The Bible story says Jesus turned water into wine when the spirits ran low at the wedding in Cana. Malcolm Wood, in Bridgetown, Barbados, is working on the miracle of creating a Caribbean fruit wine business in an industry that snubs the notion of terming as wine anything but fermentation derived from grapes. Since the 1999 downturn in the Canadian economy that pushed him from his management job in information technology in Ontario, he has been slugging away at establishing his Coral Spring Vinters but for various reasons it remains in incubation.
Malcolm’s fruit wines are delectable. Over Christmas 2008, he and his small team were busy rolling out customised deliveries from the boutique winery cum office in a Barbados Industrial Development Corporation (BIDC) incubation centre in Fontabelle, on the west end of the city.
“We have a number of revenue streams,” he told Abeng News in January when things had settled down. “The main one is wines for the wholesale business and that is primarily wines from indigenous fruits so we would do in reds, sorrel and a fruit called jamoon (a tart red mulberry-like fruit) and then in whites we have other stock like carambola (starfruit), guava, golden apple (June plum), mango … our main stock in trade so to speak.
“We also run a you-rent facility where people come in and make their own wines. We sell supplies and … so you can get from corks and bottles up to yeast. And we also do wine customizations, so we will fashion a wine to suit a particular taste or we could use existing stock and customise the label and gift wrap it put it in a gift basket and we also teach wine making classes.”
The journey into winemaking began as a hobby triggered by resentment to the snobbery displayed by a doctor ordering wine at a Jaycees luncheon. He moved to Canada and honed his skills under the mentorship of another Barbadian, Dr Carlisle Boyce, a serious hobbyist who was an executive with 3M.
“I was a victim of the last big recession in Canada,” said Malcolm. ”Our business went bankrupt and Canada put a number of structures in place to get managers and people who were being downsized and right sized and everything else back to work. One of the strategies was get involved in your own business, get involved in things that you knew and loved. I had a history in the garment trade and I looked at that as my objective was to come back to Barbados and start a business here.
“When I went to the BIDC in Toronto they said the garment industry was dead in Barbados so that was not an option. I did computer science at school and decided that I was going to look at writing software programmes. When I spoke to them here and asked about students coming out of university to be able to write a programme for us that was not in place; at that time they were using Indians and Pakistanis here to be in the software businesses. That defeated my purpose in terms of giving jobs to Barbadians.
“So the next thing was the wine industry. I looked at it in Canada; Canada had just put a lot of money into the restructuring of the wine industry as a response to the NAFTA free trade deal and that industry was just booming. In Ontario a lot of the wineries were taking off and it seemed the right thing to do so I decided I would do it here – Barbados sells, it has the fruit – when you talk about wines you talk about the citrusy component, the melony taste and here we have the actual fruit, so you make the wine from the fruit that we have here. The thing was pretty academic for us.
“We’ve been at it from 2000, trying to get a winery set up here in Barbados but it is taken longer than we wanted to.”
Wine is big business in the Caribbean, to satisfy the tastes of the well-heeled and the all important tourism industry. Just last year Brunton Vineyards Holdings, Inc of Irvine, California, announced it had received an order from Caribbean Traders, Ltd, of San Juan, Trinidad and Tobago, for the distribution and delivery of 108,000 cases during the next year of the company’s wine brands. The transaction translates to an approximate annual contract value of $17,676,000. The first shipment of the order was scheduled to be shipped by late October 2008, in preparation for the Christmas season, with varietals which include “Addison Cole” and “Brunton Vineyards” brands — Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay.
In Cuba, the original home of Bacardi rums, the tourist industry with its all inclusive hotels has attracted Italian vintners to plant vineyards and produces wines, from local grapes and imported Italian pulp, which are even finding their way to Sweden, Britain and Hong Kong.
“If many countries are now producing wines thanks to new technologies, I think Cuba has possibilities to diversify its products,” said Mariaelena Fantinel, a third-generation winemaker from Northern Italy who heads Bodegas San Cristobal S.A., an Italian-Cuban joint venture started in 1998 and has about 80 acres in the foothills of western Pinar del Rio province. Fantinel says that with production having moved from 300,000 bottles in 1998 to more than 800,000 the company planned to develop the business into a regional supply hub for the Caribbean.
So what retards the growth of Coral Spring’s Caribbean fruit wines? Although Malcolm knows his product inside out and is familiar with the palate of the consumers, one issue he still must contend with is the snobbery referred to earlier. In the USA where there’s a small niche market of fruit wineries, it is ironically the tourists who are the main patrons for the novelty appeal. When we dropped in at the Coral Spring operation, Malcolm and his partner Margarita were in the midst of “balancing”, a process to check the acidity, sweetness and alcohol content of the product, important considerations to wine aficionados, who, while looking for fruity accents, eschew syrupy, brandy liqueur characteristics.
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Malcolm describes another hurdle: “Barbados is a very tourist oriented country and that is the culture, where you come to Barbados and you relax and you take things easy. So in terms of catering for tourists it works very, very well. When it comes to business that same mentality pervades: if it doesn’t happen today it’s going to happen tomorrow. The problem with business is that you put your money down and every day that something does not happen it’s costing you. That is one of the big challenges – to get that urgency associated with getting businesses going.”
Despite the protracted gestation Malcolm is undaunted and has identified a variety of grapes suited for Barbados and the land on which to site Coral Spring’s vineyard and winery.
His associate Margarita, sums it up this way “You need brain and you need passion for winemaking. If you love something it is a plus in any business.”