When Kelowna entrepreneur Tony Lewis broke into the wine industry six years ago, he took to the Internet to learn all he could about growing grapes and making wine.
His father had purchased land in East Kelowna and the two formed the Vibrant Vine with the first wine being made in dad’s garage. But for Lewis, that’s ancient history.
He and his dad still make wine, with the Vibrant Vine one of the Fab Five wineries in East Kelowna, a growing and award-winning string of wineries.
But the 34-year-old former musician has branched out with a unique business idea of his own. His new venture is adding value for local farmers, producing small batches of blended wines, and giving the wine consuming public a unique experience.
Lewis has opened two “tineries,” small wineries located on existing farmland and inside buildings that are otherwise not being used. The first tinery opened this June. Located in an old picker shack, with a wine tasting room that can maybe cram 10 people into it, Frequency is billed as the world’s smallest winery. It utilizes sound waves to work with the wine blend. The second, called Cahoots, is a pairing of wine and art that showcases the difference colour makes on people’s perception and palate.
“The experience is what it’s all about,” said Lewis, sitting outside of Frequency, overlooking fields of grapes on Garner Road. “We want to make it a true experience for people. When you focus on an experience and you throw wine into that experience…that’s where the magic comes into play.”
The tineries are operating under the umbrella winery called “Orphan Grape” and began as an idea from Lewis’s extended family. His father-in-law, a surgeon, returned from a trip to Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake and showed Lewis and his family pictures of Haitian orphanages.
“My father-in-law came back with some pictures of Haitian babies and told us he was going to start contributing to the orphanage,” said Lewis. “My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter saw it and she said she wanted to have a party at the Vibrant Vine. That was our first charity event, The Pajama Jam for her birthday, and we raised 1,000 pairs of pajamas in four hours. It was the busiest day ever at the winery.”
The next year Lewis hosted Flip Flop on the Hilltop, another fundraiser that brought in thousands of pairs of flip flops for Haitian kids. This past Christmas, Lewis, his wife and two daughters went to Haiti for nine days, working in the orphanage.
When he returned to Kelowna he founded the Orphan Grape with a plan to create great wine blends and sell them in his tineries, dedicating a dollar from each bottle sold to the orphanage and also a dollar to the landowner where the tinery is built.
“What the Orphan Grape does is it takes under-utilized farm property and turns their existing farm buildings into licensed wineries,” said Lewis. “Once we find a situation where everyone wins—the government, the city, the farm, the cause, me—once you find that you have something special.”
Back in the day, the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival was just a shadow of what it is today. A small group of wineries came together to throw a party and promote their wine. It was first called Septober Fest and featured a single day of events, held one year in Kelowna and the next year in Penticton. It was the beginning of the marketing of local wines and the start of an industry that has grown to generate close to $140 million each year across B.C., with the majority of the B.C. wines produced here in the Okanagan.
“Back then, we didn’t know the term wine tourism,” said Blair Baldwin, the general manager of the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society. “We were that young and the industry was just learning to walk. Now, of course, the wine industry is running a wonderful marathon and showing the rest of the world how strong it is and what a great entrepreneurial spirit we have.”
The fall wine festival—this year is the 34th annual—is one of four wine festivals hosted by the the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society in what is a year round celebration of the wine industry. What began as a way to introduce the wine industry to local customers is now a major tourist draw.
“We run an annual program that is built up through the year,” said Baldwin. “Starting with the Winter Festival at Sun Peaks that is going into its 17th year, then you have the 27th year of the Spring Okangan Wine Festival in May. We have signature events in the summer that are totally unique in North America and we finish it off with our Fall Okanagan Wine Festival.”
The fall fest could be the best one for tourists and locals looking to learn about the wine industry. It happens right around the annual grape harvest as farmers are in their busy time, harvesting and crushing grapes.
“The industry created the fall wine festival to occur right in the middle of the harvest,” said Baldwin. “It’s a wonderfully authentic time of the year to tour wineries. I think that has served us extremely well as we have grown to become one of the top events in North America.”
And it’s become much more than just wine. As the wine industry continues to innovate and grow, so too do the festivals that take place throughout the year. At the fall wine fest, which began Wednesday night with the annual B.C. Wine Awards and will continue until Oct. 11, Baldwin says there is something for everyone.
“It’s a very Okanagan-unique gathering of events,” he said. “We have unique events to span those 10 days of the festival. There is something for everybody to get excited about. Whether you are a foodie or a wine expert or brand new and want to go to a wine party or you want to go out on a date-night, it’s really developed and evolved into an amazing festival.”
When it comes to innovation and value-added, Tony Lewis thinks he is onto something. Every year wineries are left with more wine they can sell or bottle. There are millions of litres of bulk, VQA wine for sale on the open market. Lewis searches those wines out, buys them and then heads into the lab where his winemakers make blends and market them for sale. The tineries themselves are located on farm land and constructed in buildings that were not being used. At Frequency, on Garner Road, the old picker shack still appears much as it was on the outside. Inside, however, is a funky mix of music, wine and marketing.
“We take an old building and turn it into a usable building and every time we sell wine, the landowner sees part of that,” said Lewis, who has toured close to 60 potential sites, pitched his idea to about 40 land-owners and says by next May he hopes to have all eight tineries in operation. “What we are doing is an outlet for the wine industry so people can move wine. It’s written into our business plan that a dollar from every bottle sold forever goes to Haiti. I feel we are creating win-win deals for the Canadian wine industry, the kids in Haiti, my family, local farmers and the overall economic development of this amazing space we are all so lucky to live in.”
For more on Lewis’s charity: lovetakesroot.org.
For schedules on the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival: thewinefestivals.com.