There are hundreds of wineries in Canada, but not many can boast 80 years in business—most of that in the same downtown premises—like Calona Vineyards can.
Despite today’s name, “There are no fancy vineyards to look at. We’re here to produce wine,” comments master winemaker Howard Soon, as he relaxes in the company board room surrounded by solid wood walls that likely date from the company’s earliest days. If those walls could talk, what tales they could tell. They’ve probably seen plenty of tears, adds Soon, since most of the hiring and firing occurred there over the years.
Although it’s grown from a company born out of necessity during the depression, into a major player in this country’s burgeoning wine industry, Calona’s facility is a rabbit warren of tacked-on additions, representing every era from the past eight decades.
That includes a new, state-of-the-art $150,000 membrane press, and a floor-to-ceiling, 16,000-litre, 50-year-old oak stave wine barrel that forms part of the wall in the tasting room.
Created during the depression in 1932 as Domestic Wines and Byproducts—when apple growers were demanding ‘a cent a pound or on the ground,’ to try and make their costs of growing fruit—it began as a fruit winery, rather than grape.
Friends and Kelowna pioneers, grocery store owner Pasquale (Cap) Capozzi and hardware store owner WAC Bennett put the project together in their spare time by selling one dollar shares around the interior in order to put together an enterprise to help tree fruit growers by creating a market for their fruit.
That way, growers and employees would have money to spend on groceries and hardware.
Bennett was a teetotaler so his involvement was strictly business and he gave up his shares 10 years later when he was elected to the provincial legislature.
Capozzi and his sons Tom, Herb and Joe continued on, turning it into a multi-million dollar business. They sold it in 1971, but Cap, Tom and Joe remained involved.
Calona is a fixture in this community, including the name (a phonetic spelling of Kelowna which won a contest in 1934. The Chilliwack woman who won received $5 and a case of wine) and the fact that everyone in town knows someone who does or has worked there over the years.
Although today it produces two labels of award-winning, high-end, VQA wines—Calona Vineyards Artist Series and Sandhill—its total production today is 20 million litres of wine a year, with an increasing, but still only about 10 per cent volume at the upper end of the quality scale. When Calona started up in 1932, production was about 18,000 litres of apple wine.
Buts since the beginning, it’s nearly always been a high-volume facility, particularly in the 1960s and 70s when Sommet Rouge and Blanc and Schloss Laderheim topped the charts among discerning wine drinkers.
Jug wines were a specialty of the winery in that era.
Former president and CEO Ian Tostenson remembers those wines “went screaming out the door.”
Growing up in Kelowna, Tostenson says his father and brothers grew up with Capozzis, so he was excited to head up Calona Wines between 1981 and 2002.
“In my heart, I still had Cap and Tom on my shoulder, so I felt I had to do a good job,” he comments.
It was during his tenure that the wine world switched to a free trade environment, while Calona’s reputation was as a jug wine producer, so a revolution occurred at the winery.
Calona moved to becoming an aggressive producer of VQA wines as consumers shifted and became more savvy, and there was pressure on the winery to stay ahead of those preferences.
It was one of the largest industrial wineries in Canada and one of the largest in North America, producing three million cases of wine a year.
It was about that time that the winery took on what Tostenson calls “that affable winemaker, Howard Soon,” who wanted to push the boundaries; to make better-quality wine.
“We committed to work harder to get people to taste our new wines; to develop wines that consumers wanted—and it worked,” he recalls.
Next, they developed Sandhill Wines. “That was a different approach to winemaking and it has become a stunning success,” he notes proudly.
Through it all, the Capozzi’s pioneer spirit was kept alive at the winery, with a lot of the same experienced employees still there today.
In 2005, after a stint with such diverse companies as Standard Brands, the winery was purchased by Andrew Peller, the family that opened Andres Wines in 1961 in B.C., but today predominantly does business in Ontario.
Although he’s no longer with Calona, Tostenson approved of the purchase: “In my heart, that’s a good fit; the right choice, because they have the same attitude.”
Soon remained with the company through a succession of owners, from 1980 until today, when he has been put in charge of winemaking, with a number of winemakers under his charge.
Tostenson feels that’s an important decision. “He’s very important to Calona. He’s critical to quality.”
Mario Ciancone followed his father Alex into Calona Wines when he was 15 years of age, working on the line and crushing grapes, beginning in 1957. His father was one of the original employees, and ended up as plant supervisor before his retirement.
His mother even babysat the Capozzi boys in the early days, he recalls.
In fact, a variety of Italian names were familiar at Calona Wines in those early years, including Marcanio and Ghezzi.
When Ciancone began work there much of it was done by hand, including making cardboard boxes, filling bottles, capping and labeling them. A large volume of the resulting wine went to the Catholic Church, as sacramental wine.
Grapes were brought in and dumped by hand into a rustic press that consisted of a big screw which was screwed down to force juice out of the fruit and to the sides, where it went into hoses and into the fermenting vats.
The resulting pulp was shoveled into a bin and hauled away.
With the company’s growth in the 1960s, the six or seven employees grew to 35 and more, and larger and more advanced equipment replaced that of the early years.
By the time he retired in 1994, there were more than 100 employees.
Production ramped up until more than five million gallons a year flowed out the door.
“The Capozzis were good to work for,” he remembers.
By the time Soon came on-board in 1980, change was in the air—not only at Calona Wines, but in the grape and wine industries in B.C., as talks got underway to achieve a Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. That was signed in 1988.
The young Mr. Soon had been working at Labatt Breweries in Winnipeg, but his Vancouver blood was chilled by winter temperatures on the prairies, and after taking a wine appreciation course at Red River College, he felt the wine industry was going to be more exciting—plus it was a chance to return to B.C.
His application to Calona Wines was met favourably and he started work in the laboratory when the winery was importing a truckload of wine a day from California to make enough Schloss Laderheim.
That meant Calona also had to purchase most of the grapes grown in B.C. in order to bring wine in from another country under B.C. liquor legislation, so there was a lot of wine being made and bottled in downtown Kelowna.
However, B.C. grapes were the old style French hybrids and labrusca varieties, while the balmier California climate was considered mild enough for higher-quality wine grapes, the viniferas.
With approval of the FTA, wine began to pour into Canada from other countries, so local growers were forced to consider replanting to the less-hardy viniferas in order to compete.
“I was scared for my future when we decided to pull out the hybrids,” Soon admits candidly.
As well, the wine industry here didn’t use oak barrels to age wines, so there were many changes in wine-making in the Okanagan at that time.
The first barrels were not good, so they were thrown out and good oak barrels were purchased, recalls Soon. “You need the right tools and to know how to use them,” he comments.
Today, Calona makes wine in 2,400 oak barrels. They had eight old whiskey barrels when Soon started there and they weren’t very good for making wine.
They’ve come a long way.
International judges and wine competitions served an important role in informing wineries, and local consumers, how they were progressing.
And, the news was good.
Soon concedes that unlike milk, wine is a luxury item, so in challenging economic times such as these, it’s lucky for wineries that people are still supporting them.
Yet, Calona is seeing a steady increase in the popularity of its VQA wine sales, with a doubling in the past three years.
“We were born out of an economic upheaval—the depression—and now we have to survive another set of difficult economic times,” comments Soon philosophically.