Since opening in 2003, New Brunswick’s Gillis of Belleisle has earned a reputation for creating unique award-winning wines. Located at the head of Belleisle Bay, the winery—one of the province’s oldest—is a perfect destination for those seeking a taste of both delicious wine and New Brunswick’s gorgeous summer scenery.
“We get a fantastic breeze coming off the Bay, which usually keeps the bugs away; it’s perfect for growing grapes.” notes Winery Manager Alan Gillis.
With 10 acres dedicated to grapes, and eight more growing multiple apple varieties, Gillis of Belleisle prides itself on its wide mix of offerings. Gillis says the winery caters to all tastes, even reaching markets in China on the strength of its unique catalog.
Opportunities NB (ONB) spoke with Gillis to learn more about the company’s recent expansion and export success.
ONB: Let’s begin with the pilot project that lead to your expansion.
Gillis: That project sees NB Liquor allowing non-general-listing wines in local grocery stores. There were six stores involved, and our wine was on shelves in four. The learning curve for the public was interesting; at first many people thought it was just cooking wine. Once it became apparent, however, that they could buy drinking wine with the rest of their groceries, it really took off.
The initiative has since expanded to multiple chain stores, and we’re faced with the good problem of keeping up with demand. People have responded well to this project, and why wouldn’t they? When they talk about buying local, that absolutely includes wine.
ONB: You’re expanding to keep pace with that increased demand is that correct?
Gillis: To meet grocery store demand as well as demand from international markets. We’re putting up a new warehouse and our current space will see an increase in new equipment. Some of that machinery will be used for the first time in the New Brunswick wine industry.
This includes a membrane press, bright tank, and a computerized bottling line. We’ll move from bottling about 1,200 litres a day to 1,200 an hour. That won’t be every day, but the capacity is there. I’ve actually had another winery approach us about bottling for them, so this expansion will improve life for us and other producers.
ONB: You mentioned increased international demand. That would be China?
Gillis: Correct, the Chinese market has really grown. Their middle class is large now, and they have so much disposable income that they are looking for luxuries. That market isn’t even close to saturated.
I make wines nobody has heard of. Because our wines are so unique, the Chinese importers we’ve dealt with are very excited by what we offer. We’ve exported a lot of our Belleisle Blue and award-winning Cranberry Ceilidh to China and they’ve been warmly received.
ONB: You’ve been to China on multiple occasions; any advice for others looking to do business there?
Gillis: You have to adjust your mentality since they approach business a little differently. I generally enter a price negotiation with two to three prices in mind, knowing they won’t be happy unless they feel they bargained you down. One thing I find people don’t realize is that the Chinese love to celebrate around a table for dinner. It’s important to sit and celebrate with them, don’t sit off at a separate table. Also, don’t get too inebriated. In our line of work it can happen. Stay composed and in control.
Make sure you’re reaching out to the CFIA or the consuls in the countries you’re exporting to. There are people just waiting for your call or email, ready to help you.
Finally, make sure you’re insuring your wares with the Export Development Canada (EDC).
ONB: You’re from New Brunswick but are well-traveled in Europe. What brought you back?
Gillis: Yes, I attended university in England, lived in Poland and Spain, and traveled everywhere in between. Despite having seen all these great European destinations, I still felt a longing to come back to New Brunswick. For anyone who grew up here there’s always going to be something in the air or soil—or terroir as we say in our business—that draws you back home.
ONB: What advantages do you see in New Brunswick?
Gillis: Land is affordable. Also, people don’t realize we have some of the best small fruit in the world; we’re the only region with highbush blueberries for example. It’s also getting easier to ship internationally. The infrastructure is improving and we’ve got more shipping companies going out of the Port of Saint John.
Public sector support is good too. We’ve received funding from both ONB and ACOA for our expansion initiatives. ONB’s contribution goes specifically towards equipment. The bottling system arrives in time for this year’s public grape harvest. People can witness a pressing, and actually see ONB assistance being put to good use. This expansion will also mean added positions, which is always nice in a rural area.
There’s a wealth of help here, so reach out to your local economic development group, whether it’s ONB or a CBDC. If they can’t help, they can point you towards people that can. In my experience those reps will complete 90 percent of the forms you need. They’ll make it as easy as possible for you to get started.
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