Alberta wine goes international

Spirit Hills just put Alberta’s cottage wine industry on the world stage.

Or on the Japanese stage, at least. The southern Alberta honey winery just became the province’s first cottage winery to export its products internationally. In a press release yesterday, Spirit Hills stated that its wines will be available in high-end department stores, five-star hotels, restaurants and wine bars throughout Japan, beginning in May 2017. The wines are being imported by Eleven International, the Japanese importer that started developing the Japanese market for Ontario icewine 17 years ago.

I had a great conversation with Hugo Bonjean, Spirit Hills proprietor, to learn more about this milestone.

“It wasn’t in our business plan at all – I don’t think export was ever in our business plan!” Bonjean begins, laughing. “We really originally started with just setting up a little retirement business for Ilse [Bonjean’s wife] and me, and we never had pictured it as big as it is now. What happened was the kids got involved … and then Alberta took a real [economic] downturn and the moment that happened, I really started to look for alternative markets.”

Originally, Bonjean planned to expand province-by-province across Canada, beginning with Saskatchewan. While Spirit Hills did manage to enter the Saskatchewan market last year, the process turned out to be a lot more difficult than expected thanks to Canada’s fragmented, provincial-based liquor system: each province is very protective of its own market and gives premium shelf space to its local products, but often blocks outside producers outright.

“That, in essence, forced us to look outside of the country,” Bonjean says.

Spirit Hills’ entrance into the Asian market came about through a partnership with Alberta’s ministry of Economic Development and Trade. Bonjean says he basically just called them up and asked for help. They connected him to the network of Alberta trade offices in Asia, and Bonjean says they were with him every step of the way.

“It was an aspect of government I didn’t even know existed and it has significantly increased my appreciation for governmental bureaucracy and the service that they can deliver,” Bonjean says.

That’s certainly not something you hear very often, he admits, and hopefully it bodes well for other Alberta wine and liquor producers who would like to export.

Spirit Hills owner Hugo Bonjean in Japan
Spirit Hills owner Hugo Bonjean in Japan

Bonjean’s first foray into Asia was a food expo in Taipei, Taiwan. He hadn’t planned to enter the Taiwanese market, but notes it was a good training ground before tackling the much bigger market of Japan.

Initially, the Japanese weren’t particularly receptive to his wines. They were concerned that they were too sweet since they are made from honey. This isn’t actually the case, as Spirit Hills’ wines are a bit unusual: kind of like a honey-fruit wine hybrid, they are mostly dry and designed to be food-friendly.

Spirit Hills caught the attention of Mr. Matsuda, the owner of Eleven International, after the wine was featured at a tasting seminar with Japanese sommeliers. They tasted the Spirit Hills wine last, but then couldn’t stop talking about it, Bonjean recalls. Matsuda took Bonjean to meet the buyer of Japan’s largest chain of high-end department stores the next day. “I’ve never seen something that high-end anywhere in the world – like a tomato costs five dollars; they have cantaloupes for $100, $150 dollars,” Bonjean says.

While the unique flavour profile and food-friendliness opened the door to Japan, Bonjean says it was Spirit Hills’ story that sealed the deal.

“It was so important for them to [hear] how we live entirely off the land, and our commitment to stewardship of the land and that we grow all of our own food and that we apply organic and biodynamic practices – all of those things,” Bonjean explains.

Hugo and his son Bjorn harvesting honey at Spirit Hills Alberta honey wine
Hugo and his son Bjorn harvesting honey

Bonjean sees a lot of export potential for Alberta’s cottage wine industry.

“I really hope and believe that given the fact how important honey is in Alberta in terms of how much we produce and the quality we produce and how well that is known in the world, that honey wine could do for Alberta what actually icewine has done for Ontario,” he says.

But he also cautions people to do extensive research beforehand and prepare for significant financial investment – he spent well over $20,000 in this venture. He offers some advice to those interested: check out the federal government’s website on getting export-ready, ensure your packaging and quality are up to international standards,  and develop high-quality corporate marketing materials translated into the language of the export market.

“The moment they see actually that you’ve produced that material in their language, it tells them that you’re serious about moving into that market and it will go much further than if you don’t,” he says.

Picking the right market is also critical to success.

“If I had a traditional mead would I have made it in Japan? No, I really made it because of the food pairing elements of the honey wines we make,” Bonjean says. “But I think [mead] would actually go really well in China. If you have fruit wine, especially dessert fruit wine, I think China’s a huge market, as well as Korea. For session meads, I think the US and Europe are great markets.”

Bonjean also notes that building up local support is the first crucial step. “We would never have gotten to this point if it wasn’t for the support of people like Willow Park, the Co-ops who adopted us really early on and gave us enormous support, and of all our suppliers and basically and all our customers and people who have been supporting us,” he says.

“I’m looking at Spirit Hills now and going, it’s the bus and I’m the driver, but everybody else has helped build the bus. It’s a privileged position to be in, and it’s very nice to see all our support.”

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