Laughing Stock Vineyards seeks Portfolio investors

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

Naramata operation is owned by two investment industry veterans

Michael Kane

David and Cynthia Enns are investment industry veterans who’ve switched to winemaking at Laughing Stock Vineyards. Their flagship bottle is adorned with ticker tape showing stock prices on the day the grapes were picked. Photograph by : David Szabo/Special to the Vancouver Sun

Laughing Stock Vineyards Portfolio 2005, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Valley: David and Cynthia Enns are investment industry veterans who’ve switched to winemaking at Laughing Stock Vineyards. Their flagship bottle is adorned with ticker tape showing stock prices on the day the grapes were picked.

When the financial services industry is clamouring for your retirement savings this February, two investment veterans will be singing a discordant but possibly more delightful tune.

David and Cynthia Enns will be inviting people to invest in Portfolio, their award-winning Okanagan red wine with its distinctive circular ticker-tape label quoting actual stock prices from the day the grapes were harvested.

Those who pay $35 a bottle in February will be saving $5 on the retail price when the wine is released six months later. While that’s a modest financial return for entering this futures market, it does guarantee delivery of a wine that is becoming increasingly popular and difficult to find.

$50 a bottle on the shelf in wine stores in Vancouver, so the futures program is a really advantageous way to make sure you are on the list,” said Cynthia Enns, the marketing half of the partnership behind Laughing Stock Vineyards, a boutique estate on the Naramata Bench north of Penticton.

The Enns, who met while toiling in the mutual fund industry, are well aware of the investment mantra that past returns are no guarantee of future performance, but they’re hoping their next liquid investment will prove as successful as the last.

Portfolio, their flagship product, is a classic Bordeaux blend featuring cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc varietals. The current edition, Laughing Stock Portfolio 2005, collected the gold medal for Meritage Red at the 2007 Canadian Wine Awards.

That’s especially gratifying for 50-year-old winemaker Enns because it was his first independently produced vintage from the winery at Laughing Stock. The first two vintages, the 2003 and 2004, were produced with the help of consultant Ian Sutherland at his nearby Poplar Grove Winery.

Enns picked up his passion for wine while living in France as a child and started making it in a neighbour’s garage when the couple lived in Crescent Beach, near White Rock.

He recalls trucking in his first batch of grapes from Walla Walla in southeastern Washington state in the border-clogged days after Sept. 11, 2001. Since then he has taken winemaking courses at the University of California at Davis and at Okanagan College.

Still, it was a leap of faith when the couple transitioned from successful careers in the investment industry and their own distribution and marketing company, Credo Consulting, to an uncertain future in winemaking.

Cynthia Enns, now 39, was turning her back on an MBA. When they bought two hectares (five acres) in Naramata, they stuck with the playful name Laughing Stock because not a few people thought they were crazy.

Yet there was some marketing method to their madness. They reasoned their financial industry connections would resonate with the many wine aficionados in the business community.

With the task of making a small Okanagan winery stand out from a field of about 150, Cynthia Enns made “initial public offerings” of “private placements” to chief financial officers, trying to convince them that the gift of a bottle or even a case of Portfolio would impress valuable clients.

This year’s corporate customer targets included Telus, Ballard, QLT, Royal Bank and CIBC — all companies whose stock prices are quoted on the Portfolio bottle thanks to the novel label designed by Bernie Hadley-Beauregard of Vancouver’s Brandever

Strategy Inc.

Laughing Stock also produces a chardonnay and a pinot gris, and this year introduced a new wine for grapes that are surplus to requirements or don’t quite make the cut for the premium Portfolio offering. In keeping with the financial theme, the new wine is called Blind Trust.

As with many small producers in the Okanagan, their products rarely show up in BC Liquor Stores or the VQA outlets which sell exclusively B.C. wines. Laughing Stock typically sells out through more profitable channels, including their mailing list and about 150 restaurants in Vancouver and Whistler.

Less than 10 per cent is sold through their tasting room because it is often closed, even at the height of the tourist season.

“We’re supposed to be here for the lifestyle, so it’s nice to have some balance between making and marketing wine and making sure we get the boat into the water a bit in the summer,” Cynthia said. That suits their nine-year-old son, Joshua, just fine.

Laughing Stock’s wine futures program generates important early cash flow in a business that requires large and patient capital investment but it is limited to six months because the Enns don’t want to promote their wine until they have a good idea what it looks like. February’s offering will feature grapes that were picked in 2006 and are well advanced in the wine-making process.

Bigger producers, like Tinhorn Creek in Oliver, are able to offer merlot futures at a 20-per-cent discount in May with the wine shipped 18 months later.

Tinhorn Creek introduced futures in the late 1990s as a way of getting around regulations that prohibited wine discounts, said marketing manager Shaun Everest.

“Those regulations have been lifted and now the futures program is really a way for consumers to make sure they are going to get access to something before it gets snapped up,” he said. “Many long-term buyers of the futures like to keep a few bottles for several years to see how they age.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

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