Michael Dinn with Okanagan Lake in the background.
In the midst of a successful culinary career, Heidi Noble decided she needed a change. In 2000, Noble moved out of the kitchen and enrolled in a program offered by the Canadian Sommelier Guild in Vancouver. While she loved working in restaurants, she craved more contact with people. “I spent all my time in the basement in some restaurants,” she explains.
Fast forward to 2011 and she now devotes her energy and time to growing grapes and making wine at JoieFarm Winery in Naramata, which she owns with her husband Michael Dinn. They produce 9,500 cases of wine a year and cannot keep up with demand. With no cellar door, the focus is on selling wines by the case – mainly to restaurants and private wine shops in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
In addition to the original five-acre property planted to grapes in 2007, they have recently acquired an additional 12 acres near Munson Mountain in Penticton.
The road travelled from line cook to über winemaker has not been smooth or even uneventful. It is certainly one of the most unique and inspiring journeys and the story serves as a handbook of 'lessons learned' and 'challenges surmounted' for others contemplating a similar path.
From the beginning, Noble has been a high achiever who is not afraid of bending conventional wisdom. After graduating with a degree in philosophy and Western literature, she attended the prestigious Stratford Chef School, where admission requirements are the highest in Canada. As a chef, she has worked at some of Canada’s best restaurants, including Montreal’s Tôqué and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
During sommelier training, Noble met and married Michael Dinn, a sommelier graduate who spent more than a decade working front of house at a number of Vancouver’s top restaurants, including CinCin and C Restaurant. In short order, both took full-time jobs with wine importers in Vancouver, and made a down payment on a five-acre property with a farm house and orchard in Naramata.
While holding down their Vancouver jobs, in itself a four-day-a-week commitment, they renovated the house and opened an epicurean retreat in the summer of 2003. It meant being on deck every weekend to cook, clean and greet the guests. It was a year that Noble unabashedly describes as “grisly”.
2004 saw another year of running the guesthouse and cooking school as well as adding winemaking to the mix. With only small revenues from two years of cooking school, it took relying on credit cards for financing to make their first 860 cases of wine. Noble’s father, an accountant and small business advisor, “was horrified”, Noble admits. “But I am a born risk taker and we were confident our plan would work. Plus I had taken two years of accounting and other courses on how to run a business as part of my chef’s training.”
Tellingly, Noble does not advise others to follow their example.
“They should arrange financing before starting out,” she says. “Our risk was an extremely calculated one with a unique circumstance of having a sales pipeline to fill even before starting out.”
Part of their plan included launching a state-of-the-art wine and food centre, modeled after Copia in Napa (now shuttered), in their garage. That idea – ambitious, visionary, perhaps ahead of its time – did not resonate with local farmers and politicians who were not tuned into the opportunities of agri-tourism, according to Noble.
Discouraged by the red tape and indifference, they faced a bleak future if they did not shift gears quickly, and so turned their attention to launching JoieFarm Wines in 2004. Noble agrees that the snag in their plans may have been a blessing in disguise, as running a winery is not a part-time endeavour. But it did not prevent her from writing and publishing one of the finest cookbooks on the regional cuisine of BC in 2007, Menus from an Orchard Table: Celebrating the Food and Wine of the Okanagan, followed by the requisite book tours.
Although Noble and Dinn had educated palates, neither was trained or had experience in grape growing and wine making. For the first three years, they had arrangements with established wineries to rent space and equipment to make their wine. They credit Paul Gardner of Pentâge with providing a hands-on crash course which Noble describes as “trial by fire” with Gardner guiding them through every facet of the winemaking process, from hauling fruit to lab work. They also sought out technical advice from winemakers whose wines they had previously represented in Alsace, Germany and Oregon. Locally, Michael Bartier and Dr. Alan Marks provided generous technical winemaking advice.
In 2007, for their fourth crush, they opened their own winery. A functional structure, it was purpose-built for making wine in the light, lively, aromatic, intensely fruity JoieFarm style. Temperature controlled fermentation in large stainless steel tanks is used to ensure that fruit flavours are optimized and to control the level of residual sugar remaining in the wines. For the glycol cooling system, they started out with a five-h.p. pump, but soon upgraded to a heavy duty 10-h.p. unit. “Whether for chilling power or space requirements take what you need and double it when building your winery,” recommends Noble.
They also spent time clearing the apple and pear orchard and planting the home vineyard with Gewürtztraminer and Moscato Giallo (yellow Muscat) grapes. The choice of varieties was driven by their deep reverence for Old World traditions - taking time developing wine in association with place and enjoying wine as part of a meal. Influenced by Alsace Germany and Northern Italy, JoieFarm’s portfolio includes five “core” wines: Muscat (100% estate grown grapes), Riesling, Un-Oaked Chardonnay, A Noble Blend (“Edelzwicker” blend of Gewürtztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Auxerrois and Pinot Gris), and Rosé (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Gamay and Pinot Gris). Their Reserve program is Burgundian focused, making a barrel fermented Chardonnay and a traditional red “Passtoutgrains” of Pinot Noir and Gamay.
These are not varieties that many producers in the South Okanagan are willing to rely on for their bread and butter. But Noble and Dinn knew better, based on their extensive careers with restaurants. “That is our community and we knew what would sell in the fish emporiums of Vancouver,” Noble explains. “We are competing with such wines as Hugel Gentil, an Alsatian noble blend, or Edelzwicker.”
From the start, 70% of JoieFarm’s production went to restaurants, at least until the recession when their share dropped to 50%, resulting in greater focus on sales to private wine stores to make up the difference.
They also knew that 70% of the wine that went to restaurants would be sold by the glass, with the typical restaurant mark-up (about 100%), and what their selling price would be ($9-$12). From there, they worked backwards to design the wines and arrive at ex cellar prices. “For the most part, they haven’t moved at all,” Noble says. “Our Rosé is still $18.90.”
After all is said and done, the key is cash flow. “We used our direct connections with restaurants and trade to make a plan, and revised it often,” Noble asserts. “How our business developed was governed by cash flow. It never lies. It also has meant never having to fuss with inventory.”
As the script unfolded, Noble took over control of winemaking and grape-growing, as well as coordinating contracts with 12 supplying vineyards. To oversee the day-to-day winemaking and vineyard duties, they hired Robert Thielicke, a 10-year veteran of the B.C. wine industry. That leaves Michael Dinn in charge of sales and marketing, as well as the complex logistics of running the operation. “Not only is he a natural born logistics expert, but he also likes people and drives tractors,” Noble says.
Utilizing their close ties with restaurants and experience in the wine trade has paid off handsomely. To facilitate sales, they created their own wine agency, an ingenious move that gave them control of additional 30% of gross sales. “We live off the proceeds,” says Noble. “It also provides the means to pay for the cellar and service the debt.”
The dream of establishing an agri-tourism mecca in Okanagan – where “peaches and beaches” still rein supreme, for now at least - is no longer at the forefront of their plans.
There is no wine shop, an anomaly in Naramata and the Okanagan. Now Noble and Dinn’s lives include a one-year-old baby son, Theodore. Cooking and eating with wine at the table are still a passion. But, their goal has always been to make wine to the exacting standards of two professional chef/sommeliers. That they have achieved, and the challenge has been both rewarding and all-consuming.