on my own, particularly to China where the market was young and hungry. I spent a considerable amount of time in China in 2011 and 2012 helping my customers establish the Painted Rock brand. My new efforts are to the U.K., continental Europe and the U.S., where our 75-cent Canadian dollar is providing a huge competitive advantage.
How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
The world is discovering Canadian wines, and our efforts are paying off. I spent considerable effort securing representation in the U.K and recently shipped our first pallet. New York and London are where the opinion makers are, and it’s very important to be known in those markets.
What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
It depends on which market you target. Canadian wines will never compete with high-volume, inexpensive wines produced in Chile and Spain. We can compete in the ultra premium categories, and those are the wines we can build our brand on and export.