Château des Charmes: Darwinian Theory and the wine grower

The second in our series of corporate profiles where we explore the leadership characteristics of Authenticity, Coaching, Insight and Innovation and their linkage to compelling brand expression.

Natural selection is Darwin’s most famous theory; it states that evolutionary change comes through the production of variation in each generation and differential survival of individuals with different combinations of these variable characters. Individuals with characteristics which increase their probability of survival will have more opportunities to reproduce and their offspring will also benefit from the heritable, advantageous character.*

 

The business of wine growing, seen from afar, appears romantic. Witnessing the dawn come up over fields of orderly rows. Sun-filled afternoons strolling through the vineyards. Monitoring the bud growth and watching the grapes form. Harvesting and crushing and blending and storing and aging and tasting.

Credit: Château des Charmes

Credit: Château des Charmes

 

Up close, wine growing is tough, full-on farming where only the fittest survive.

When you hear Paul Bosc, President of Château des Charmes excitedly declare, "I am just a glorified farm boy who loves that we make something from the earth!" you begin to understand that this is a business where passion and devotion are simple entry fees. If you've got those two qualities only then does the really hard work begin.

Authenticity

It is from these roots that the characteristic of authenticity grows for the Bosc family who proudly and insightfully state - "making wine is not what we do, it's who we are." 

Paul represents the sixth generation of wine growers in the Bosc family. His father Paul Sr. is recognized as a pioneer (if not a revolutionary) in the Ontario wine industry as it was he who first, to some ridicule, declared his intent to commercialize classic European vitis vinifera varieties to Niagara.

It is Paul Jr.'s wife, Michèle Bosc, Director of Marketing for the winery who introduces the notion of Darwin's Natural Selection to the conversation. 

"Whether you approach this business from a purely agricultural perspective or as a commercial enterprise competing for its life in a challenging marketplace, we are driven by survival of the most adaptable," she observed. "Once you understand that you must commit entirely to authenticity you stand a better chance of continuing your successful evolution as a wine grower and marketer and develop a sustainable enterprise." 

Authenticity in the world of Château des Charmes means ensuring that every undertaking - from ground breaking grape breeding research to yield management to crop stewardship to product development to bottling must revolve around the touchstone of genuine commitment to producing the best quality product possible with no shortcuts.

It means, some years, not bringing one of its top-rated products, Equuleus, to market simply because the grapes don't make the grade so they don't make the wine rather than risk their reputation.

Michèle continues in a similar vein by sharing that the company is driven to deliver an "authentic product whether it is a bottle of our wine or the experience we deliver all our guest who visit the winery whether they are a couple coming in for a private tasting or a family who chooses to share their celebration at the Château. There must be absolute continuity between the quality of our product and the experience we deliver."  

Coaching

Paul, who also acts as the chief human resource officer for the for winery, also observes that hiring and management practices revolve around the need for honesty and transparency. "Being part of a family-run business is different. It is, I think, in some ways more intimate because we are so very careful when we bring people on board to ensure that there is a seamless cultural fit with the Bosc way. We will, on occasion bring on board someone who may be less qualified on paper simply because we believe they are a superior fit for the company," he commented.

The winery has a diverse workforce including guest farmworkers, seasonal employees, long-term colleagues (some of whom have been with the family for most of the winery's 37-year history), new Canadians, and some people just beginning their working lives. 

As Paul recalls, "We are probably particularly sensitized to new Canadians. It was, after all, not that long ago that our family left Algeria for France and eventually made our way to Canada. That's perhaps part of the reason we try so hard to accommodate language and cultural differences."

Michèle adds, "As a family business we're sensitive to treating each other with respect. We're very much a company that operates on a strong 'thank-you' principle. It doesn't take a whole lot of effort to express gratitude for a job performed well, large or small, and it makes such a difference to the daily experience of life and working here."

Thank you is the best prayer that anyone can say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.
— Alice Walker

Insight

From the outset, Paul Bosc Sr., intuitively and practically understood that the estate winery model in which he had been educated, was the optimum model. At the time he undertook to establish this in Niagara, the industry was far from prepared or disposed to adopt the approach. 

With the establishment of a small, 24 hectare vineyard (Creek Road) planted exclusively with vitis vinifera, Paul Sr.  applied his scientific understanding of viticulture and his hard-earned experience. His combination of technological and general knowledge was a genuine disruption to the traditions of Niagara. First harvested in 1980, the Creek Road Vineyard remains in operation today and forms the basis of the winery's Estate Bottled series.

"My father's key insight was that the industry required dramatic reinvention," Paul remarks. "He did this quietly but with confidence fully understanding the implications of potential error. The potential for disaster was there but it was proven to be outweighed by his application of disciplined commitment and understanding of the farming of grapes. He was after all a wine grower. This may sound like a fine point but there is a considerable difference between growing wine and simply producing grapes or wine."

It becomes apparent that involvement in farming or any activity so dependent upon the vagaries of Mother Nature requires insight that centres on constant awareness. For the Boscs this means being hyper aware of weather patterns, industry trends, international trade, environmental issues, social media, tourism and travel, and technology. Events that may seem unrelated to the key aspects of wine growing can have a significant impact on the viability of the business.

For example, recent harsh winters in Ontario have proved problematic for many growers. Catastrophic crop failure is a possibility but as Paul observed, the bud counts this spring at the Château are excellent. When asked why he remarks, "It starts with my father's site selection which has us located in one of the warmest and most sheltered locations within the appellation. Combined with our judicious use of wind machines, careful yield management through the years, our refusal to use herbicides, and use of sustainable agricultural practices from the beginning, our vines are able to withstand the rigours of this climate."

All of this of course means that the winery is less exposed to the dramatic negative outcomes others less prepared might face. 

The awareness of industry trends is another huge issue and perhaps the biggest "surprise" and certainly challenge has been the proliferation of competition. According to VQA Ontario statistics, there were in 2014, 83 wineries in the Niagara region producing 1,358 appellation wines totalling 1,871,082 litres. Consider that all of this growth came after the 1988 Wine Act which banned the growth (for winemaking purposes) of native varieties such as Labrusca and Concord. The banning in turn saw the number of grape growers in the region decline from 1,000 to 700 almost immediately to the point where there are now approximately 450 registered growers. 

This all poses a very real challenge to the current management team whose responsibility is to maintain the momentum built by Paul, Sr. while adapting to current conditions and anticipating future patterns. Michèle describes the challenge this way, "Paul's job is to polish the diamond that his father created. My job in marketing is to create the proper setting for the stone."   

 

Innovation

The polishing and setting are where the Boscs' innovations especially come in to play. 

"The reality of our business is that we must innovate or die," says Michèle. "We must maintain a constant state of reinvention while holding true to the foundational vision of the business which is to create a seamless, quality experience from product to profile."

Clearly, this is where the family's embrace of Darwinian principles have a significant impact and it is one that can't always be immediately justified through simple economic analysis. "It takes solid science to be innovative and  continuously improve on quality. The process of keen observation, continuous questioning, testing of hypotheses and acting upon the results has provided us with many cutting-edge techniques and products such as our Gamay Noir 'Droit'," observes Michèle.

The following story appears on the winery's website.

In the early ‘80s I was doing routine inspections in the vineyard and noticed a single Gamay Noir vine growing straight up and taller than the others in the block. I was interested in the potential of this vine so we took cuttings and propagated the vine and eventually made wine from these specific grapes. The wine did have some of the classic Gamay characteristics, cherry flavours and a medium body style, but there was also a layer of complexity that was a pleasant surprise. Gamay ‘Droit’ also has warm spicy notes and a hint of smokiness that is quite lovely. It is also higher in alcohol making it more mid-weight in style. The wine was different enough from standard Gamay that we thought we actually had a different clone on our hands. Once the genetic testing was done we found out that Canada’s first vinifera vine was born right in our vineyard! We were granted the International Plant Breeders’ rights, a sort of patent, so no one else in the world can grow this vine or make this wine called Gamay Noir ‘Droit’. Because this wine is so interesting in the glass we decided to not oak age it. What you taste is the unique flavours of Gamay ‘Droit’.
— Paul Bosc, Sr.
Château des Charmes' world exclusive Gamay Noir 'Droit'

Château des Charmes' world exclusive Gamay Noir 'Droit'

Paul comments, "One of the challenges of winegrowing is this meticulous experimentation and innovation can take 10 or more years to reach a conclusion. That's a long time to find out your idea doesn't work! Several of our ongoing experiments were started over 15 years ago and we're just now starting to see actionable results."

So why make the investment?

The Boscs view their leadership responsibility within the context of a long-term future. "We have to look out 30 - 40 years when the map of this region may well look very different. Already, we've witnessed remarkable change since my father first arrived here and there is simply no indication that the status quo will be sustainable. Our very survival depends on our ability to adapt, to derive competitive advantage and ensure that the seventh generation of the Bosc family (represented by son Alex) will continue to deliver upon our promise of quality products and experiences."

To learn more about the compelling story of Château des Charmes, please visit their site http://www.fromtheboscfamily.com/

My thanks to Paul and Michèle for making the time to share their story with me.

*Source: http://darwin200.christs.cam.ac.uk/