Flexibility is the key to successful planning -- in life and in business. When your business is your life, as is the case for many wineries, adopting proactive strategies to overcome barriers to continued growth is essential. Understanding when to commit to a plan and when to move on is vital to translating these strategies into success.
"We are taking advantage of modern technology to achieve in five or ten years what it would have taken our ancestors fifty or one hundred years to learn," said Paul-André Bosc, a sixth-generation grape grower and Vice-President of Marketing and Administration for the family-owned Château des Charmes Winery Ltd. located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. "You will not hear people being nostalgic and saying 'Bring me the good old days.' We stand on the shoulders of those who did all this work for centuries and take advantage of technology to speed things up."
In 1999, when I wrote a series of articles for the National Post on the impact of technology on various industries, my investigation into Canada's wine sector highlighted cutting-edge genetic research which seemed one way to cancel out a key limitation of growing grapes in Canada.
"Our Achilles heel is that we can have minus-25-Centigrade winters," Bosc said then, explaining that, since vines are only tolerant down to minus 20 °C, during extreme weather on the Niagara Peninsula, wineries lost valuable vines. "We don't have centuries for natural acclimatization. Transgenic grapes may give us an extra tolerance of minus 5 °centigrade."
Transgenic or genetically-engineered grapes promised to put grape growing on fast forward -- to triple production, reduce risk and open up new grape growing areas across Canada. At the time, Bosc invited me to check back "in five or ten years" to see how things were progressing.
"A few years ago, we gave that up -- the time for a [return] would have been so long and the technology required, so expensive," said Bosc recently, explaining that at Château des Charmes long-term thinking means not putting all their grapes in one basket. "Another technology surfaced that caught our interest and this change has immediate application."
Bosc explained that the original goal was to overcome the 3 to 5 °centigrade difference between winter's lowest temperatures and the maximum cold tolerance of grape vines. Transgenic research presented an alternative at a time when technology was the new and popular solution to many problems. While pursuing this research, the Château des Charmes team remained open to other alternatives. This innovative winery became the first to transplant a simpler solution from US wine-growing areas -- wind machines.
A wind machine can warm up the temperature at ground zero a few critical degrees by pulling down warm air pockets, which hover 10 to 15 metres above the ground. Each fan, which is about 13 metres high with blades 6 metres across, affects air space over approximately 10 acres. Although wind machines operate on natural gas that is piped directly to them and they are on electronic timers, this equipment is carefully monitored. If one fails, there is less than an hour for repairs before damage occurs.
At –20°C, grape vines are in trouble, and for every degree the temperature drops, the problem escalates exponentially. By –25°C, the loss is almost complete. Once vines are chilled to the ground, it could take four to five years for the vineyard to recover. Emerging spring buds are even more delicate.
World-famous Canadian icewines are threatened by these extreme temperatures, too. To produce these concentrated, dessert wines, grapes are left to freeze on the vines and hand-picked after three days of exposure to –10°C. At lower temperatures, there is little juice in the grapes.
The winter of 2003 was so severe that the Niagara Peninsula wine crop was cut in half. A few nights of temperatures colder than –20°C devastated vineyards across the region, but not Château des Charmes. The wind machines saved the vineyard.
By the time devastating low temperatures returned two years later, other wineries had followed Château's example and installed wind machines to protect their vines. Now there are about 30 wind machines at Château des Charmes and 450 across Canada. At approximately C$30,000 each, this is a significant investment for grape growers. (Brother Pierre Jean is the Canadian distributor for the US-based Orchard Rite Wind Machines.)
"[Cold weather] rolls in and rolls out, and there's devastation in its wake," said Paul-André Bosc, who compares the impact of freezing temperatures to a boxing match. "It's a very specific blow that weather deals -- not weeks of cold weather, but one night, one hour, early in the fall, a cold snap in the spring. It can take only one punch from an opponent to knock you out. Wind machines are the technology that enables us to dodge the punch."