“We refer to our wines as ‘Next World’ as they are somewhere in between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ world in style with tremendous elegance and distinctiveness.” That’s how Paul Beavis the new head of Iconic Wineries of British Columbia describes the unique styles of wine being made by the shores of the lake that dominates Canada’s Okanagan Valley. Beavis will be well known to the wine trade for the 20 years he spent steering Champagne Lanson’s success in the UK and internationally, but, as he explains, the draw of this wonderful, and largely undiscovered, part of the world was a new challenge he is so excited to take on.
If you have not been to the Okanagan Valley then put it on your ever growing bucket list of things to do when we can get back to our normal wine travels. It’s already captured Paul Beavis’ heart as he explains…
You have moved from the world of Champagne and Champagne Lanson to Canada and the Okanagan Valley – why the move away from Champagne and why Canada?
I first visited British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley 16 years ago and was fortunate enough to meet Anthony von Mandl, patriarch of one of the region’s pioneering winemaking families. His Mission Hill Family Estate crafted an exceptional portfolio of fine wines that truly captured the unique terroir of the Okanagan. We introduced Mission Hill wines to the UK market with Andrew Bird who was a pioneering buyer for Sainsbury’s at the time.
Ever since then, I understood the potential of these wines and the Okanagan which I believe is one of the world’s last great undiscovered wine regions. When the opportunity presented itself to represent Iconic Wineries of British Columbia (IWBC), I was eager to relocate to the Okanagan and help introduce these wineries and these wines to the world.
It has also meant a change of country to live in. How have you found moving to Canada?
Any international relocation is not without its challenges, however, my move from Mayfair to the Okanagan Valley has been a wonderful adventure. Canada is an extraordinary country and the pristine natural beauty of British Columbia is absolutely stunning. The rural lifestyle itself is a dramatic change to the urban pace that London offers, however, the people are exceptionally charming and dedicated to their winemaking craft.
That said, I’m sure some probably laugh at me wearing a suit (old habits are hard to change) although the tie has now come off!
What was your motivation to take up this role in this stage of your career?
I enjoyed 20 amazing years with Champagne Lanson. I was also able to start a new business from scratch for them in the US as well as run their biggest market in the UK and then manage their international business based out of Reims two to three days per week.
At that point most people would think you’re done and made, however, you have to listen to yourself and when you’ve still got that burning flame inside to still challenge yourself further, you have to listen.
It was a scary thought to uproot and to leave the comfort of where I was. However I was once told, people are like ships – we weren’t built to stay in the “safe harbour” of the known, but rather venture out into new waters and sometimes you get knocked about. But the challenging times and rough waters teach you to adapt and learn new skills. I think that was one of the reasons, in addition to absolutely believing that the Okanagan deserves to be recognised on the international world wine stage and I want to be a part of the team that delivers that.
Tell us about Iconic Wineries of British Columbia?
IWBC is the portal to discovering the very finest range of wines within the Okanagan Valley. Each winery in the Iconic Collection offers a unique representation of the diverse microclimates of the Okanagan Valley. The common purpose, to produce wines that can stand alongside the best in the world.
The Okanagan Valley is one of the world’s last great undiscovered wine regions. Extending north from the Canada-US border for approximately 200 kilometres, it is a desert in the rain shadow of the Coastal Mountains of British Columbia.
Warm days, cool nights and among the lowest rainfall of any wine-producing region in the world make this an optimal climate for handcrafting wines of tremendous elegance and distinctiveness which we hope wine lovers from around the world will enjoy.
What is the criteria for choosing which wineries should be part of the group?
IWBC is a carefully curated collection of the region’s finest wineries representing each of the unique subregions of the Okanagan. The Iconic Collection also provides an educational portal into the Okanagan for anyone interested in discovering more about British Columbia or Canadian wines. There is such diversity in the region which was shaped by volcanic activity and not one, but two glacial ages which benefit the soil types and terroir, and means that you don’t need to travel far to achieve diversity, choice and outstanding flavour profiles.
What makes them distinctive and typical of the wines being produced in the Okanagan?
Each winery in the Iconic Collection is geographically placed to reflect the terroir and unique climatic conditions from each parcel of the Okanagan Valley, whether that be soil variations, vineyard heights to the proximity of the lake and viticulture practices.
What differentiates IWBC is we have always taken a long-term approach to viticulture and winemaking, nowhere is that more evident than in our family-owned Estate vineyards where we are pioneers in organic viticulture practices here in the Okanagan. In fact, we expect to have all of our wineries certified organic by 2021. With this the Okanagan is poised to be one of the world’s leading organic viticultural wine regions.
We can already see the difference going organic is making in our vineyards. Soils are more alive, vines are healthier and stronger, and grapes have increased flavours and varietal character. You can literally taste the difference!
Which channels of the market are the wines focused on?
We are very focused on bringing the right range to the UK initially and working through a direct to consumer model, premium on trade and the quality Independent wine shops for CheckMate Artisanal Winery. Our winemaker at CheckMate, Phil McGahan, meticulously handcrafts small lots of +$100 Burgundian-style Chardonnay and Merlot.
These are some of the most highly-scored wines in Canada and will open the door to additional vintages from two other wineries from the Iconic Collection which will allow us to focus on selected parts of the trade, notably the on-premise, specialist retail and online.
We are also working on an international programme to inform, engage and educate wine enthusiasts about this fascinating “next world” region which will be our next opportunity.
For those who don’t know the Okanagan Valley how would you describe the wines being made there and their potential?
Unrivalled really. The world is full of amazing wines, but our Chardonnays, Merlots, Riesling and Pinot Noirs are truly stunning and will surprise a lot of people.
We refer to our wines as “Next World” as they are somewhere in between the “old” and “new” world in style with tremendous elegance and distinctiveness. These wines are rather rare as the total region only has 9,500 acres of vines – it’s tiny.
Today, the region is home to close to 300 wineries and a vibrant agro-tourism industry and it has the feel of Napa perhaps 25 years ago. It’s an amazing discovery, attracting wine and food lovers from around the globe to experience this place of great natural beauty, which in my mind one of the most breath-taking places on the planet to make great wine.
What are your ambitions for domestic vs export sales?
The domestic market has had to pivot dramatically due to the global pandemic, however we continue to see increased demand for our wines from consumers across Canada. Our international strategy is more about placing our wines with the right global partners who share the same enthusiasm and passion for bringing the “Next World” wines to life with their customers.
What are your main export markets – and future target countries?
The UK is a major focus for us right now. Introducing these wines into one of the most educated and savvy wine markets in the world requires a carefully curated experience as we not only need to educate consumers and the trade about the region, but also need to communicate our commitment to organic viticulture and the quality of our winemaking practices.
Unquestionably, the Far East and the US are also important markets to us due to their interest and desirability to venture into new territories.
How about the UK – any distribution there yet – what are you doing there?
As of today, CheckMate Artisanal Wines are now available directly through our website IWBC.uk – and, we are currently working with Hedonism Wines and other reputable partners and top on-premise partners.
Why do you think UK buyers and sommeliers should be interested in your wines?
Old World and New World and maybe “Next World” – there are many amazing wine regions in the world but not many that still remain relatively undiscovered.
The Okanagan with its diverse climates and terroir will make for a special reason to taste with sommeliers and consumers’ alike. We would never say we were better than anywhere else in the world, but the quality that is now coming from the Valley is incredible and deserving of the attention it is finally being given.
The Okanagan appellation is at the northernmost limit of winemaking and vine growing. Here, grape quality is ultimately enhanced by the vines’ struggle to give forth ripe fruit in a shorter growing season. To some, it might seem miraculous that grapes can thrive here, but they do, and they do special things. As a young grape growing region, the Okanagan does not have hundreds of years of tradition, but it does benefit from the experiences of others.
The region borrows best practices and attracts skilled winemakers from around the world and, as an emerging region it has the freedom to find and establish its own way.
How has Covid-19 affected the valley and exports?
The Okanagan Valley have had to react, respond and adapt quickly to the COVID-19 situation. As a pioneer in the region, we have always taken a long-term approach to our business and from the outset we used this as an opportunity to reimagine every aspect of our guest experience at our wineries. Initially, we were forced to close our Visitors’ Centre, however ,we are now fully reopened and seeing great recovery with an array of bespoke wine tasting options and educational experiences for guests visiting our wineries.
We launched our website www.IWBC.uk to enable us to capitalise on international opportunities.
How did you find the lockdown personally?
My personal story would probably make for quite an interesting Netflix series. I left London on January 3 and started work in the Okanagan Valley on the 6th. I returned to the UK briefly in March to celebrate my 50th birthday; however, I got stuck in the UK for over seven weeks. I was very fortunate to be able to spend time in West Sussex in a field!
My 50th birthdate is certainly one that I will never forget as I spent an entire day at Heathrow Airport trying to get onto a flight with British Airways and Air Canada clearly to no avail. I had to quickly adjust to working from West Sussex trying to run and start the new business. I finally returned to the Okanagan in late May. So, it’s fair to say that the word of the decade for me and probably many other businesses has been ’pivoting’!
What are your plans for the next 12 months?
Our plans remain confident and dynamic in the sense that our team created under the IWBC heading consists of incredible people who will be acting as ‘brand ambassadors’ and educators for the Okanagan Valley, both domestically and internationally.
For me personally it will be a case of developing this wonderful brand story bringing these most incredible wineries to life ensuring some of the best places in the world have access to these wonderful and award-winning wines. We continue to evolve and are fully committed to forging ahead with our plans to showcase the Okanagan as the world adjusts to the new normal.
We have a clear vision and that is to help define an understanding and common language for what each of the wineries stands for, define our sales channel strategy for each winery, identify which of the wines are right for specific markets.
Another key part of my role will be to build a strategy to increase availability and awareness of our premium portfolio of Canadian wines domestically within Canada which will include building an in-market expert sales team that will not only support our existing distribution channels but also to further build customer relationships, direct to consumer, private buyer networks and increase rate of sale and availability.
I am also focusing on developing and implementing an export market strategy to build our brands internationally in key markets across key territories in Europe, the U.S. and Asia, coordinating the development and execution of marketing strategies between the individual wineries and distributor partners.
What are your ultimate goals for the business and how do you hope to get there?
We are extremely fortunate to be at the forefront to help build a legacy for the Okanagan Valley by introducing these amazing wineries to wine enthusiasts around the world. This begins with a commitment to communicating about the quality of our excellent wines, the delivery and establishing life-long connections with high-quality customers and consumers.
For us, it’s never about a focus on sales volumes, but rather investing the time to create a lasting positive impression through education, quality and awareness. It’s much more fulfilling.