As the thirst for local alcoholic beverages continues to grow, a group of five Brock University alumni are eager to help more small-batch producers enter the market.
Ramsey Khairallah (BSc ’09), Mitchell McCurdy (BSc ’18), Jeff Moote (OEVC ’19), Nick Pappas (BSc ’18) and Marc Pistor (BSc ’06) are the founding members of Collab Wine & Beverage, an initiative to help Ontario producers launch new boutique wine, cider and perry brands and increase their visibility in the marketplace.
“Come to the facility with an idea, and we can help you bring it to fruition,” says McCurdy.
The first phase of the project launched in March 2020 with a small online store, selling unique alcoholic beverages from small, local brands. The team recently began construction on a physical facility in Niagara, too, where emerging brands will eventually be able to source the materials, equipment and industry knowledge needed to turn concepts into market-ready products.
The team hopes to complete the facility over the summer and already have a few producers interested in participating.
“It’s really important for there to be an opportunity for super-creative, high-quality small brands to be loud and be seen,” says Pistor. “It brings a lot of energy and recognition to the Ontario wine industry and it’s something that we desperately need.”
Producers will cost-share resources and overhead, allowing them to mitigate some of the financial and regulatory hurdles involved with launching a new brand. The collaborative nature of the project will also allow different people in the industry to learn from, and share ideas with, one another.
“There’s enough room for all of us and more in the Ontario marketplace, and I’m happy to be part of a venture that is based on collaborating with one another and cross-promoting brands,” says Moote.
The idea to launch a wine collaborative had been discussed amongst the group on and off for years.
They first connected at Brock, where they all graduated from either the Oenology and Viticulture (OEVI) degree or certificate program. Pistor, who is also a continuing education instructor at Brock’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) with a wine consulting business and brand of his own, also served as a teacher and employer to the younger members of the team. The Collab members have all worked in various facets of the grape and wine industry since graduation, and have launched their own small-batch brands as well.
Pappas says his Brock education taught him to always “think of the bigger picture” when it comes to winemaking.
“It’s not just the wine or these grapes or this tank, it’s everything that is going to be coming together in the end,” he says.
That complexity is why the Collab team sees so much benefit in bringing people with different skill sets, experiences and resources together to make the best products possible. They are also excited about having the freedom to explore creative and out-of-the-box styles and techniques, which a collaborative platform like this will allow for.
When the pandemic, which sparked a massive shift toward online sales and increased demand for local products, combined with a change in wine industry regulations, it only solidified the fact that they were on the right track.
“We’ve seen more acceptance of VQA wines, Ontario products and moving towards local, so I’m excited to have people talking about Niagara as a source of good wines and cider, to put my own styles out there and to see how a platform like this can help to elevate everybody in the industry,” says McCurdy.
Pistor adds that the work CCOVI does to support and build connections within the industry plays an important role in shaping initiatives like theirs.
“CCOVI’s continued commitment to the wine community has given me the opportunity to draw these connections, to work with these four guys, and continue building the Ontario wine industry,” he says. “Man, am I ever optimistic about the opportunities that exist with what we are trying to do.”
For more information, visit the Collab Wine & Beverage website.