“If one door closes, another door opens, I’m a big believer in that,” says former Lailey Vineyard partner and winemaker Derek Barnett, who, for the first time in 15 years, finds himself without a job.
Barnett elected not to sign on with the new owners of Lailey, John Chang and wife Allison Lu, who closed the deal for purchasing the iconic Niagara-on-the-Lake winery on Friday.
The Lailey family — which had listed the winery, property and vineyards for sale for years — finally found a buyer in Chang and Lu, who immigrated to Canada from Taiwan in 1995.
The couple already own Lulu Island Winery in B.C. with its icewine production accounting for almost 50 per cent of all of that province’s icewine, of which 80 percent is exported to China, Japan and Taiwan. That accounts for almost 20 per cent of all Canadian wine export to China, according to a story in a Richmond newspaper.
Another property, Grizzli Winery in the Okanagan Valley, is under construction with the grand opening scheduled for spring 2016. Another Niagara property acquisition is said to be in the works.
As for Barnett, there is some sadness at not being part of a project that he nurtured from the start 15 years ago when the Lailey family moved from grape growers to winemakers and signed up Barnett on as a partner in the new venture.
The wine portfolio at Lailey is coveted by wine collectors and is well placed on top restaurant wine lists throughout Ontario.
Some of the key pieces in the portfolio include the Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Gewurztraminers from the Old Vines planted at Lailey in 1978, the single-vineyard Brickyard Vineyard wines and the Canadian oak aged wines, which Barnett pioneered in Niagara.
“Sometimes I made too many wines,” Barnett said today in a phone interview. “But it brought people to our doors.”
Barnett is most proud of the fact that his wines “showed a sense of place — they were what they were. The wines are balanced, fruitful and, for the most part, age-worthy.”
Barnett has no idea what the next chapter has in store for him, but after “a little down time” he will chart the next course, which could possibly include a virtual winery under his own label.
As for Lailey under the new owners? A lot of rumours are floating around right now of old-vine vineyards being torn up, production turning entirely to icewine and the entire 2015 vintage being scrapped all together.
Ed Haddon, former marketing manager for Lailey and now manager of retail operations with the new owners, and the “last man standing” from the former staff, can’t comment on all the rumours swirling because he hasn’t heard them and has had no time to dig into social media sites.
But he says Lailey will be back open for business in a day or two while new computers are brought in and the switch is made from one owner to another.
He said the sale of Lailey went through in two stages; the first stage, which included the property and dwellings, closed July 1 and the second phase, the winery and business end, closed Friday.
He says some renovations will take place and some minor label changes will occur but nothing drastic that he’s aware of.
As for vineyards being ripped out to make way for more icewine grapes, he’s only aware of some Vidal coming out to be replaced by Riesling. The key vineyards, Brickyard and Old Vines, are still there.
Haddon does anticipate an increase in icewine production and an increase in export to Asian markets. As for the 2015 vintage, the vineyards were hit hard with winter damage and production will be well down.
As for who will make the wines in the future and finish the wines already started? Haddon has no idea. “We’re winemakerless right now,” he said.
Who is John Chang?
The Richmond Review newspaper published a story on July 15 after Chang was named one of the RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrants in 2015 for being the biggest Canadian exporter of icewine to Asia.
Chang moved from Taiwan to Canada in 1995 with his wife Allison Lu and was an entrepreneur who started from scratch.
He is president and co-owner along with Lu of the Lulu Island Winery in B.C.
Chang left behind his PC board production company in Taiwan, looking for a new opportunity. Inspired by his father who was a farmer, he dedicated himself to producing wine.
In 2000, he founded Blossom Winery, which was renamed Lulu Island Winery in 2007.
Chang told the Richmond newspaper that there are three key guidelines to running a successful business: quality, customer service and innovation.
“We please the customers with top-notch services to make sure buyers are fully satisfied with the company’s products,” he said.
Chang strived to make his business unique. His first fruitful step was making blueberry wine, a unique item in the wine industry, in 2001. Next up in Chang’s exclusive productions is ice brandy.
In 2013, Lulu Island Winery’s icewine production was almost 50 per cent of B.C.’s icewine production, of which 80 percent is exported to China, Japan and Taiwan. That accounts for almost 20 per cent of all Canadian wine export to China.
Chang’s vision is to own four wineries in Canada — two in the west and two in the east. Chang opened Lulu Island Winery in 2009 and bought Lailey Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Friday. His third, Grizzli Winery in the Okanagan Valley, is under construction with the grand opening scheduled for spring 2016. Chang is looking to open another winery within the Niagara region in 2017 to complete his vision and winery empire.
Winery for sale
This is the blurb that ran on a real estate site when Lailey was listed for sale at $6 million:
“Do you dream of quitting the cubicle, retiring to the countryside, perhaps buying a farm or even a vineyard? If so, this property is for you! The picturesque 23-acre Lailey Estate Winery is set in a perfect location on the Niagara River Parkway a main tourist route through the heart of Niagara wine country between Niagara Falls and the old town of Niagara on the Lake once voted the prettiest town in Canada.
See here for gallery.