Opinion: The Chinese are coming … to a winery near you

A gated community of million-dollar homes surrounding a world-class golf course is not what you would expect to find in eastern Ontario. It fits more with the lifestyle of the super-rich in California or Florida.

But it could happen within three or four years if wealthy Chinese investors go ahead with a plan to spend more than $100 million creating such a community near the Thousand Islands.

The lead Chinese investor has already acquired the site – a winery on 600 acres of land – located a little more than an hour’s drive south of Ottawa. The winery, named Eagle Point, is just north of Rockport, which is on the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands tourist region.

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How rich is this Chinese investor? Rich enough to buy perhaps the grandest of the modern-day mansions on the Thousand Islands. And when he heard the sellers owned a nearby vineyard on 600 acres of land, he bought that, too.

The mansion, on the Canadian shoreline of the St. Lawrence River in the vicinity of the Thousand Islands Bridge to the United States, had been listed for sale at $18 million. It’s believed the Chinese buyer paid about $20 million for the mansion and the nearby vineyard combined.

The mansion, which is on the Thousand Islands Parkway, now serves as a Chinese cultural centre and a place for wealthy visitors from the populous Asian country to stay as guests of the new owner while they consider investing in his planned gated golf course community.

The Chinese businessman, Du Zhongyi, first visited the area in 2011 and was “amazed at the diversity and beauty of our community,” according to Tom Lawler, who was promptly hired as Mr. Du’s project development manager.

Mr. Lawler, a former Gananoque police officer and a one-time cruise boat captain for Gananoque Boat Line, had been operating Eagle Point Winery at that time for the erstwhile owners, Terry and Marsha Dixon.

The Dixons started the winery a few years ago as a hobby. He’s a multi-millionaire U.S. car dealer. She’s from Smiths Falls and once worked in the Hershey chocolate factory. At first, the Dixons wanted to sell the mansion and keep the winery. But the Chinese buyer made them an offer they decided they couldn’t refuse.

For starters, the new owner of the winery plans a $3-million upgrade of the wine-making equipment and to start exporting his wine to China.

Eagle Point wines typically sell at the winery for $20 to $25 a bottle. There is huge demand for foreign wines in China, says Mr. Lawler, who believes Eagle Point wines could sell in China for hundreds of dollars a bottle.

Canadians could export far more wine to China, according to Mr. Lawler, if they had the know-how and confidence to deal with Chinese importers.

“For us, it’s owner to owner, and we know we will be paid for our shipments.”

No definite decision has been made to go ahead with the gated community and golf course. But Mr. Lawler says talks have already been held with the U.S. Professional Golfers’ Association on how to build a golf course to the PGA’s standards. Mr. Lawler says that if the course meets these standards, it would be considered for a PGA event, perhaps on the second-tier Web.com tour or the third-tier Canadian Tour.

The Chinese owner of the Eagle Point property believes plenty of his wealthy countrymen will want to buy homes in the gated community, both as an investment and as a place to spend leisure time, according to Mr. Lawler. Some of Mr. Du’s countrymen want homes in countries like Canada as a base for their children so that they can be educated in a western culture, he says.

By the time it’s finished, the project could cost “upwards of $130 million,” Mr. Lawler adds.

As things now stand, the owner is looking at building 80 homes, ranging in size from about 3,500 square feet to 10,000 square feet. Prices would start at about $850,000, says Mr. Lawler.

He stresses this would be an “exclusive” high-end golf course that would not compete with existing courses in the area. There is nothing like this at the moment, he notes.

Provincial and municipal politicians have been very encouraging and helpful regarding the planned development, Mr. Lawler says, adding that local people – not people brought from China – would do the work and provide the services.

As for a timeline, Mr. Lawler says he hopes that pre-selling will begin in 2014 and that the project will be completed in 2016.

“That time frame may sound aggressive, but it is not so for Chinese people.”

It sounds as if this could bring jobs, money and tourists to an area that could use more of all three. Let’s hope Mr. Du pulls it off.

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