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the ladder

Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart, 50, is chief executive officer of Quails' Gate winery in Kelowna, B.C. Under Stewart Family Estates, the company acquired and operates wineries in Sonoma, Calif.

When I grew up, we had a diversified farm operation. My dad grew grapes for the table market and wine industry, we had pears, apples, cherries … We'd get off school for the summer and dad would say, "You're working on the farm." He talked about getting rid of the middleman. We'd sit around the dinner table and he'd say the solution was our own packing house … pack our own apples and sell them ourselves, to be value-added in what we do. My brother Ben was interested in wine; he came back in 1979 and started dabbling. The first year we made wine under our family label was 1989.

My friends are probably surprised I'm in the wine business. I started in Toronto in the brokerage industry – that was going to be my career. People asked what my family did; I'd say my dad's got a vineyard. "Well, you pick the wine for dinner." I'd look at them – horrified – I didn't know anything about wine. I knew merlot was red and cabernet sauvignon was a bigger red but didn't think of myself as a wine drinker, in any stretch of the imagination. When I went back to Kelowna, Ben said the accountant was leaving. I helped for six months; 25 years later here [in California] we are.

I'd almost like to see a line between different types of products because there's lots of wines made sweetened with enormous amounts of sugar. They're becoming soda pops in a way. Those aren't what we're making – we're making varietal appellation focused wines, made by people who are passionate.

Lake Sonoma was a well known winery. It moved to Healdsburg into a tasting room, then moved here. We felt it had potential – our belief is if you have a brand, it needs a home. Lake Sonoma took over Envolve – we bought their 4,000-case brand, inventory and space [in Sonoma Plaza]. You walk down an alley and there's this wine bar, beautiful patio. We learned people aren't doing traditional tastings. At Quails' Gate, we open at 9:30 a.m. in summer or people knock. Here we run a tasting room 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and customers hit us around 1 p.m. and don't want to leave until 8 p.m., waiting to get into restaurants. They come in, have wine, charcuterie, then go to dinner – we add a complementary piece to the puzzle.

Sometimes access to liquor boards is hard and bigger companies certainly have an advantage with their marketing support. You put a winery here and want to sell to Alberta [privatized] and bring in 50 or 60 cases. It's your cost, in their warehouse, you're paying fees and it's up to you and your agents to sell – but, you get into the market. It works in California, but competition is insane. Does a very good $30 wine here need to sell for $65 in Canada because of the structure? Not really. We're well aware our success is predicated on our ability to host people at Quails' Gate and direct sell – our U.S. success is contingent on the same ability. The tasting room gives us that strategic opportunity to increase direct sales and grow our club business.

My father's very proud of the whole family – it gave him a great sense of pride to come to the winery. He's been here a few times, all of us were down with our kids – he was pretty excited. I'm here 40 per cent of my time and that's tough. I have a four-year-old so don't want to be on the road that much. We purchased land in the Okanagan [and] have a new vineyard going in.

We're in a few restaurants. You're in one day and next month you're out. A smart restaurateur asks, "What's the deal of the month?" and there's always somebody struggling so, "This month we're giving you 20-per-cent off [wholesale]." My favourite pairing is Dungeness crab and chardonnay.

I was hoping to retire – all generations are in the business, my son and my brother's son are winemakers. My sister gave my dad The House of Mondavi and he passed it to me; she asked if I liked it. It's a terrible story! It's everything you don't want to have happen with your family.

As told to Cynthia Martin. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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