DONNA AND CARL SPARKES -  From grapes to world domination - pushing Nova Scotia wines higher

DONNA AND CARL SPARKES - From grapes to world domination - pushing Nova Scotia wines higher

Article: Lola Augustine Brown
Photos: Riley Smith

Nova Scotia wineries produce incredibly good wines. You may not know this the first time you order a glass when sitting on a sun-soaked patio downtown or when you pick up a bottle on a whim at the NSLC, but from those first few sips you realize that we are, happily, producing world-class wines right here in our home province. Jost Vineyards is our fine province’s largest and oldest wine producer, and owners Donna and Carl Sparkes believe that our amazing wines deserve more room on the world stage. And they are working hard to make that happen.

You can already buy Nova Scotian wines in other provinces, and there’s a trickle that goes abroad, but that isn’t enough. “There’s great wine across Canada, and the government needs to do more to ensure that Canada is recognized as a wine country and bring that into our brand,” says Carl. “There’s a lot of progress to be made.” We have a product that is on par with that produced in other new world wine countries such as New Zealand, and really we should be capitalizing on that. “We always hear about how Nova Scotia needs to attract more tech or other industries, but there is so much potential here already in the export of our existing natural resources, such as wine.”

What makes Nova Scotian wine different than wines across the rest of Canada are the common traits shared between products here. “The beauty of the industry where we are is that we have a very clear style as driven by our climate and capabilities,” says Carl, “whereas in places like Ontario there is no actual Ontario style of wine; they try to emulate Californian wines and other styles that don’t always work that well. In terms of improving and creating a style, we’re closer to that here than in any other place in Canada.” 

The Tidal Bay Appellation is an initiative launched in June 2012 that encourages growers and winemakers to create a signature product with unique characteristics that make it stand out as a recognizable Nova Scotian white wine. Ten wineries across the province joined in to follow specific rules (Nova Scotian grapes only, specific varieties, blind taste testing) and create crisp whites that all carry the Tidal Bay name on the bottle. It is this kind of organized effort that will help push Nova Scotian wines higher and something the Sparkes are proud supporters of. Carl is the only Nova Scotian vineyard owner to sit on the board of the Canadian Vintners Association, and he says this is another way he is beating the drum for the industry here. 

Newbies taking control

Surprisingly, Carl and Donna Sparkes are new to all of this. They set up Devonian Coast Wineries in 2011 and set out to acquire a portfolio of wineries in Nova Scotia. Their first purchase was Jost in 2012, which they bought from Hans Christian Jost, who set up the winery with his father more than 30 years ago. Jost came packaged with boutique winery Gaspereau, and they bought Muir Murray Estate Winery last September (it has since been renamed Mercator). The Sparkes’ desire to become vineyard owners comes from a deep passion for wine, and this just happened to mesh brilliantly with the kind of challenge that Carl was looking for in a business. 

“In 1989 we toured France and visited many wineries, and we fell in love with the culture of the wineries and the vineyards,” says Donna. “When we left, Carl said, ‘We’re going to own a winery someday,’ and I loved the idea.” Carl was in the food industry for many years, running divisions of Canada Bread, Olivieri pasta and most recently Bento Sushi. This meant they spent years living in Ontario, but their roots have always been in the Maritimes. Both Carl and Donna are from Newfoundland, and they’ve lived partly in Nova Scotia for 28 years (they have a house in St. Margaret’s Bay), but they were looking to be here permanently. “Carl started looking at businesses to buy and found this, and we love it,” says Donna. She admits to loving the romance of the industry, but says it isn’t all as advertised in movies like Under the Tuscan Sun and A Good Year. “It’s a lot of work,” she says. “We hit the ground running and we haven’t stopped.”

Jost was already a very successful operation when the Sparkes bought it. “That was certainly part of the allure,” says Donna. “We didn’t just want a boutique winery, we wanted a successful business. We just knew that with Carl’s years of experience in business, we could take it to another level.” The winery is a major employer in the area, with up to 75 staff depending on the time of year, and more than 40 different wines are produced (many of which have won multiple awards).

Carl says that they are benefitting greatly from the groundwork done by the wine innovators in the province, which includes the former owners of Jost. “We’re really fortunate to be coming into an industry that already has some momentum,” says Carl. “I could not have done what those people have done, but I can take it from this point.”

The Nova Scotia wine industry appealed to Carl for a number of reasons. “In terms of being a food and consumer goods marketer, the wine industry here is the pinnacle for me,” he says. “I’ve never come across an opportunity that has so many dimensions and so many intrinsic rewards associated with it. To be able to take something like this is as good as it gets. To be creating this beautiful wine that is an emotional product with mass appeal, I can’t imagine any business venture in the world that comes close to this.”

Others in the industry, including those who were already working at Jost, are also a strong motivator for Carl. “I’ve worked with so many businesses where the hard part is finding a spark to reignite interest, but in this business there are no jaded people. The people that work here are as equally excited about the product as we owners are. That’s extremely rare in the business world, so I get inspiration from them. The fact that they are so engaged and proud about what they are doing puts the challenge back on you not to disappoint them. That’s a very symbiotic relationship, and one you don’t naturally find everywhere.”

Stepping it up

The Sparkes first step as new owners was to bring in talent from outside the province in order to breathe new life into their winemaking processes. “The learning curve had flattened out here in this region when it came to viticulture and winemaking,” explains Carl, “so in the first few months of buying Jost we brought in a Swiss winemaker, and he had fresh and more advanced winemaking techniques. He was here for a couple of vintages and really helped take our practices up a notch in the vineyard and the cellar.”

Their very popular new wine, Selkie, a crisp frizzante, was developed as a result of bringing in that winemaker. “He was going through the vineyards saying, ‘You know these grapes are so delicious, I could see them going in something else,’” says Donna. “Up until that point we’d been blending them in with our regular brands. We said sure, and it turned out fantastic.” Launching the Selkie at The Carleton this year was a thrill, and the event was made extra special when the couple’s good friend Bruce Guthrow offered to sing a couple of songs; it turned out he’d written a song, “Selkie Girl,” to celebrate the occasion. The Selkie gets its name from Celtic mythology, where the selkie is a seal that comes onto land, sheds its skin and becomes a dark-haired seductress; or she can also get stuck in a fisherman’s net and become his slave. The names fits, explains Donna. “We love it so much because of the transformation from our poor little grapes that nobody realized what they could be, just like the seal turning into a seductress.” 

Though good work was done in those first two years, the Sparkes realized that in order to push the profile of the wines in all three vineyards higher, they were going to need to bring in the big guns. That’s where newly arrived and very charming English import Jonathan Rodwell comes in. Rodwell studied at UC Davis in California and worked with Robert Mondavi, who was instrumental in bringing worldwide recognition to Napa as a wine region. He has been in Tuscany for 17 years and consulted with the Russian and Croatian governments on how to improve their wine industries. “He has a rare talent, and we are very lucky to have him here,” says Carl. “He is a great mentor, and people just respond to him so well. He brings the perfect balance of great management skills with that wealth of experience and great talent in viticulture and winemaking. Plus, Jonathan is here because he sees the potential in Nova Scotian wine.”

Donna and Carl’s plan to take Jost to another level isn’t just about the wine that they ship out of the vineyard, but also about operations on the premises. They are just finishing major renovations that have resulted in a huge and beautiful newly-designedtasting room and wine store, complete with gorgeous patio where you can sit looking out over the vines with a glass of wine and selection of locally sourced meats and cheeses from their brand new deli. There’s also a classy private dining and tasting room on the second level with a full kitchen. The craftsman who oversaw renovations incorporated wood from a couple of 100-year-old barrels that had been sitting in pieces in a barn on premises, and the effect is just gorgeous. At some point, Donna wants to add walking trails and picnic areas, further adding to the joyful experience when people take the time to drive out and visit the winery.  

Renovations are also underway at Gaspereau, which got a liquor license last year so that visitors can enjoy a glass of wine with a charcuterie board on the patio there, too. At Mercator, they are letting the winery rest for now, working on getting the vines into the best state possible (because, of course, everything starts with the grapes). 

Brighter futures

Moving forward, Donna and Carl are going to keep pushing Nova Scotian wines in front of every nose that they can. In the past year they’ve poured at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and were the first ever Canadians to have a booth at the Prowein, the International Trade Fair for Wines and Spirits, in Germany. “People were coming by and looking at us and saying, ‘You have wine in Canada?” Let alone wine in Nova Scotia,” says Donna. After attending, there are now importers working to bring the wines into Germany and the UK. 

This November they’ll be heading to Prowein in China, and are looking forward to expanding their reach into the Asian market. Though funnily enough, you likely have more luck securing a bottle of their wine in China than you would in say Manitoba. This is because a Chinese couple who studied at St Mary’s fell in love with Jost wine and started a business shipping the wine to their home country. “We’ve even started creating a few custom blends for them, and last year they opened the 9000 square feet Jost Clubhouse, that only serves Jost wine, in Suzhou. We’re going to stop there before going to the expo,” says Donna.

The growth at Jost continues, and the only impediment that they have to moving more of their wine is that the supply of grapes cannot keep up with demand. “We have 70 acres, and we haven’t got enough grapes. We also have 70 acres in Gaspereau, and growers all across the province. There’s no limits to what we could use,” says Donna. “We’re planting more vines every year and recruiting growers across the province. We have a long way to go, but there’s so much potential. The conditions here are perfect for growing grapes, and for creating a world-class wine industry.”

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