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The do-it-yourself sommelier; The Home Vintner elevates art of handcrafted wine

Posted by Calgary Herald article May 12, 2008, May 12th, 2008 | 0 Comments

Calgary Herald
Mon May 12 2008
Page: B7 / FRONT
Section: Calgary Business
Byline: Gina Teel
Source: Calgary Herald

Small Business

The Home Vintner

- Total of seven stores -- two in Calgary, one in Airdrie and satellite stores in Cochrane, Olds, Drumheller and Stettler;

- Focus on discerning wine drinkers interested in making quality handcrafted wine and beer;

- Also carries kits for wine coolers, port, sherry, ice wine and champagne.

- A limited edition Italian Brunello is a favourite.

There's a certain stigma associated with homemade wine, usually as a result of having sampled the less than stellar handiwork of well-meaning but thrifty relatives who turn a blind eye to the dry-mouth pucker of plonk.

But not all wine kits are created equal, said Paul Sass, owner of The Home Vintner, so it's possible to produce premium handcrafted wine from a kit that's more than capable of holding its own against top-dollar commercially produced labels.

"We're always very frustrated that people throw the whole handcrafted wine and beer industry into the same pile," he said.

Sass said his business has set the bar for the premium quality handcrafted winemaking and beer making sect. Part of it has to do with having access to the best quality wine he can get his hands on.

The store carries award-winning kits by Winexpert, produced from varietal wine juices of esteemed vineyards around the world.

The rest has to do with the store's focus on education. In addition to having certified winemakers on staff, The Home Vintner offers tiers of classes that start with educating beginners on how to make top-notch wine from the kits available at the store.

"I just cringe at anybody drinking mediocre wines," Sass said.

Sass said his customer base is people who "get" wine: they travel a lot, they've been to vineyards around the world, and have a well-developed palate.

Most of his customers are sold on the idea of building a global wine cellar by handcrafting wines from around the world using kits from The Home Vintner.

One customer, a nuclear physicist, loves to make his own wine to put on the table at dinner parties to go head-to-head with expensive store-bought wines, Sass said.

The customer knows he can match the better wines available.

"It's strictly a hobby aspect to it. These guys can buy whatever wines they want," Sass said.

The shop also has its own wine guild, whose members have since 1993 amassed 351 provincial and national awards for their handcrafted wines.

Sass himself just racked up yet another top Alberta award for his homemade Pinot Noir -- currently his favourite type of wine.

While guild members are largely connoisseurs, Sass said no one is allowed to get too obsessive or serious, as that takes all the fun out of it.

People who get allergic reactions to commercial wines like to make their own wine as well, as there's less reactive the ingredients. The money saving aspect of making wine attracts others still.

Winemaking kits range from about $62 to $175, with each kit producing 28 to 30 bottles. Starter kit hardware is $69.95.

But The Home Vintner isn't just about wine. The store also carries kits for wine coolers, beer, port, sherry, ice wine and champagne.

The wine coolers mature fairly quickly, and are drinkable in less than a month. Sass said they're popular in the summer, and people like varieties such as Green Apple Reisling, Wildberry Shiraz and Black Raspberry Merlot.

The Baron's Premium Beer Kits are big sellers, too. "We focus on micro-brewery calibre of beer," he said.

Classes are popular now too, as more people want to learn how to make quality wine at home.

Most of the time, newcomers will start off with a Chilean Merlot, which matures quickly. Over time, they'll graduate to making other wines that can take one-and-a-half to two years to mature.

There's wine appreciation class, where customers learn to swirl the glass and look for different characteristics. The next tier of classes is on wine and food pairings, to help customers get the most out of the wines they make.

His biggest pet peeve is bad corks. Sass brings in only those corks where the bonding agent that holds the particles together meets international standard. "If they use a cork cheap bonding agent, then their wine starts to smell like old sweat socks," he said.

Synthetic corks for longer term storage are on offer as well.

A former commercial cargo pilot, Sass was always into wine and worked in wine stores on layovers just for something to do. A downturn in the aviation industry led him to open his own business. "This is what happens when your hobby gets out of control," he said.

Sass and a business partner opened the northwest store in 1993, which was embraced by Calgarians from day one. In 1998, Sass bought out his partner and became the sole owner.

He opened a second store, in the city's northeast, in 2000, followed by a third store in Airdrie around 2005.

But with loyal customers driving to his stores from all parts of Alberta, Sass decided he needed to devise a better way of getting the wine to them.

The solution arrived via water stores in smaller towns and cities. A lot of winemakers were going into water stores anyway for water, so Sass set about seeing if he could leverage that.

He ended up cutting contracts with the water stores to carry the product, which The Home Vintner still owns, in exchange for a cut of the sales. It was a way to expand without the overhead or rent.

"It was absolutely the only way to expand into smaller areas, because you can't sustain this amount of inventory and this amount of overhead in a smaller community," he said.

Cochrane was the first satellite store, followed by four more.

Annual sales are near $1 million.

• Colour Photo: Ted Jacob, Calgary Herald / "I just cringe at anybody drinking mediocre wines," says Paul Sass, owner of The Home Vintner. He says a quality kit wine can go head-to-head with premium store-bought bottles.

Edition: Final
Story Type: Business; Profile
Note: Profile of The Home Vintner.
Length: 963 words
Idnumber: 200805120073 

Post filed under: Ask The Vintner

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