Lorraine Mastersmith and her husband Shaun McEwan are prominent names in the Ottawa business community – Mastersmith a well-known lawyer and McEwan a long-serving corporate CFO.
Now, the local power couple is taking over one of the region’s best-kept business secrets.
Mastersmith and McEwan announced this week they’ve purchased a majority stake in Carp-based winery Kin Vineyards. Although the Ottawa Valley isn’t exactly Napa North, Mastersmith says Kin Vineyards – launched about five years ago by fellow lawyer Chris Van Barr – is coming into its own as a winemaker.
“He’s built it up from nothing, and it’s quite a successful business,” says Mastersmith, a partner in the Ottawa office of Gowling WLG, adding the winery is on pace to sell about 24,000 bottles this year.
“We’re taking it on just when things are really starting to hum here. It takes a few years for the grapes to reach a maturity where there’s some decent production coming off the vineyard. It’s really starting to get to a sweet spot now.”
The transaction officially closed Aug. 30. Terms of the deal were not released, but Mastersmith said Van Barr will retain 10 per cent ownership in the operation.
Van Barr, an intellectual property litigator and partner at Gowlings, has worked with Mastersmith for years. During a business trip in May, he mentioned to his longtime colleague that he was thinking about divesting most of his ties to the winery. Mastersmith, a loyal Kin customer, was instantly intrigued.
“I said, ‘Hold that thought – don’t put it on the market,’” she says. She and McEwan – who’d recently announced he would be leaving his job as chief financial officer of Ottawa-based Quarterhill at the end of the year – made Van Barr an offer, and the deal was hammered out over the summer.
“It’s always been a dream of ours to open up a business together,” Mastersmith explains. “We didn’t really know what kind of business we wanted to own, but we’ve always wanted to do something other than be professionals who don’t have any sort of business to pass on to our kids. We’re both very entrepreneurial.”
One of a small but growing number of wineries in Eastern Ontario, Kin sells about a dozen vintages. Located on 47 acres of land across from the Diefenbunker, Kin currently has five acres of Pinot Noir and five acres of Chardonnay in production. The rest of its offerings – which include a Marechal Foch and Vidal Blanc – are sourced from vineyards in other parts of the province.
The winery has three full-time employees and also hires up to 30 part-timers at various times of the year. It’s a labour-intensive business, Mastersmith explains, because the vines need to be completely pruned back and buried each fall to shield the delicate plants from harsh Ottawa winters. She and McEwan are planning to add five acres of Marquette, a hardy red wine grape that can withstand frigid Canadian temperatures without being buried.
The new owners have other big plans for the site, which now features a tent that can host gatherings of up to 70 people along with a small tasting room that seats about 20.
They hope to start work next spring on a new venue for hosting weddings and other events that will include amenities such as a wood-burning pizza oven. In addition, Mastersmith and McEwan are looking at ways to collaborate with local distilleries on products such as a “Kin gin” and are seeking a licence to sell beer from Carp-based craft brewery Ridge Rock in their tasting room.
They’re also brushing up on their product expertise. The couple recently enrolled in a sommelier course at Algonquin College, where Kin’s winemaker, Brian Hamilton, is an instructor.
“We enjoy wine, but we really knew nothing about running a winery,” Mastersmith says with a laugh. “It’s a bit of a learning curve. We want to be able to speak intelligently about our wines.”
Although they’re still neophytes when it comes to the wine business, Mastersmith and McEwan are looking forward to the challenge of continuing to grow the venture.
“I can’t imagine either of us retiring and not doing anything,” she says. “It’ll keep us busy.”