Last year, veteran food industry executive Carl Sparkes fulfilled a long-time dream to get into the wine business, setting up Devonian Coast Wineries and buying Nova Scotia's biggest winery, Jost Vineyards, from its founding family. Now he has big plans to turn his wines into serious national brands, dramatically increase production, and make a name for Nova Scotia wines across the country.
Why did you decide to buy the Jost winery when it came up for sale?
In 2005 I had left corporate life, and I wanted to move back to Atlantic Canada. I spent about 18 months looking for businesses to buy, and in that mix were wineries. I looked at three wineries but they just didn't have what I was looking for, which was scalability and export potential. I then spent a number of years in the private equity game, until Jost just came out of the blue.
Will it be hard to boost Jost's reputation?
Older people in particular remember it when it wasn't very good wine, and they still have a bit of a tough time with the brand. But you can make that transition.
Are you hoping to follow the same kind of path that Ontario wines followed?
When I first moved to Ontario in 1995, you would never be caught dead bringing an Ontario wine to dinner, or ordering an Ontario wine when you were out. But by the time I left, it was very cool to discover new esoteric types of wines to bring to dinner and tell the whole story. You were very smart and cultured if you were drinking local and eating local. My job as a winery owner and marketer is to give Nova Scotians permission to be proud of their own wines.
What about selling outside of Nova Scotia?
The style of wine that we produce here, crisp aromatic whites in particular, are actually on trend right now throughout the world. I associate it with food trends toward lighter and Asian fare, which have driven a lot of the white wine consumption. [At the same time] there is a natural curiosity, and consumers are seeking novelty. They are also looking for new experiences, and I think we offer that.
How will you get people in other parts of the country to try the company's wines?
There are more Maritimers spread across this country than you can shake a stick at, and they are networked. I know how to find them. And they are great disciples of things that they like from back home. They are missionary sales people.
Those people are sitting in Calgary or Edmonton, and they are having their lobster sent out from Nova Scotia, and they should have their Jost Tidal Bay wine for their backyard event with their neighbours.
My problem right now is that I don't have sufficient quantity [to sell all across the country].
How will you deal with that?
We have to ramp up. We are planting more grapes. I am contracting as much as I can. And I am investing in my existing growers. If they will plant an extra acre I will pay for the vines as well as part of the trellis, so they have some cash flow and are not just out of pocket.
Are you also cutting some of the lower quality wines off the Jost portfolio?
Yes, and not just the lower quality wines, but those that do not have much differentiation – that are too close together in style.
Will you keep the Jost name?
Absolutely. But one brand can't cover off all categories, despite the fact that we have a strong penetration and strong market share. I think I probably need four or five brands in a portfolio. What I would like to do is to create more definition for each brand.
Where would you hope to be five years from now?
In five years we will have some leading wines, right across Canada. I want to be in every province. I want people to be well versed in Nova Scotia wine, and our brands in particular. And we should be two-and-a-half times our size, at least.
Is marketing wine different from marketing other food products?
The key lever you have is a consumer's level of involvement and the relative importance of your category to them. The last [food brand] I was involved with was Bento Sushi, which had a cult-like following. I thought I had reached the pinnacle, until I came into the wine category. Consumers have such a thirst for information and knowledge. They love to talk about wine. They are looking for the story. You don't sit around and talk about your burger, or your fries, or any other food item, the way you talk about wine.
The previous owner, whose family started the business back in 1983, stayed on at the winery for a year. Did that work out?
With businesses that I have taken over in the past, the transition was very fast. The prior owner or CEO would not have lasted more than one quarter. Here, I think I made a mistake in having [previous owner] Hans Christian Jost here for a full year. It felt awkward. My wife said it was like we bought a house and the owners were still living there.
Who designs the wine now that Hans Christian Jost has left?
I literally searched the world for a new wine maker. [I wanted] a young wine maker who had a lot of experience in different parts of the world, and was ready to make his mark. In little old Nova Scotia, the right guy with the right talent can really make a name for himself.
So I found this young guy, Chris Frey. He was living in Zurich. I give him a lot of latitude, which he didn't really have in other larger wineries. The guy is just on a roll. He created four new wines this year that are still in barrels and tanks. I really got lucky.
Were there things that surprised you when you bought the business?
Yes, mostly good. [For example I found that] Jost has a 49-per-cent penetration among wine drinkers in Nova Scotia. Almost half of all the people who drink wine in Nova Scotia will drink a Jost product in the course of a month. That was a huge surprise to me.
Do you worry that this is a vanity project, a dream purchase, and that it could go sour?
Vanity vineyards, I call them. There are a lot of them out there and most of them are failing. But the business model that we have here works. Yes, I'll do some vanity stuff. I'll create some better wines. But creating great wines – to show we can do it – helps the entire enterprise.
Is there wine produced in the other Atlantic provinces?
We can get grapes from all four provinces, even Newfoundland. There are a couple of little vineyards over there. In fact, I am planting vines this summer in Newfoundland. This time last year I sent over vines to be propagated in experimental greenhouses. It is a tough climate, but some of these hybrid grapes were designed for exactly this.
President, Devonian Coast Wineries Ltd.
Born in Bay Roberts, Nfld.; 54 years old.
B.Sc. in geology from Memorial University, St. John's; MBA from Saint Mary's University, Halifax.
Joined Eastern Bakeries Ltd. in 1987, becoming president in 1992.
President of Canada Bread subsidiary Olivieri Foods from 1996 to 2000.
Ran Canada Bread's fresh bakery arm from 2000 to 2004.
CEO of sushi maker Bento Nouveau from 2009 to 2011.
Set up Devonian Coast Wineries Ltd. in 2012 and bought Jost Vineyards.