Food for Thought

Growing a Legacy

Black Creek Winery makes its mark in the industry with their award-winning fruit wines…

Abel O’Brennan is a winemaker with a mission.  As the driving force behind the Comox Valley’s newest winery, Coastal Black, his work is all about broadening the horizons of wine-drinkers (whether they are casual sippers or connoisseurs) by welcoming them to the world of fruit wines.

The term ‘fruit wine’ refers to all wines made with fruit that is not grapes.  It can be made with tree fruits, berries, pomegranates and more—even, in Hawaii, naturally—pineapples.  Fruit wine has been around as long as classic grape wine, but hasn’t (yet) come on board as a full-fledged member of the mainstream North American wine industry.

“I missed the memo that says grapes are not longer a fruit,” says O’Brennan with a good-natured laugh.  There are no grapes in any of Coastal Black’s products, but there are plenty of blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, all grown on the 820-acre Coastal Black farm in Black Creek.

Their newest product is a sparkling blackberry wine.  It joins a blackberry table wine, raspberry table wine, and blueberry table wine, and a blackberry as well as a raspberry dessert wine.  As well, Coastal Black makes three types of mead (spiced, blueberry, and plain) from honey produced on the farm.

“Fruit wines don’t get enough respect here in North America,” he says.  “People think it’s something Grandpa makes in his basement.  They don’t know that these fruits make really excellent wines.  And there’s a misconception that it’s all really sweet, but in fact our blackberry table wine is fairly dry and pairs well with many foods.  It’s our flagship product and is hugely popular.

“If you look at other parts of the world like Finland or Australia, fruit wines are very well established.  In Asia, they love their fruit wines.  Here, it’s a market that is not being capitalized on.”

O’Brennan was interested in filling that market gap, and all the signs seemed to support him.  The farm was already moving into berry production for processing, so using some of the crop for wine made sense.

O’Brennan wanted to work with what grows well on his soil and in his climate.  Clearly, blackberries grow extremely well: currently, Coastal Black has the largest cultivated blackberry crop in Canada.

“The soil isn’t great for grapes here, and it’s hard to find a grape varietal that can be ripened to its full potential in this area,” he says.  Also, fruit wine appealed because it allowed O’Brennan to sidestep some of the solemn, occasionally pompous attitude that tends to prevail around wine.  “There’s such a mystery around wine.  People get all worried and ask what they are allowed to drink it with or what wine they should be buying.  I say, taste it, and if you like it, it’s good wine… no matter how many stars it’s rated.”

O’Brennan, dressed in worn jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, perfectly fits the role of the unpretentious, down-to-earth farmer.  Standing somewhere above six-foot tall, with a good strong frame and capable looking hands, he looks like someone who can fix a tractor, frame a barn, or tell you all about the soil just by squeezing a handful.

He is also, clearly, a capable businessman.  A closer look at his baseball cap shows it sports the Coastal Black logo, a subtle reminder that this is no hobby winery but rather an ambitious commercial operation.  Since opening for business last August, Coastal Black has produced 80,000 litres (that’s 108,000 bottles) of wine and mead.  The winery boasts state-of-the-art equipment which, says O’Brennan, was only possible because of the relatively large scale of the whole operation.

“We definitely jumped into this business with both feet.  I remember when I was starting out, I was chatting with a wine-making veteran, and he said, ‘Y’know how to make money in the wine industry?  Start with a big one.’  We’ve definitely found that to be true.  We have a lot of investment.  Sure, it is a romantic and fun way to make a living, but the reality is that it is a capital heavy business.  We are working with a business plan that has to come to fruition on schedule,” he says, sounding serious, but not worried.

Coastal Black already has loyal customers—“People are buying the blackberry sparkling wine by the caseload,” says O’Brennan.  Their whole product line is available at close to 60 stores across the Island.

And, well before its first birthday, this fledgling winery has already brought in some prestigious awards.  This past April, Coastal Black entered four wines in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in Rochester, New York, and all of them won awards: the Blackberry Dessert Wine won gold, the Blackberry Table Wine and the Spiced Mead won Silver, and the Raspberry Dessert Wine won Bronze.

“It was a nice bit of validation.  There were 3,300 wines entered from 18 countries, and 64 wine experts were flown in from all over the world to judge.  Ours was one of only two BC wines to get a gold.  What a feather in our cap!” says O’Brennan.

Coastal Black wines recently won four awards in an international wine competition, including gold for their Blackberry Dessert Wine.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

It’s a pretty impressive start, and there’s more growth to come. The day after I interview him, O’Brennan is heading off to Italy for an educational tour with a company he’s buying a fancy bottling plant from.  “It’ll be the first of its kind on the Island,” he says, enthusiastically.  The winery is currently in the final stages of getting a patio licence, which will mean they can serve wine by the glass to visitors.  He has plenty of plans for the future—a traditional wood-fired oven by the patio, a venue that can be rented for events such as weddings, a new barrel cellar, and more.

Obviously, O’Brennan is as much businessman as farmer.  He is also very much a family man.  At 26 years old, he’s expecting his third child and is a very-involved member of the four-generation extended family that lives and works on the Coastal Black farm.

For O’Brennan, who was born and raised on Vancouver Island, the story began when he joined the Ludwig clan by marrying Amanda Ludwig six years ago.  With that ceremony, he stepped into a story that goes back to 1989, when Terry and Bonnie Ludwig bought a 250-acre homestead with a house and a lot of brushland in Black Creek.  They cleared the land to create pasture, built barns, and brought in a herd of dairy cows.  The farm thrived and at one point they were milking 260 cows a day.

Over the years the Ludwigs expanded, adding land till they had 820 acres.  They also had three kids, Amanda, Daniel and Phil.

In the early 2000s, after going full tilt for over a decade, the Ludwigs began to contemplate making a change.  Their kids were moving into adulthood, and the whole family, including its new member O’Brennan, had a series of conversations about what could happen.  No one wanted to take over dairy farming (O’Brennan is allergic to cows and breaks out in hives when he gets too near them), but there were other promising ideas for the using the land.

Daniel, the youngest son, was a beekeeper who wanted to move seriously into commercial honey production.  Phil, the oldest son, was ready to go forward with his dream of founding a specialty sawmill that would provide custom-cut lumber.  And the O’Brennans were interested in fruit farming and wine-making.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” says O’Brennan.  “My in-laws had done very well with the dairy farm.  A lot of long conversations had to happen.”

The first fruit was planted six years ago, while the dairy farm was being phased out.

“The year I was 22 was a huge year for me.  Our first child was born, and that was the year we went big into fruit.  We brought a team of Mexican workers here as labor and I had to learn Spanish,” O’Brennan says.  He was also learning how to make wine, under the guidance of a consultant whose help, he says, was invaluable.

“It was a learning curve, I tell ya!” he says, laughing and shaking his head as thinks back on the intensity of that year.

The sawmill and beekeeping operation partner perfectly with the winery.  The bees pollinate the berries, the honey supplies the main ingredient for the mead, and the sawmill provided the lumber to transform the cow barns into the winery and tasting room.

The whole family lives on the property: the original dairy farmers Terry and Bonnie, Terry’s parents, their three grown-up kids, with spouses, and a couple of grandchildren (and more on the way). This set-up seems like an unusual throwback to an old-fashioned world of farming that, if we believe media reports on the dwindling of rural culture, is dying out.

Although statistics have been telling us that young people are leaving the farming life behind to move to cities, O’Brennan offers an alternate point of view.

“That trend is coming to a bit of an end,” he predicts.  “People are realizing the value of producing agricultural products that can be enjoyed.  There so much more awareness about where our food comes from and how it is processed.  If you look over at Europe all their chefs are rock stars and agricultural production is in a whole other league.  That’s the trend we’re starting to follow now.  There’s a new appreciation of farming and the rural life.”

O’Brennan loves his farming lifestyle.  “What could be more romantic than running a winery?  Sure, it can be really, really busy—for instance harvest is an eight-week marathon when we work 18-hour days to bring everything in—but on the other hand things slow down in the winter and we can take a nice family holiday.

“I work long hours lots of the time but I don’t see what I do as work.  Everything I do I’m doing because it’s meaningful to me.  When I bend over to pick up a stone, I’m improving the ground.  I love what I do.  It’s a kind of freedom,” he says.

He also appreciates the way the business allows him to manifest his values around community and environmental sustainability.

“We like to do things naturally here.  We can’t use anything that might be harmful to the bees.  We don’t spray our fruit from blossom to harvest.  We control aphids by releasing ladybugs; in fact, there’s a short video on the website about this, which is kind of fun,” he says.

Another big value for Coastal Black is relationship.  Hosting tours and tastings isn’t just good for sales, it’s a way of creating a sense of community with clients, educating them, and giving them a connection to the land and people that produce the wine they drink.

“These days, people really appreciate knowing the producers of what they consume,” he says.

Coastal Black runs a wine club that anyone can join.  Members get special opportunity to buy exclusive releases, enhanced flexibility in booking tours, and a 5% discount on all purchases.  As well, Coastal Black donates an additional 5% of all wine club member purchases to one of three charities (chosen by the member): the Canadian Cancer Society, the Vancouver Children’s Hospital and KIVA, a global organization that provides micro-loans in developing countries.

“We’re grateful to be able to support these charities,” says O’Brennan.  “Everyone knows someone who’s been affected by cancer.  And what is more important than the health of our kids?  The KIVA grants often go to support agriculture, which is very close to our hearts here.”

There’s no doubt that all aspects of O’Brennan’s work lie very close to his heart.  He’s doing something he loves, with people he loves, in a place he loves.  And at the end of a busy day, when he sits down finally to sip a glass of wine and look out at the incredible view of the mountains, he surely can feel he’s fulfilling his mission.


Coastal Black Estate Winery is located on Endall Road in Black Creek.