Even before the formal September 10 launch of its wines, Laughing Stock Vineyards has become an instant cult winery, with most of its initial 800 cases already pre-sold.
The buzz around this new Naramata Bench winery is widespread. Here is one example: the young hygienist in my dentist’s office, who tasted a barrel sample of Laughing Stock’s premium red this spring, has a case on order.
Some university commerce department should do a case study of this winery. Many other new wineries could benefit by learning what it takes to launch as a top-flight producer straight out of the gate.
Laughing Stock is owned by David and Cynthia Enns. In their day job, they also own Credo Consulting Inc., a company that does research for major firms in the financial industry. Currently, Laughing Stock’s tasting room is impinging on Credo’s offices which are on the ground floor of the couple’s vineyard-view home above Naramata Road.
Well before they got into the wine business, the couple cultivated a serious interest in serious wine, keeping a good wine cellar and travelling to wine regions in Europe and the United States. Any case study of how to launch a cult winery would start with that interest as the baseline qualification: one needs to know what good wine tastes like in order to make good wine.
David Enns, who was born in 1957, began making wine almost impulsively in 2001. After a tour of Washington State wineries, he order half a ton of Merlot from a top vineyard, bought a crusher and an expensive French oak barrel and produced his first vintage in a Vancouver garage. In the following year, he crushed Syrah. In between crushes, he began taking winemaking courses and looking for vineyard properties.
Initially, they looked in Europe. “The only region we had not checked out was the Okanagan Valley,” Enns said in a 2003 interview. He finished high school in Kelowna at a time when the Okanagan wines were mediocre. Then he and Cynthia went to a couple of Okanagan wine festivals earlier this decade, discovered wines of quality, and decided this was where they would start their winery.
They bought a 5.4-acre Naramata Road property early in 2003. It was then partially planted to Merlot. (Other Bordeaux red varieties have been added since to complete the vineyard.) Enns did what he has advised his own clients to do – hire a consultant for the expertise you lack. To help him with the vineyard, he retained Valerie Tait, one of the Okanagan’s leading viticultural consultants.
It was a good decision. “Val taught us early on that there are more decisions made in the vineyard than in the winery,” Enns said in late 2003. “I challenged her at first, but having gone through a growing season, I understand.”
Enns was going to sell the 2003 crop but the quality of the fruit was so good that he decided to make what has become Laughing Stock’s Portfolio 2003, a blend of 64 per cent and 33 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, with a dash of Cabernet Franc.
To acquire the winemaking experience he still lacks, Enns again found a consultant. He negotiated a three-vintage agreement to make the red wines under the tutelage of Ian Sutherland of the nearby Poplar Grove Winery. Sutherland has a decade of prize-winning winemaking experience, including several crushes in Australia and New Zealand, and makes wines that have their own cult following. A similar apprenticeship arrangement with Michael Bartier, another award winner and now winemaker at Golden Mile, enabled Enns to craft Laughing Stock’s other release, a 2004 Chardonnay (closed with a screw top).
First class wines have resulted. Portfolio ($35) is a brooding, dark wine with flavours of plums, currants and spice and with luscious ripe tannins. My score: 90 points. The Chardonnay ($23) is a buttery classic with peach and citrus flavours. My score: 88.
For wine marketing expertise, David and Cynthia turned to Vancouver consultant, Bernie Hadley-Beauregard, whose previous successes included the development of the Blasted Church Winery’s labels and concept. Enns called his Naramata Vineyard Hobo Bluff after the former hobo encampment on the abandoned Kettle Valley rail bed, just above the vineyard. The couple decided it would not do for a winery. “I think the wine will be of a higher quality than what the hobos may have been consuming,” Enns said.
With Hadley-Beauregard, they came up with Laughing Stock, a play on the risk of launching a winery when they, of all people, understand financial risk. “This winery is our vow of poverty,” Enns like to say. However, they are milking their investment background quite effectively. The labels on the wines resemble a ticker tape, showing the values of widely-held stocks on the days on which the grapes were harvested. This is bound to catch the interest, and orders, of the Enns’s financial industry clients and friends. The first release of the wines, in fact, is being termed Laughing Stock’s Initial Public Offering.
Hadley-Beauregard liked the label so much that he had Laughing Stock enter Portfolio in the label competition at the 2005 Los Angeles County Fair, one of the largest American wine competitions. Ironically, the label did not win but the wine, still young, scored a bronze medal in the tough Meritage class.
This summer, Enns has completed a new gravity flow winery, dramatically set at the top of the vineyard, with its back against the steep hillside and with a jaw-dropping view across the Naramata Bench and Okanagan Lake. The 4,600 square-foot winery’s capacity is more than double the projected production of 3,000 to 5,000 cases a year from 25-acres of grapes that Enns grows or has under contract.
The business plan is focussed. Laughing Stock will make basically two wines each year – Portfolio, the red Bordeaux blend, and the Chardonnay. From time to time, however, Enns will have special releases. He has 38 cases of 2004 Pinot Gris and a couple of barrels of 2004 Pinot Noir that he made jointly with two other winemakers.
That can only enhance Laughing Stock’s emerging cult status.
John Schreiner is author of The Wineries of British Columbia.