In Latin, it means “take note.” In Canada, it means take note of Black Hills Estate Winery.
One of the most successful wineries in the country, British Columbia-based Black Hills offers wines crafted from grapes grown on the Black Sage Road vineyard, regarded as one of the finest in Canada. Each of its wine releases over the past six years have sold out within days, and its Nota Bene label sold out in minutes.
So how has this small winery developed such a cult following?
The answer lies within the passion of its president and CEO, Glenn Fawcett, and his constant push to make people happy. In 1982, as a student at the University of Calgary, he launched Bust Loose Holidays, a very successful tour operator that took college students on vacations around the world. He ran the company for 10 years before he sold it. An avid entrepreneur, Fawcett was involved in five other start-up ventures until his true calling found him.
“I was visiting Napa Valley with my wife and we were enjoying the wineries there,” recalls Fawcett. “I loved it and felt like I had found my home. The winery business intrigued me, and I wanted more. So I started running wine tours in British Columbia, and I had an epiphany: it dawned on me that everyone would love to own a winery, but only if someone else did the work.”
So Fawcett applied the country-club business model to the wine industry. “It was perfect,” he says. “I’d gather a talented management team and bring in limited partners who would be proud to own it.”
The first step was to find an existing winery. Fawcett heard that the owners of Black Hill Estate Winery were looking to sell. The winery had an initial inventory, and a complete facility was in place. It just needed Fawcett’s promotion expertise—and his passion. And so, in 2007, Fawcett and his partners, one of whom is actor Jason Priestly, purchased it.
“It was ready to be taken to the next level,” Fawcett says. “We created a ‘go forward’ plan. We kept the manager and attracted the best new winemaker, Graham Pierce, who was a rising star in the business. The former winemaker also stayed to help us transition the winemaking reins to Graham.”
Fawcett, who was a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Hospitality & Tourism Category for the Pacific region of Canada in 2011, says his previous experience reporting to shareholders and boards of directors has been vital in making this arrangement work.
“If you keep investors informed—of good and bad—you keep everyone on same page, and you don’t spend all of your time answering questions,” he says.
With the operation working well, Fawcett knew it took relationships to sell wine. So, in 2012, Black Hills Estate Winery opened a $1 million Wine Experience Centre.
“Before we opened the new Wine Experience Centre, we offered guided wine tastings three times a day in a 200-square-foot vineyard lounge,” Fawcett says. “We could only accommodate 10 people at a time, and we were frequently turning away customers who wanted to taste our wine. The new building allows a great opportunity to educate customers about wine. Our goal was to create a customer experience that would build a deep, rich relationship. We can now seat 50, and people can come and go as they choose. Wine sales in our shop have doubled. More importantly, we have developed many new long-term customer relationships with our guests.”
Black Hills Estate Winery also sells wine through the Internet and by mail order, and the wine is served at select fine restaurants. The company sold 8,000 cases in 2012 and is on track to sell 10,000 cases in 2013. Fawcett also recently oversaw completion of a 6,000-square-foot winery addition, to both further enhance quality and accommodate the increase in production.
“All of our wine is handmade, which creates a more exacting taste,” he says. “Our business is all about quality.”
As Fawcett looks ahead, he says he wants to stay focused on high-quality winemaking and becoming the best winery in Canada. To widen its reach, Black Hills Estate Winery is also releasing a new label called Cellar Hand, which is at a lower price point than the company’s other offerings. And Black Hills is looking for more opportunities to hold events and develop relationships with customers.
“This business is more fun than I thought,” Fawcett says. “When I ran the tourist company, I was used to my customers being in an ‘up’ state of mind. I was pleasantly surprised to see that most everyone inside the wine industry is in that same state of mind—from our investors to the people who sell the labels and the corks, to the staff working in the vineyard. Wine is such a business of passion.”
With all this in tow, it’s no surprise that Fawcett has found his true calling with Black Hills Estate Winery. “I’ve found my passion,” he says, “and it is so fulfilling to be doing this with so many people who share that passion!”