Canada Berries: Innovation in the Wine Industry
Ona dark and damp afternoon in October, Tommy Yuan, director and co-owner of Canada Berries Enterprises Ltd., sat down with me to discuss the sunny side of running British Columbia’s largest fruit winery. From a tasting room, nestled in a cedar building near the main entrance, Yuan discussed his Richmond winery, which he, along with a group of entrepreneurs purchased in 2013.
In B.C., there are 248 wineries, 70 percent of which are located in the Okanagan Valley. Yuan’s winery, on the other hand, is located in the heart of Richmond’s blueberry fields. Under his leadership, Canada Berries operates in the niche market of producing wine from berries rather than grapes.
Originally from Beijing, Yuan immigrated to Canada in 1996. Almost ten years later, he founded Canada Asia Business Network (CABN), a consulting firm that helps companies from both sides of the Pacific Ocean do business with each other. Today, Yuan remains the President of CABN.
“In Canada, 95 percent of wineries are not profitable.
Since the beginning, CABN has specialized in three sectors: resources, technology and sustainability.
“In 2009, I visited this winery because at the time, the owners were looking for strategic partners. I was taken with this opportunity because the winery perfectly fits the three areas my company prides itself on,” reminisced Yuan. Prior to Canada Berries, Yuan neither knew about nor drank a lot of wine. He spent a year digging up the dirt on the wine industry before investing. The Beijing native highly recommends potential winery buyers to do the same. “In Canada, 95 percent of wineries are not profitable. Unless there is something innovative about your product, or you have new management philosophies, this industry can truly challenge a team and its leader,” said Yuan.
New ownership meant new branding and a new direction. When Yuan closed the purchase, the winery was known as Sanduz Estate Winery; it was already producing fruit wines. However, there were a lot of different products. When Yuan entered the picture, he focused production to fruit wines and refined the packaging. The new focus explains the winery’s new name, aptly called Canada Berries.
An Introduction to Canada Berries’ Fruit Wines
Even though wines are most synonymous with grapes, any fruit -- and even some vegetables -- can be made into wine, providing there is enough sugar content to be fermented into alcohol. Fruit wine is the term for all wines made from fruits other than grapes.
Canada Berries primarily produces blueberry wines. Yuan explained: “British Columbia has three treasures: blueberries, cranberries and salmon. British Columbia’s berries are world renown. Our job is to combine the local resources with our operations to turn berries into wine.” In addition to blueberries, the winery’s products include blackberry, raspberry and gooseberry wines.
Yuan proudly boasted that there are at least four or five different blueberry wines at Canada Berries while other wineries only produce one kind of blueberry wine. Also, his fruit wines are not too sweet compared to the competition. Notably, the Blue Queen Dry is made from 100 percent blueberry and produced in a dry style. The best seller, though, is the Blue Queen Gold, which is a blend of blueberries and cranberries.
Imported blueberries to China incur a 43 percent duty, so blueberries sold in China are expensive and often considered a luxury item.
On the slightly sweeter side, Yuan said this bottle generally appeals to more women. For those who prefer traditional red wine, there is the Blue King: a blend of Fraser Valley blueberries and Okanagan Valley merlot that gives off a hint of oak. Yuan added, “In Canada, we developed different blueberry wines to cater to different customer’s taste and preferences.”
Another boast- worthy feature of Canada Berries’ wines is that the alcohol level is approximately 11 percent. For comparison, whisky has an average alcohol level of 40 percent, most wines range between 11 and 13 percent, and beers are from 3 to 6 percent. Yuan explained that it is difficult to keep the alcohol content low for fruit wines because blueberries are naturally sweeter than grapes; the higher the sugar content of the fruit, the easier it is to have high alcohol content.
Canada Berries Across Two Continents
Yuan has positioned Canada Berries as a luxury brand associated with exceptional fruit wines. “We are pursuing quality, not quantity,” he clarified. Canada Berries is focused on building its brand in North America and Asia, with China as the main market in the latter region. Imported blueberries to China incur a 43 percent duty, so blueberries sold in China are expensive and often considered a luxury item. Therefore, blueberry wine is also perceived to be a unique luxury for Chinese consumers. “Berries in general are not well known in China yet, other than goji berries,” said Yuan. “Our job is to make berries that are even better than goji accessible to the public.” Currently, Canada Berries is also developing a slew of non-alcoholic-based berry products that will further make Canada’s berries available to the world. The winery exports between 50 and 100 twenty-foot containers annually. Each container holds approximately 12,000 bottles.
Locally, the winery is building brand awareness right at home by giving back to the community. For the third consecutive year, Canada Berries will host a three-day Chinese New Year extravaganza at the Richmond location in early 2017. The temple fair is fun for the whole family and is attended by thousands every year. While the festive affair is an opportunity for Yuan to promote Canada Berries, he also believes community involvement is an important part of running a business.