Salad Days & Juicy Secrets: BC Hot House Foods

hothouse6Blitz Magazine, December 1997

Sodya hear the one about the Canadian farmers who go up to the California grocer and say “Lettuce sell you some vegetables?”

You may groan. And we might assume that, five years ago, skeptics scoffed at the idea that Canadians could successfully market produce to the salad bowl of North America. But BC Hot House has done it, in spades. And, along the way, it has become of one Canada’s great success stories.

The story began in 1973, when a number of BC tomato and cucumber greenhouse growers realized that they needed economies of scale for grading and packing; and that they’d be better served by a single marketing and sales entity. They formed the Western Greenhouse Growers Cooperative. The cooperative worked well until the early ’90s, when it faced increasing pressure from imports. This competition had driven some growers to the financial brink; others wanted to expand. All knew that they could not compete on price, since the cost of greenhouse growing is about 20 times that of field growing. And all knew that, if they were going to survive, they had to do something different. So, in 1993, the Western Greenhouse Growers Cooperative became BC Hot House Foods Inc. (BCHH). The company hired a PR firm—the Barkley Gazeley Group; and an advertising—Lanyon Phillips & Partners.

“We had to change the way we were doing business,” says Jim Lightbody, the BCHH VP Sales & Marketing. “We had to get away from the usual approach to selling commodities. In the produce industry, there are very few brands, but there are many labels and many producers selling on price alone. We can’t compete on price. We compete on quality.”

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Initial feedback from focus groups, however, was less than encouraging. “The results of that research scared the daylights out of us,” says Lightbody. “Our vegetables look the way they do because they’re healthy. They’re healthy because we don’t use pesticides. Well, consumers believed that our produce looked as good as it does because we use lots of pesticides. So BC Hot House products were not their first choice and we had to change that.”

Lanyon Phillips CEO Chuck Phillips recalls that it wasn’t all bad. “We found that the name ‘BC Hot House’ carried a lot of positive equity and was associated with better vegetables. We had 95% of the sweet bell pepper market and 100% of the long English cucumber market. The combat area is tomatoes and, of the three BCHH products, tomatoes had the highest degree of awareness. People were buying them, but there was no real brand identity. So we wanted to brand the company, brand its values and tell this great story about hot house produce.

Designer Bill Downie created the new, less industrial-style logo. And ‘vegetable boutiques’ were installed in grocery stores. “Normally, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are stocked separately,” continues Phillips. “But we created mini-greenhouses, stocked with recipe cards, and all three BC Hot House products. So the tomatoes, which had the most competition, benefited from the halo of the cucumbers and peppers, which had no competition. And that strengthened the brand.”

At the same time, BCHH launched an aggressive PR campaign. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we had to get our message out through the media,” says Lightbody. “We addressed misconceptions by conveying the message that we do things differently. And we made the campaign fun—to get people excited enough to want to read about vegetables.”

The mandate for BCHH’s two agencies was to tell the inside story and the ‘Juicy Secrets’ campaign was launched. This consisted of transit, newspaper and television teasers which implied a racy sexuality, did not reveal the sponsor and instructed the public to check newspapers for details. Colourful, tomato-shaped inserts were then dropped into the major papers in Victoria and Vancouver. When recipients opened them, they read that BCHH tomatoes were more flavouful because they’re left to fully ripen on the vine. That hothouse vegetables have more Vitamin C and A than field-grown produce. That, because greenhouse are climate-controlled, pesticides are unnecessary. That any bad bugs which do get to the plants are controlled by lady bugs, bees and birds. The campaign was a huge success. Response was tremendous, awareness and attitude improvement figures soared and BC Hot House was the BCAMA Marketer of the Year for 1993.

“The Juicy Secrets campaign went a long way, but we still had work to do, especially in the sweet bell pepper market where we were starting to see more competition,” recalls Lightbody. “The thing with peppers is that most people think they’re hot or bitter. They’re not. Green peppers are unripe peppers, much like green tomatoes, which is why they can be bitter. When they’re grown in the field, they can’t be left to ripen fully because they’ll be ravaged by the bugs and the elements. With greenhouse growing, those green peppers mature to their full ripeness and true colour—orange, yellow or red. And they’re sweet, not tart. So we communicated that to the public with the Eat Your Sweets transit and television campaign, which displayed peppers placed in ice cream cones.”

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Things proceeded nicely. Tomato awareness was at 92%. Cucumbers and peppers were doing well. But by 1995, competitors were riding the BCHH coattails by representing their produce as BC Hot House product. It was time to strengthen the brand through another campaign.

“Our focus groups had always shown that there was very high awareness of the BC Hot House stickers,” says Phillips. “They’re hard to get off and that was a minor irritant for everybody. So we decided to use it.”

The ‘Stuck on for Good’ campaign was two television commercials—one of a hand chasing a jumping sticker around a yellow pepper; the other of a jumping sticker trying to avoid being chewed off a cucumber.

The campaign was a huge success and the competition was stymied. But 1996 saw a different challenge. The BCHH growers who, four years earlier, had to be convinced that an advertising agency and PR firm could be at all useful, now wanted growth. They wanted to build more greenhouses to satisfy demand in BC. And they wanted to be able to satisfy demand in the US—in California.

“California may be the salad bowl of North America, but it had become our second-largest market,” says Lightbody. “And demand was growing in Washington State and Oregon.

“We’d always been marketing to Americans. We attended industry trade shows, advertised in trade publications. Mostly, we were down their knocking on doors. They were impressed. The two main reasons for a consumer’s choice of a supermarket are location and the quality of the produce department. Those retailers wanted top-notch quality. So they were already buying but, to support growth, we had to advertise.”

The strategy was to start with Seattle. “Seattle has the right demographics for our product and, since it’s so close to BC, it made the most sense,” continues Lightbody. “We used the Juicy Secrets campaign again. And we added the Pennies from Heaven campaign.”

The ‘Pennies from Heaven’ campaign built on the fact that, in the US, the use of pesticides, and consumption of their residue, is a huge issue with consumers—80% of Settle residents were shown to be concerned about it. Obviously, there was a story to tell. So Lanyon Phillips created television spots showing a field of tomatoes. While the song ‘Pennies from Heaven’ played, a spray plane appeared and sprayed the field. The accompanying caption was ‘You can pick from the great outdoors or the great indoors,’ and that was followed by a shot of a tomato in a greenhouse. The spots ran for two weeks, the ‘Juicy Secrets’ inserts went into the papers, and awareness shot to 25%.

“No other tomato, cucumber or pepper brand even comes close to registering on that scale,” says Lightbody. “In this business, if you take away Dole and Chiquita, the average awareness level for a branded product is 2%. The retailers were thrilled that we were building awareness of a premium product. It allows them to give consumers what they want, differentiate themselves from their competition and build customer loyalty. And it helps their profits. As a result of this campaign, our distribution in Seattle went up 20%.”

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By now, the BCHH grower expansion was well under way. One grower, while remaining in the co-op, had moved to Oxnard, CA and built a 20-acre, state-of-the-art greenhouse. Not only does this new facility allow BC Hot House to supply the American market but, because greenhouses need sun, and sunshine is mostly absent in BC from November to January, it can supply the BC market in winter. So the growers were ready for California, and San Francisco was the target.

“We had made strong inroads with retailers in 1996 but, going into 1997, we knew that if we wanted to double our business, we had to do something major,” continues Lightbody. “We had our success in Seattle, and we had the same demographics in Northern California, so we went after the Bay Area. But going after that market is a whole different ball game.”

The first step was to hire a San Francisco PR company, Porter Novelli. Local celebrity chefs were recruited. A media kit—complete with a snow cone containing a spray plane—was produced, and media members were treated to tours of the Oxnard greenhouse. The result was massive coverage about this new way of growing vegetables. Then, last April, the two-week ‘Pennies from Heaven’ campaign ran again, followed by the ‘Juicy Secrets’ insert drop. Lightbody says that, once again, the success was spectacular.

“Prior to the campaign, our research showed that Bay Area awareness was 3%. After the campaign, it was 22%. Monthly hits on our website went from 5,600 to 60,000. It was amazing.”

Not everyone was thrilled. The California Tomato Commission was a little miffed. “We were prepared for some controversy,” continues Lightbody. “But all we were doing was telling the truth and allowing people to understand what we do. It’s no big secret that farmers use pesticides. We just told our side of the story.”

“It was a delicate situation,” adds Phillips. “Pesticides are a hot issue in Northern California and we were using an image which triggers a lot of controversy in the US—the spray plane. We did not want to imply that unsafe produce was being sold in California’s grocery stores. So the commercials made no claims—they just showed the great outdoors verses the great indoors and let consumers take their pick.

“We had a receptive media and an interested, safety-conscious market. And we had some unhappy farmers. But the point was to create foreplay for the Juicy Secrets newspaper inserts, which tell the BC Hot House story. All we want to do is make people curious and interested in vegetables.”

So the American were in. It was back to Seattle for the next stage of the strategy, which was branding the BC Hot House name in the consumer mind while introducing new products. The ‘Stuck on for Good’ campaign ran in Seattle for five weeks. Again, it was a hit.

“After the initial boost from the 1996 Seattle campaign, awareness went from 25% to 18%, but that was expected,” says Lightbody. “After the 1997 campaign, it went form 18% to 46%. That’s simply unheard of. Our researcher, Roger Barnes, who has twenty years of experience in researching advertising results, had never seen a post-campaign jump in awareness like this.”

Vancouver and Victoria were hit again last summer, this time with a new transit campaign focusing on two under-developed products—peppers, and the latest product, tomatoes which are sold still attached to the vine.

The transit campaign consisted of four posters, two of which bear ‘borrowed’ creative. One shows a bunch of peppers and is tagged ‘Do You Eat the Red Ones Last?’; the other shows a row of peppers and the line ‘United Colours of BC Hot House’. (Benetton and Nestle happily consented.) Now, all markets are seeing heavy in-store presence—including POP materials, demonstrations and displays—with the goal of making consumers seek out the hot house-grown produce, while knowing that it will cost more.

“Consumers now understand that those vegetables cost more because greenhouse growing is expensive,” says Phillips. “And we have to maintain the profit margin for our clients—the growers. So the current focus is to make the product look great in the stores, and to make sure that retailers are happy.”

Retailers are extremely happy. Where they were previously selling tomatoes at .50-$1.00/lb. to make a profit of .25-.50/lb., they’re now selling tomatoes at $2.00-3.00/lb. for a per-pound profit of $1.00-$1.50. It is safe to assume that the 52 BC Hot House growers were also pleased. In 1993, sales were $36 million. In 1996, sales were $67 million. Projected sales for 1997 are $110 million.

There has been more expansion—a new $18 million,230-employee facility in Surrey opened in February. The company is looking at new markets—New England, Quebec, Ontario, Texas—and new retailer networks and distribution centres are being established.

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So it’s blue, spray plane-free skies for BC Hot House.

“I can’t say enough about how important the interaction of public relations, consumer advertising and retailer communications has been to our success,” says Lightbody. Our quality comes from the expertise of the growers, but our marketing strategy has done the rest. We don’t have a lot of money to spend, so if it all doesn’t work together, and if we’re not being smart, strategic and focused with our limited budget, we can wash it all down the drain.”

And what about that budget? Lightbody will say only that it has increased dramatically in the last year, but that it is much smaller than we would think. Phillips says that, fiver years ago, the account was $250,000.00 and now it’s his second-largest. And the most enjoyable.

“Of everything I’ve done, this has been the most fun—and the most satisfying. We had to prove ourselves to growers, but I can state with certainty that the advertising and marketing programs have driven this client’s growth. BC Hot House is a great client. They’re smart, they’re one-on-one, and we have an excellent relationship. This is the most fulfilling and gratifying account of my career, and it’s the best work we’ve done. And definitely, from the agency perspective, the lesson is that if you focus on what you have and nurture it, instead of constantly going after new business, the agency and its clients benefit.

“And what a great story,” Phillips concludes. “This was a little band of vegetable growers who got together to share a packing facility. Now they’ve passed $100,000,000 in sales. In terms of where they started from, and the time-line, it’s the most exciting thing ever done by a Canadian company. And it’s the first time that a BC private-sector company created a campaign for the American markets, and met with huge success.

“Come on! Canadians selling tomatoes to Californians? The vegetable patch of the United States? And succeeding? Think about it!”

 

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Sierra Nevada: The Heart of the World

sierraBlitz Magazine, November 2002

According to Colombian legend, the snow-capped mountain known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was created at the centre of the world, and at the beginning of time, by Shibalauneuman (the Mother of All Things).

Located at the northwestern tip of South America, in the Republic of Colombia, only 42 km from the shore, the peak of the Sierra Nevada reaches 5,775 meters (18, 948 feet) above sea level, making it the highest coastal mountain in the world.

Centuries ago, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was a place where diverse human groups flourished; one of them, the Tayrona civilization, reached the highest level of development without deteriorating its environment. The European conquest destroyed that nation; today, all that remains of the Tayrona peoples are some gold, stone and shell carvings, and the intricate lithic (rock) pathways they carved into the landscape to link hundreds of their ancient towns and city-sites to terraced farms and water sources. The mountain is now inhabited by aboriginal communities that proudly preserve their complex religious, social and political societies.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the world’s most important ethnic, ecological, archaeological and cultural patrimonies, and is internationally recognized as a ‘Man & Biosphere Reserve’. Its environs are typical of tropical America, containing an extraordinary variety of climates and habitats with great biological diversity. Its fauna and flora are abundant and several of its species are to date still unknown to science.

Vancouver-based Colombian photographer, naturalist and educator Diego Samper, who has lived in the Sierra Nevada, has worked with the Museum of Anthropology to create an exhibit, and unique public programming, focused on the living cultures of ancient lands, issues of sustainability and the complex continuing relationship of indigenous peoples to the land. The 26-panel exhibit of images, words and soundscapes offers rare insight into aspects of a country so often overshadowed by news reports focusing on drugs, corruption and social decay. It also gives us an opportunity to learn more about the crucial role of the photographer as cultural and historical documentarian.

 

Popcork Report: Sumac Ridge Estate Winery is Canada’s #1

Blitz Magazine, January 2000

You may recall the days when everyone drank wine. Not just with meals—at many ’80s cocktail parties, water was the only alternative. The wine was invariably French or Italian. Then the Californians started to catch on, then the Australians. Then the BC wines…

BC wines? There was also a time when the idea of serving of a BC wine was unthinkable. Today, BC wines rank among the finest in the world. Leading this charge to the fore has been the Sumac Ridge Estate Winery and its president, Harry McWatters.

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McWatters began making wine, as a hobby, when he was 16. Eventually, he became head of sales and marketing at Penticton-based Casabello Wines then, in 1979, teamed up with a partner to start a winery. They purchased Summerland’s Sumac Ridge Golf & Country Club, continued to operate the course (for cash flow) and planted grapes on 13 of its 41 acres.

“Opening a winery is a huge undertaking,” says McWatters. “We mortgaged our homes, coerced friends into putting up capital, and our families worked their butts off. We hired a consulting wine-maker, but we felt we knew what we were doing. We had great passion for wine, we knew we could produce exquisite wines and we had an excellent understanding of the marketplace. On the other hand, we also learned a lot of hard lessons.”

The creation of Sumac was made possible in 1977 when, in response to lobbying initiated by BC’s grape-growers, the provincial government passed an Order in Council allowing the establishment of cottage wineries. Wineries had to have a minimum of 20 acres of producing vineyard land, use 100% BC-grown grapes, source 50% of grapes from their own land and not exceed 20,000 produced gallons. McWatters lobbied a little further and had that increased to 30,000 gallons, or 15,000 cases.

Thus, Sumac became BC’s first ‘estate’ winery. Now, BC has 15 estate wineries, 4 commercial (large) wineries and 41 farm gate (cottage) wineries.

Sumac produced its first vintage in 1980. It has sold the golf course, but the Summerland winery remains with 15 acres producing Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir and Riesling grapes. In nearby Oliver, the company owns the 100-acre Black Sage vineyard, which produces Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Sumac purchases grapes from other respected vineyards in the region and produces 25 wines in quantities of 125 to 10,000 cases, depending on the product. Annual sales are now $9.25 million.

In 1998, Sumac was voted Winery of the Year by Wine Access magazine’s annual review of Canadian wineries. That year, Sumac was the most internationally awarded winery, receiving 21 Gold medals, 25 Silver medals, 33 Bronze medals and 6 Prestigious Trophies. Last year, the Globe & Mail named it Canada’s top winery. Its Pinot Blanc Ice Wine was awarded Grand Gold at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, it was BC’s first producer of methode champenoise sparkling wine, and it was the first BC winery to produce a Meritage wine (Meritage is a special, exclusive blend of traditional Bordeaux grape varieties.) McWatters also became the second Canadian in 77 years to win the prestigious Marketer of the Year award from the North American Agri-Food Marketing Association.

The reason for this honour was two-fold. First, it was in recognition of the aggressive marketing activities with which McWatters established his winery’s identity. It was also in recognition of the fact that he has done so much for his industry. He was the founding chairman of the Okanagan Wine Festival, which attracts 73,000 visitors and is in its 19th year. He was the driving force in the creation of the Penticton Wine Information Centre. He is the chairman of VQA Canada, which oversees standards and deals with international trade issues; and he is Vice-Chairman of his industry’s national lobbying arm, the Canadian Wine Institute. Perhaps most significantly, he was the founding chairman of the BC Wine Institute, a trade association representing all BC wineries and its 200 grape growers. More specifically, McWatters was instrumental in introducing the institute’s VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) program.

“We had to have a VQA program—it was for the benefit of everyone in this industry,” explains McWatters. “We knew that we could not flourish if we did not have a strong industry within which we could do business. Our competition isn’t in Peachland—it’s in other countries. International wine producers can afford to work on smaller margins in BC and they’re always going to beat us on price. We have to beat them on quality and value.”

The VQA program, which came into effect in 1990, was the largest single thing that changed the direction of the BC wine industry. That year, all hybrid grapes—those that were a cross between North American and European varieties—were removed from the region. That eliminated the ‘foxy’ grape juice-style wines and left the Okanagan/Similkameen with a foundation of 1,000 acres of premium vinifera (true European) grapes. In 1993, winery owners planted 100,000 plants from France—the best varieties, the best root stalks for BC’s growing conditions. Today, the region has 4,000 planted acres, with less than 400 bearing non-vinifera plants.

The VQA program requires that grapes have a certain threshold of quality before winemaking begins, and that wines be made according to strict guidelines. For example, if the label says ‘Chardonnay’, the fruit used must be at least 85% grown in the region identified on the bottle and it must taste like Chardonnay. If a vintner blended that wine with 15% Muscat, it would change the character of the Chardonnay and the tasting panel would reject it. 

The VQA panels meet monthly; one panel consists of three winemakers and three people with no connection to any winery. While 150 samples may be tasted in one month, no panel ever tastes more than 50. All tasters have been tested for their ability to recognize qualities and faults. They’ve also been trained to score the wines in standard descriptors, or common terms. Panelists can’t, for example, reject a wine because it ‘smells like soap’. They have to use specific descriptors to say what’s wrong with the wine so that the vintner can fix it. (Wineries submit barrel samples. If the samples are approved, they bottle the wine. If the wine is rejected, the error is rectified and a second sample is tested.)

As it takes a clear majority to approve a wine and every wine that comes out of BC is tested before getting the VQA designation, it should be impossible to have a VQA wine from BC with a fault, and everything on the label—the vintage, variety, region and characteristics should make a quality statement.

“We’ve come a long way,” says McWatters. “The whole industry has undergone tremendous evolution. In the early ‘80s, BC wine did not have a good reputation—we used to say that there were two types of consumers: those that took it out of the paper bag and those that didn’t. There have always been very respectable table wines produced here, but buying them was like playing roulette—you didn’t know if you were getting high-alcohol grape juice or a serious table wine. It was difficult to get people to recognize that some estate wineries were producing quality wines, and serious wine consumers didn’t support us.”

North Americans have always had a strange relationship with wine. For the average North American in the 50s and 60s, wine was for special occasions and the Smart Cocktail was the beverage of choice. Meanwhile, however, Baby Boomers were drinking soda pop. In the mid-70s, when they started drinking alcohol, they still wanted cold, sweet and bubbly–hence the success of products like Baby Duck.

Then people’s tastes became more sophisticated, possibly due to greater interaction between Europe and North America and the influence of the Mediterranean diet. North Americans became more concerned with diet, nutrition and consumption levels. They began to demand better food and wines—and they could afford to pay for it. At home, improvements in BC’s wine quality grew to the point where, in 1980, over 50% of wine consumed in BC was produced in BC. Today it’s 60%. In the 60s, respectable women wouldn’t go into a liquor store; today, 60% of wine purchases are made by women.

Women are a key focus for wine marketers. “We think of the wine market as being dominated by men,” says McWatters. “In fact, while men get more into wine knowledge and analysis; women more readily identify wines and decide whether or not they like them—they actually have more taste buds and are more sensitive to flavours. Also, an increasing number of wine-makers are women. Still, restaurants servers always ask the man for the wine order, then present the wine to him. He may order, but the female at that table has more to do with the choice.”

The Sumac target market is the wine-knowledgeable consumer, with the prime focus being white-cloth restaurant patrons. (At liquor stores, Sumac’s wines are priced at $10 to $25.) The Sumac customer is aged 30-55 years, but McWatters has been trying to broaden that. He knows, for example, that people in their early 20s do not drink wine as often as the industry would like them to. He’s now looking at university students.

“They’re not yet at our price point. But the mass-producers of the world are spending more energy and money on them and that will help us. The industry tends to intimidate customers with pomp and ceremony—it’s much easier to twist the cap off a bottle of beer than it is to extract a cork, smell, swirl and spit.”

On a per-capita basis, Vancouver consumes more wine than any other North American market (with the exception of Washington, DC—it consumes a lot more wine, but relatively few people actually live there). And one of the largest purchasing motivators in BC is the growing pride in buying Canadian—more and more consumers seek it out. This pride is one of the reasons why McWatters enters his wines in so many competitions.

“Awards get the attention of consumers, and we need to reinforce the pride of buying Canadian. Third-party endorsements are so important. When consumers hear recommendations from people they trust or perceive to be experts, they try the wine then buy it again and again.”

As McWatters explains, a key factor in marketing quality wine is, obviously, working with restaurant owners and staff.

“When it comes to selling to licensees, sales calls are crucial—you’re often chosen for listing on the basis of the rapport you have with the restaurant owner. Our first sales call to a restaurant is an introduction and a discussion of the restaurant. This is an area where you accomplish more through listening—you find out about purchasing volumes, wine sales relative to food sales and the restaurant’s customers.

“We don’t just drop off bottles and go away. We work with the servers. Whether they’re professional waiters or students working their way through university, we need servers to try the product and have enough information so they can feel comfortable talking to the customer about it. Then they can sell it and get more tips in their pockets.

“To make that time and product commitment, we have to be on that restaurant’s wine list. We win the restaurateur’s confidence and often help him with his list—good restaurateurs know that they should learn from their suppliers.”

Sales are aided by two types of brochures: one providing basic information about the vineyard, its philosophy, its range of wines; the other is an elaborate booklet which includes photographs of wine, discusses them in more detail and adds a corporate statement. McWatters has four sales reps working from the winery, handling Alberta and most of BC. The BC Lower Mainland is covered by International Cellars, which has three reps handling Sumac. Five other agencies cover the rest of Canada; two American importers represent Sumac through their own distribution channels.

Sumac participates in countless shows, often in cooperation with distributors and agents (they provide the manpower, share the participation fee and Sumac provides the product).

“The wine shows and competitions are a very important part of our business,” continues McWatters. “We do a lot of food and wine-pairing shows, with the Beef Information Board, for example. The Okanagan has 150 events. We do on-site promotions such as winemakers’ dinners, pig roasts, a lobster festival. And we do a huge number of trade tastings—things like Canada a la Carte, which is for restaurateurs, retailers and media. Then there are the charity events…our promotional and marketing budget is $1.5 million.

“But it’s money well spent. All promotions are interdependent. If you just did the shows and nothing else, the shows would be less valuable. The shows are valuable because you get people’s attention, measure their responses, introduce new products and take orders.

“The competitions can get pricey—the least expensive cost three bottles of wine at $25 each, then you go to something like the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London and it’s six bottles at 100 British Pounds each. But if you win, you have that extra prestige and the extra PR advantage.

To reach consumers who are already interested in wine and the culinary arts, McWatters spends $20,000 a year on print advertising—on ads, advertorial and inserts into magazines like BC Wine Trails, Wine Access and Wine Tidings. A small, though no less valuable, advertising expenditure is the $2,500 he spends on radio advertising in the Okanagan region. The purpose of that is to get people to visit the winery.

The wineries of the Okanagan Similkameen are now the region’s number one tourist draw. Not that long ago, beaches were the number one draw—now beaches are number five, behind golf, skiing and camping. And the income generated by winery visits is nothing to sneeze at: last year, Sumac’s visitors generated $450,000, including $50,000 in sales of things like glasses, cork screws, garments and books.

Today, the Summerland winery consists of the Cellar Door Bistro, a wine deck, a picnic site, a tasting room and the wine shop. Tours run all day, with 200 visitors daily during the May-October season. Guests usually stay an hour. While they wait for their tour, they have a glass of wine or browse in the wine shop. The 30-minute guided tour is designed to educate, remove the mystique and make guests feel comfortable. They taste four wines, including the champagne; they understand how the wine is made—and why it costs more. Then, hopefully, they buy more wine before they leave.

“The winery visits are a key component of marketing this business,” explains McWatters. “My profit margin is much higher if I can make a sale at the winery. Also, the longer they stay, the more we broaden their experience. Which means that they may only buy one or two bottles here, but they’ll buy the wine again when they get home.”

Perhaps over the Internet. Sumac was also the first BC winery to establish a web site (www.sumacridge.com). It is an extremely thorough site which includes a complete vineyard tour, information on the BC Wine Institute, maps, product listings, recipes, a guide to food and wine combining and a sales page with special Internet prices in US and Canadian dollars. There are tips on how to pronounce wine names and terminology, plus press releases and events and awards up-dates.

“We don’t use the site as effectively as other wineries use theirs, but we do recognize the power of it,” McWatters continues. “When we went on-line four years ago, it was the most comprehensive winery site in the world. Now, it produces less revenue than it costs to maintain it–we continue with it because retailers and restaurateurs use it.

“We believed we’d sell more wine from the web site—unfortunately, we have to turn down as many sales as we accept because we get so many orders from American states where we can’t ship to. There’s open free trade only between Canada and 13 states—we can’t ship to Florida, for example. But we believe that those market channels will open up as restrictions are tested in the courts. Still, we remind people about the site—it’s another tool.

“Marketing wine is a complex business. You have to do many things. We aren’t selling to the mass market, so just spending an advertising budget would be a complete waste of money. We’ve developed a niche for ourselves and, within that niche, we have to communicate the message to consumers that the wines of Sumac Ridge—and of this region—are best quality, food-friendly wines made to the highest standards. You can buy merlot anywhere in the world, but our wines are of a unique quality which you can’t find anywhere else.”

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