Winery’s grown with festival

 Tony Stewart, Cynthia Walker, Andrea McFadden and Ben Stewart  toast their new addition to Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, a new hospitality centre.  -  Sean Connor/Capital News
Tony Stewart, Cynthia Walker, Andrea McFadden and Ben Stewart toast their new addition to Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, a new hospitality centre.
— image credit: Sean Connor/Capital News

From its start as a one-night affair held in Orchard Park mall after hours, the 27th annual Okanagan Fall Wine Festival has grown to more than 10 days, and attracts thousands of people who sample and buy gallons of wine.

At the beginning, it was called Septoberfest and involved a few vineyard tours and some tastings, then a grape stomp, recalls Ben Stewart of Quails’ Gate Estate Winery.

It was a way to attract visitors in the shoulder season and to give them a chance to experience the frenetic activity at harvest time, and the excitement of the grape crush.

That part hasn’t changed, but the popularity of the event, and the size of the wine industry in the valley certainly has.

Along the way, it’s spawned a world class restaurant industry, since the two are natural partners.

Where the Stewart family vineyards and winery are today was mostly apple and pear orchards just a few decades ago, and they were grape growers, not winemakers in the early days of the wine festival.

They have recently opened a new hospitality centre to complement the Old Vines Restaurant, and replace the funky heritage log home which has served as their tasting room since October 1990.

In the meantime, they’ve expanded their vineyard and this year they added 10 more tanks to the winery, while in the valley, grape production has grown from around 3,000 tonnes in the late 1980s to 21,000 tonnes last year.

The first Quails’ Gate wine was produced in 1989, and when it was bottled in 1990, it was done in a facility they had built only the month before.

“I loaded up my old red pickup and went off to sell the wine,” recalls Stewart.

Production has increased 10 times since those early days of 4,500 cases, and not only is the whole Stewart family running the diversified business, they employ about 60 permanent staff and double that seasonally.

With the construction of a year-round restaurant, new warehouse and 4,000 square foot hospitality centre with administration offices, a private dining room and attached demonstration kitchen, boardrooms and tour facilities, the investment in recent years is in the $7 million range, doubling what the family has invested over the years.

“It’s a capital-intensive, time-consuming business to be in,” he admits.

The family has built from the success of the business over the years, he says, adding, “our family is committed to agriculture.”

Calling this recent expansion phase nine, Stewart says there is still more vineyard planting that needs to be done; they may add an outdoor tapas bar around the 22,000-pound outdoor brick oven; and they may diversify in other sites around the valley.

In the meantime, the toughest thing is having to tell customers ‘no’ when they ask for more wine, but the Stewarts don’t intend to expand wine quantity, feeling it could jeopardize quality.

Selling out of wine is a symptom of the success of the valley’s wine industry, and it happens at many of the good wineries.

It just adds to their popularity.

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