How one Swiss family kickstarted the Nova Scotia wine industry

When Hanspeter Stutz first visited Nova Scotia from Switzerland almost 20 years ago, he had no idea that there was a wine industry here. Truth be told, nor did most Canadians. “At that time, you couldn’t drink Nova Scotian wine, it was awful,” he says.

Stutz had come here to scope out a farm for a German client when he saw that Grand Pré Winery was for sale. “This was the first time I had seen the word ‘wine’ connected with Canada,” he says. “For us Europeans, when we think of Canada, we think of curling or hockey or the guy who works with a chainsaw in the woods, but not wine.” Fascinated by the concept of Canadian wine, he did some research and discovered that Grand Pré Winery was on the same latitude as the south of France, which made it promising.

With his children Beatrice and Jürg Stutz, Hanspeter decided to take a chance on this Canadian winery and see if they could create something beautiful here. After losing his wife and the mother of his children to cancer, Hanspeter wanted to do something as a family, and this presented a unique opportunity that fits well with their skills and experience.

Cäcilia Stutz, Jürg Stutz

Jürg had completed a five-year program at university in Switzerland to learn winemaking, grape growing and management. Beatrice would manage the winery restaurant, Le Caveau. This was a family affair from the start, and it continues to be. Jürg’s wife Cäcilia manages the wine shop, and Beatrice’s husband Jason Lynch is chef at the restaurant. Each member of the family has a distinct role, and Hanspeter, who is president and CEO, credits that as a major reason why everything has worked out so well. “It doesn’t always work out this well when you do things with your kids,” he says. Beatrice was 28 when she came here, and says that she thought coming was an awesome idea because she has always loved adventure.

Success from the start

There had been a vineyard at Grand Pré since 1976, and it is now the oldest farm winery in Atlantic Canada. Hanspeter is the third owner, having bought the business from a car dealer. “He didn’t have a clue about wine,” says Hanspeter. “The vineyard was like a jungle when we took over. There was no focus on quality. It was just producing and producing in order to make an alcoholic beverage.” The family was moving into virgin territory, but they had a vision to create wine that was not only drinkable but of a high enough quality that it could turn Nova Scotia into a wine region. It did not take them long to do that.

Domaine de Grand Pré’s first release in 1999 was an award-winner. “It was an incredible red,” says Hanspeter. “My oldest grandson was born in ’99 and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll keep two cases and I’ll give them to him with his vintage on his 20th birthday.’ Not knowing what this one was going to be like in 20 years, I kept a third case, and every two years we open a bottle to check the wine. It’s unbelievable. Next year he is 20 and he is going to have a lot of fun with those cases of wine.”

Producing an award-winner straight out of the gate gave the family confirmation that you can produce beautiful wine here if you do it properly. The awards kept coming, though Hanspeter says that wasn’t important. They were just happy to be making great wine that people wanted to drink before wine produced outside of the province. “It is funny because — maybe this is part of the Swiss mentality — but we never really cared about the awards, other than that they gave us confirmation we were doing something right,” he says. “But Canadians kept telling us that we had to show off the awards. So, five years later we put the awards in the wine shop so you could see them.”

Jason Lynch, Beatrice Stutz

The winery restaurant, Le Caveau, was also quickly garnering a reputation for beautiful, locally sourced food because the family applied that same focus on quality to every part of their new Canadian venture. At first, Le Caveau seemed quite posh to some, meaning that locals stayed away to some extent. “I think people worried we were too expensive,” says Hanspeter. “Then we started our five-dollar martini nights in 2006 where there was live music on the patio, and that was when the locals started to come in.” Fortunately, they never stopped coming, and now reservations are strongly recommended.

Beatrice says that success hasn’t come easy. It has taken a lot of hard work by all involved. “There are a lot of ups and downs. To outsiders we look like this great success story, and yes, we probably are, but there have been tough times and close calls. This industry is very unforgiving. You have to work really hard to get to a certain point, but then you have to work even harder to stay there. You can’t allow mistakes.”

Le Caveau is going into its 19th season, and Beatrice is very much aware that many restaurants do not last this long. “We’ve seen so many other restaurants come and go around us. I’m so conscious of that, and we need to stay consistent. The worst thing that could happen for me is that we have to close because we suck,” she says. “If I ever close, or decide to move on, it will be because we choose to and we are in a good position.”

Birth of an industry

As Domaine de Grand Pré grew, other wineries in Nova Scotia were forced to up their game. This made the Stutz family happy, because when the province succeeds, everyone in the industry benefits. “We gave huge pressure to the wine industry, but now they give huge pressure back, and that’s perfect. We love this pressure,” says Hanspeter. The wildly popular Tidal Bay appellation that has become so important to our wine industry is also something that makes Hanspeter very happy. “There’s a photo of Justin Trudeau and Scott Brison at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland holding a bottle of Grand Pré Tidal Bay. That’s so good for the industry, not just for us.”

When Domaine de Grand Pré showed that you could make a success of wine here, other wineries changed their mentality and brought in skilled people to shake up their own production (not everyone is lucky enough to have a skilled and educated winemaker in their family, after all). “That was especially important to the industry because in Nova Scotia there is often a mentality that my grandfather did it this way or my father did it this way and I’m going to do it this way,” says Hanspeter. “You see that in all industries, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the right way.” Consultants were brought in, methods were updated and our fledgling industry grew and grew.

Anna Weig, Hanspeter Stutz

Hanspeter remembers being the sole Nova Scotian producer with a booth at the annual ProWein show in Germany, the world’s biggest annual trade show for wine, but says that last year there were six local producers. That brought the total Canadian representation to 26 booths. This is huge, and indicative of how seriously our wine is being taken on the global stage.

Hanspeter is incredibly passionate about the wine he produces, and he is always pushing to do better and to create something wonderful from his vines. On his last visit to ProWein, he took his Reserve Riesling, which was a bold move. “Taking a Riesling to Germany is like taking beer to Munich,” he says. “But we had German vintners coming over to ask to taste because they’d heard about this Riesling from Canada. That felt good. This was the perfect sounding board. I’m not saying that I’m ever expecting to export Riesling to Germany, but to get that feedback was perfect.”

Where next?

Domaine de Grand Pré is producing 10,000 cases a year, with 95 per cent of their wine being sold in the province. Last year saw more than 35,000 visitors come to the winery. They’re looking to expand, though, and planted 15 acres of vines last year. Like every other producer in Canada, bureaucracy is a huge barrier to increasing domestic sales. “It is absurd that it is easier to sell a container of wine to China than a case of wine to New Brunswick,” says Hanspeter. “If we had a completely open domestic market, we wouldn’t need to export wine and wouldn’t have enough grapes here in Nova Scotia to meet demand in our own country.”

Because of the ridiculous laws that restrict domestic sales, Domaine de Grand Pré (and other local producers) have to look to international export markets when thinking about expansion. Hanspeter believes that the future is in exporting to the Chinese market, particularly specialty products rather than red or white wines because the Chinese can buy those cheaper from Chile and Australia. “We see a future in niche products like our Pomme d’Or ice cider or our icewines or our newest product, the wild blueberry wine,” he says. “You have to enter new markets with niche products and not commodities. We are privileged to have all the basic products — the apples, the berries — here, and we have to explore these things.”

When visiting with the family at Domaine de Grand Pré, you get a taste of how passionate they still are and how committed they stay to doing things right. This comes with a great deal of satisfaction, which is why Hanspeter scoffs at the idea of slowing down. “I’m busier now than ever!
I have so many ideas, always ideas of what we can do next.”

For Beatrice, this is what she has always wanted, since she was a young girl. “I dreamed of having a small restaurant, and now I have it, though this is a little bigger than I dreamed,” she says. “I always wanted to be known for the food and the atmosphere. I never wanted massive numbers. I love what I do, and I love working with Jason because we have the same passion for this. It all fell into place, and I’m proud to still be in business and proud of how far we have come.”