Is Starting a Winery Way Harder Than It Looks?

Here's what happened when Master of Wine Rhys Pender decided to start a winery.

January 5, 2017

By Rhys Pender, Owner/Winemaker, Little Farm Winery / Photo: Chris Madden

Rhys Pender is one of the world’s 354 Masters of Wine, but his education really began when he started his own winery.

I couldn’t not get into making wine. With all the study I had done toward my Master of Wine and having worked in vineyards and wineries, I had learned and knew every reason why we (my wife and I) shouldn’t have gone into making wine—but it was inevitable. There’s something about doing the entire process, from planting the vines through to bottling the wine, that’s somehow magical. We both felt the same way: we just had to do it. It’s the most absolute link possible to making something. You plant the vine, farm it for years, harvest its fruit and then turn it into wine. Then you get to taste it, having participated in every single step of the process.

I’ve been around wine since I was a teenager. My family wasn’t involved in the wine business but one of my first jobs, when I was 14, was in a liquor store. By default, I started to learn something about wine. It was food, though, that got me into wine in a serious way. My wife and I both did professional culinary training at Dubrulle in Vancouver, and I took my first wine course through them. After that, I couldn’t stop and did all the courses of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, and then the Master of Wine.

It’s hard for young, passionate wine people to get into making wine. A big worry in our industry in B.C. right now is that it’s almost impossible for those without unlimited funds to get into the business and make their own wine. And that’s a problem, because these are the people who will bring innovation and the crazy new ideas, and will help take us to the next level. But they are shut out: the entry fee is simply too high.

How to Start a Winery - Vancouver Magazine (Illustration: Chris Madden)

We were lucky to get into the business—and even then, it was a stretch. In 2008, we sold our little house in Peachland for $370,000 (we had bought it in 2000 for $115,000). We put that money into a five-acre property with a 100-year-old house in Cawston in the Similkameen Valley. It cost $490,000. The house needed lots of work so we still had to borrow a fair bit, plus it cost us about $26,000 per acre to establish the vineyard. Then you’ve got equipment purchases, years of labour and then the winery and all the production equipment. The Similkameen was and still is less expensive than the Okanagan. It might have cost two to three times as much to buy five acres somewhere like Naramata. My business (Wine Plus) writing, judging and teaching people about wine had to pay for everything until we had enough wine to start actually making some money off the winery. All this while we were both working nearly full-time on the vineyard and winery.

We did it on the cheap and still do nearly everything by hand. We were able to build and equip the winery for about $60,000, initially. For most wineries starting out, that wouldn’t even get them one piece of equipment. Of that, $12,000 was concrete and $6,000 electrical, then my father-in-law and I built the winery building ourselves. Some used tanks, a little basket press, a pump and a lot of sore muscles and, voilà, we were in business. We finally bought a forklift in October! The thing with winemaking is that none of the fancy equipment really makes the wine better; it just makes it easier to process. It’s the grapes that matter most for quality.

I had to learn a lot on the fly. Someone once said to me that having a winery is the most complicated small business you can get into. You are involved in every possible aspect of the business. You are in farming, production, marketing, public relations, administration and sales, plus there is all the legal side to deal with because you are making alcohol. I don’t know if there are many, if any, businesses that are so involved in so many fields. Who specializes in all of those things?

It has to be about quality wine. For many people, wine is just another business and I think that’s what really divides this industry. Some producers are just happy to make whatever they can easily sell, despite the fact it might not be the best wine they can make. That’s not me. I believe that any future the B.C. wine industry has will be linked to top-quality wines. We are such a small region that making top-class premium-priced wine is the only way to go.

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