Canada: Meyer Family Vineyards: Going Against The Flow

JAK and Janice Meyer arrived in the Okanagan in 2006 with plans to open a small hobby vineyard. Wine industry virgins, they had plenty of passion but no experience. "We needed a couple of years of on-the-job training for us to fully understand what it would take" JAK explained. "I would say 2008 was when we really entered the wine business. Once we saw the quality of wines that could be made in the Okanagan along with how much fun it was to meet people from across Canada and the world that wanted to hear our story - it was easy to make the decision to grow and invest."

When one looks at the long list of accolades that Meyer Family Vineyards has collected it is hard to believe they are the new kids on the block. The Meyers have good reason to be proud of successes like these: Canada's number one Chardonnay for two years running from the National Wine Awards, a string of 90+ rankings from International critics like Steven Spurrier and Jancis Robinson and distribution into six countries outside of Canada.

Beginners luck? Not even a little bit. With a background in venture capital, JAK and Janice knew that the most successful start-ups had capital but also the right people. And in the wine industry that means the right winemaker. Meyer's winemaker is Canadian Chris Carson who, while living in New Zealand, got "bit by the bug". After studying oenology and viticulture at Lincoln University in NZ, he spent the next 10 years there along with several guest-appearances for vintages in Montrachet and Napa. In 2008, Chris was looking for an opportunity to return to Canada and when the Meyers saw his impressive resume and focus on Chardonnay and Pinot - they knew they had found the right fit. Carson has gone on to become one of Canada's most highly awarded winemakers.

From the start, quality has been at the heart of Meyer Family Vineyards strategy even when it comes to their distribution. Rather than taking the fast route utilizing the Government liquor store channel, they started selling into the best accounts which have a much slower turnover. Despite taking longer, this established their reputation as a high quality producer. As JAK says, "The sales trickle down to consumers and the word gets out. Our licensee versus direct-to-consumer mix was about 70-30, which is the exact opposite of the industry standards. We established the licensee business first and are now starting to see the direct-to-consumer business explode." 

Rather than trying to have something for everyone, JAK and Janice committed to only a few varietals and specialized on those products. "You cannot make all wines for all people," JAK explained, "we chose Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as our primary focus and are considered to be amongst the best in Canada for those varietals. We chose those varietals as we felt they were best suited to the Okanagan and the terroir of our sites. We are now seeing many wineries following suit, becoming more focused and varietal specific and are proud to have been one of the first producers to do so."

Another thing that distinguishes MFV from the more than 130 wineries in the valley and 230 in BC, is their way of giving back to the community. Each year, with their Tribute Series wine, the Meyers honour a Canadian for an outstanding achievement in their field, donating $5000 to the honorees choice of non-profit foundation, endowment or scholarship. They explained that "in this business it takes years to become profitable but we made a decision to start with our Tribute series from day one. It is a commitment to help support the community which has now become synonymous with our wine."

Canadian wine production is just a small drop on the global scale, ranking 31 after Croatia and Algeria. The small production volume is one of the reasons it is unusual to see Canadian wine by even the biggest players outside of our borders. So why did the Meyers continue to go against the current even here? "We are seeing a willingness in the International wine world to carry Canadian wines on their lists due to an ever increasing awareness of the quality of wines coming out of our region." JAK continued "we are at the forefront of this and export about 10% of our wines outside of Canada. Despite the low margins, we feel it is an obligation to showcase Canadian wines and in order for people to try our wines they have to be available."

As many entrepreneurs with family businesses like JAK and Janice's can attest to, challenges abound. So how has Crowe MacKay LLP helped the Meyers in tackling those challenges? "Crowe MacKay has helped us to be able to understand our cash flow and financial picture which has been critical in growing and going forward. The nature of this business is to have significant expenses and losses in the early years especially when you are growing or waiting for new vines to kick in. It is hard to not be down when seeing the financials. But by putting them into perspective or seeing them within industry standards showed us we were doing a lot of the right things and we had to just keep going until cash flow could catch up. We are at that point now but it has been a long road."

The Meyer's most valuable lesson since starting the winery? "Maintain your commitment to quality. If you make good wine, people will find you. There will always be a push to sell through discounted channels or make and sell lower priced wines, but you have to just stay the course."

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