Monday, July 14, 2008

Changeover at Chalet Winery

I need to get out to this winery and try it out. We had the Ortega wine we bought at Starling Lane the week - a decent white, though white has never been my thing.

Peninsula News Review
Changeover at Chalet Winery

By Cat George - Peninsula News Review

Published: July 09, 2008 11:00 AM
Updated: July 09, 2008 11:08 AM

Deep Cove location proved irresistible to the new owners

When Jane and Peter Ellman began looking for a small winery they could buy, they looked in a lot of different locations: the Okanagan, Oregon, Washington, the Lower Mainland.

“We were almost ready to buy one in Oliver and then this one came up on the Internet,” said Jane. “We decided to drive over and check it out.”

That was last August, and the sight of the serene, beautiful location was enough to convince the Ellmans. On May 1 of this year, they officially took over ownership of Chalet Estate Winery in North Saanich from Michael Betts and Linda Plimley.

Although it’s their first time with a winery of their own, both the Ellmans bring a wealth of experience in related industries to their new endeavour. Jane worked for the Marriott hotel chain in the United States for 16 years, both as a director of sales and a general manager. She even helped open a number of hotel properties. Peter, a chef by trade, had owned restaurants and then worked in a food and wine brokerage. In 2002, they were both on the road a lot for work. “My parents were ready to retire,” said Jane. “We had one young kid, and one on the way. I traveled with my job and Peter was on the road; [my parents] asked us to run their business in Edmonton, so I could stay home with the baby.”

So they headed to Alberta, where they took over the business for Jane’s parents for six years, working in the oil field/manufacturing business. When Jane’s father passed away in 2006, they decided it was time to move on. “The business was not for us,” she said, although she noted that selling oil rig mats was more lucrative than the winery business. “We told my Mom it was not in our hearts, and that our dream was to one day have a small winery.”

The only fear in the decision to buy in North Saanich was that they wouldn’t be able to make the big reds that they both enjoy so much, but Betts assured them that he did reds that required a warmer growing environment by bringing in grapes from the Okanagan. “It was the best of both worlds, we could still do the reds from the Okanagan and live in this beautiful spot,” Jane said. “This move, for us, was about a whole quality of life. We wanted the kids to grow up with country living.”

As neither Jane nor Peter are expert oenologists (winemakers), they decided to retain Betts as a consultant. Peter said that through his contacts with California wineries, they could have brought in an American winemaker, but felt there was no need to bring someone in when Betts already knew the products and the land.

That’s not to say that everything will be same-old, same-old at Chalet Estate over the next few years, as the Ellmans have brought their own particular vision of what the winery can be. They do intend to continue along a line already popular at Chalet — the combination of art, music, and wine. “We want to focus on art, music, and the corporate market,” said Jane, adding that while you could “never say never,” they didn’t think there would be much focus on the vineyard as a setting for weddings. “We can only do so much.”

The site has already played host to a corporate event since they arrived and Jane said that some changes in licensing — adding a deli license, for example, which would allow them to serve platters of local food — would make those even better. As for the artists, they are looking to bring even more on board. “We’ve put a call out to artists for an artists series of labels,” said Jane, adding that they were considering having an artist-in-residence program.

There are also plans afoot to start a “locals’ night,” when the winery would be open later and host wine pairings and offer local discounts. Some of the projects, however, may be a little down the road. “Everything we do, we want to do really well,” Jane said. “First impressions are so important.”

In the bottles, things will continue as they are for this season, as the Ellmans bought all of the wine inventory, including what was still barrelled, when they bought the winery. The grapes that grow on the property — three acres of Ortega, Pinot Gris, Bacchus, and Marechal Foch, enough for 640 cases — will continue in the line-up. “That’s what grows very well here, and we don’t mean to change that,” said Jane. (Some of the ‘local’ specialties, like Ortega, were a surprise for the Ellmans when they arrived, but they quickly found they enjoyed them.) Outside those products, however, Peter has well-laid plans for the upcoming seasons. He just returned from a trip to the Okanagan, where he was sourcing grapes for reds. “We’re going to trim back,” he said. “Too many labels is too confusing. We’re going to focus on what we do best.”

In the red, that’s going to include bigger reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon. “We’re going to start bringing in the correct grapes to make it,” Peter said, noting that while it can simply be a blend of Cabernet and Merlot, it can also be more complex. To that end, he’s picked up some of the Bordeaux varietals, like Malbec. “You can’t make big dog reds with chihuahuas,” he said with a laugh.

Sparkling wines, as well, aren’t too far off. With these changes, the five year plan has the winery rise in production from 2,500 cases a year to 8,500, and the market grow from mainly local — Vancouver Island and a little Lower Mainland — to nation-wide.

Since they took over in May, Jane said, things have been crazy; they leapt in right away and tastings have been buzzing ever since. The beautiful location has helped the transition; their children can easily walk to nearby Deep Cove school, and Peter and Jane can relax on the vineyard patio and watch the resident eagle family fly about. Between the relaxing and the busy moments, however, Jane has had time to think about what challenges the future will hold.

“The challenge, as for most wineries, is to ensure we continue making good wines, as good as Michael made,” she said. “Hand-crafted, high-quality wine. And continue on with farming organically.” Beyond the wines themselves, she sees the market heating up on all sides. “People now see the Island has potential. For a while, it was only the Okanagan, and now it’s really opened up, and there’s always competition with that. We have something going for us; it’s not just people coming into the shop, they can come sit in the vineyard, have a glass of wine, wander through the vines, and make it a really nice experience for tourists.”

Chalet Estate Winery is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. for tasting, Tuesday to Sunday.

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