Okanagan Crush Pad Winery: Crushing the Competition

Okanagan Crush Pad eggs | BCBusiness
Crush pad’s facility includes custom concrete ‘eggs’ used for fermenting.

A custom-crush winery has shaken up the local industry by accelerating a handful of notable new labels to market

No one has shaken up Okanagan winemaking more than Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie, the husband and wife team who launched Okanagan Crush Pad Winery in 2010.

The Crush Pad winery in Summerland is a custom-crush facility, which means that in addition to making its own brands, it’s a channel through which growers without wineries can produce and market their brands. What sets Crush Pad apart from earlier custom-crush operators is its ability to offer everything from state-of-the art winemaking to sophisticated marketing.

Marketing has been Coletta’s forte since 1990, when she became executive director of the B.C. Wine Institute and established the Vintners Quality Alliance brand. Sales of VQA wines—by definition, wines made from grapes grown in B.C.—totalled only $6.8 million in the 12 months that ended March 1992. Sales had grown to $42.1 million in the year that ended March 1999, when she left to set up Coletta Consultants Ltd., the wine industry marketing firm she still runs. Her clients have included Canadian wineries, notably the Vincor group of wineries, as well as international producers, including some in the Chilean wine industry.

Coletta got into wine production on a whim. In 2005, while on a break from building a house, she and Steve Lornie (a successful construction contractor) were meandering along the back roads in Summerland when they came across a four-hectare orchard for sale. “We just stumbled on this piece of land and made an offer out of the blue and it got accepted,” she recalls.

Okanagan Crush Pad’s Christine Coletta
and Steve Lornie.

The couple spent one money-losing season growing Red Delicious apples and “watery apricots” before replacing the fruit trees with Pinot Gris vines on what they called the Switchback Vineyard. They planned to sell grapes to neighbouring wineries, until winemaker Michael Bartier, then at Road 13 Vineyards, offered to make wine for them. (He has since become Crush Pad’s chief winemaker.) “So a little bit of Pinot Gris went down to Road 13 and Mike made the wine there,” Coletta says. “We had a whopping 168 cases in 2009. We knew if no one else liked it, we could drink it ourselves.”

They tested the market with a brand called Haywire. “It is a haywire thing,” she says, explaining the origin of the name. “I should know better. We never intended to do this.” When that wine sold easily, they bought enough grapes to make 4,500 cases in 2010, 7,500 cases in 2011 and 10,000 cases in 2012. Beginning with the 2011 crush, the wines have been made at Crush Pad, which Lornie built on the Switchback Vineyard.

Needing more winery-owned vineyards, in 2012 Lornie and Coletta bought 128 hectares of ranch land in the nearby Garnet Valley, with 34 hectares suitable for vines that will be planted this year. When those vines are planted, about $8 million will have been invested in what started as a whim. Lornie and Coletta have taken on partners, but still control 52 per cent of the business.

Coletta stirred up considerable controversy by setting up Crush Pad as a winemaking facility for those who lack their own wineries. Historically, wineries were not licensed unless they owned land and a production facility. Some existing producers were outraged that Crush Pad had created a shortcut for new competitors with limited capital. “Regulating away the competition is not the answer,” Coletta snapped in one online debate. “I support free enterprise.”

The business model also is advantageous to Coletta’s winery. The customers who pay to have their wines made (and often retain Coletta’s marketing firm as well), generate the cash flow to justify Crush Pad’s new winery. “It enables us to buy the equipment we want to buy and to ensure that everything we have is top notch,” Coletta says.

The result of this strategy? From a standing start in 2009, Coletta and Lornie now run a business making 30,000 cases of wine annually, either for their own brands or for clients.