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The owners of B.C. Fort Berens Estate Winery.
The owners of B.C. Fort Berens Estate Winery.

Trailblazers

Dutch couple starts Lillooet's first winery Add to ...

One of the first things Rolf de Bruin and his wife, Heleen Pannekoek, bought when they started B.C. Fort Berens Estate Winery was a cash register.

It might seem like an odd priority — they wouldn’t be able to harvest any of the grapes they’d planted on this one-time hay farm for three years. “But one of our consultants told us it should be the first equipment we buy,” says Mr. De Bruin, who emigrated from Holland in 2008, his family in tow, to Lillooet, B.C., 280 kilometres west of the Okanagan.

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“It turned our entire strategy upside down, but he said, ‘You gotta get your cash flow going.’”

So, instead of waiting for their own grapes to grow, the couple — he’s a former management consultant, she’s a banker — bought some from a vineyard in the Okanagan, along with batches of finished wine. Within five months, they were selling a vintage under the Fort Berens Estate label; today, they sell five wines at their own shop and in select B.C. stores.

One of them, the 2007 Meritage, even won a silver medal at the 2010 All Canadian Wine Championships.

The couple is confident that their own grapes will also go on to produce award-winning vino. Though the area has been home to test vineyards for years — which Ms. Pannekoek says have produced excellent grapes — Fort Berens is Lillooet’s first winery. “It gives us an edge,” says Mr. De Bruin, who shied away from the Okanagan because land there costs four times what it does in Lillooet.

“It piques interest and shows that there are people outside of the Okanagan who can make quality B.C. wine.”

Fort Berens recently landed a six-figure injection of venture capital from three mining executives, which will help pay for a 3,000-square-foot, million-dollar facility just in time for their first harvest, in 2011. “It’s rewarding to have investors commit,” says Mr. De Bruin.

“It gives us the sense that, yes, we’re doing things right.”

This story first appeared in the September, 2010 issue of Your Business magazine.

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