Sisters attract wine lovers with honey.
Emily Vanderschee, her sister Electra Logan, and the team at Meadow Vista Honey Wines are busy as bees. The buzz about their bee-to-bottle business grows among wine lovers who flit from vineyard to vineyard in the celebrated British Columbia Okanagan wine country.
After an afternoon sipping the area’s merlots, pinot noirs, and pinot gris—and drinking in the dazzling scenery of vineyards and orchards arrayed on benches along Okanagan Lake—a glass of fermented honey comes as a surprising detour.
Surprise number one is that it’s not sticky-sweet, notes Vanderschee, co-owner and director of sales. Surprise number two is that Honey Vista’s meads — which range from the sparkling, easy-drinking Bless line to deep, dark meads fermented with blackberries or local Haskap berries— are versatile enough to pour over ice, serve like cabernet sauvignon with Christmas dinner, or even pair with curry.
“It’s not grape wine; it doesn’t have rules!” Vanderschee says with a beaming smile.
Learning process. Though Meadow Vista has been making mead for a decade, archaeologists have found traces of mead on Asian pottery shards dating back to 6500 BC. Mead fueled Viking raids and medieval feasts. But most consumers are still discovering the ancient drink as the industry quickly grows. Currently, there are about 450 meaderies in the U.S. and Canada.
“We called ourselves ‘honey wine’ so people would know what it is,” Vanderschee says.
Meadow Vista meads drink a lot like wine or cider, with residual sugar levels in the zero-to-2 range. That puts most of them in winemakers’ “dry” or “off-dry” categories, far less sweet than gewurztraminer or sherry.
Vanderschee’s meads are also more refined than the basement brews or Renaissance fair quaffs that introduced many consumers to the category over the years.
“We’re using new wine technology, on a small scale, to get the filtration and clarity and all those things that make wine great and sophisticated,” she says. “It’s easy to make mead. It’s hard to make good mead.”
Enthusiasm is building—not just because of improving quality or the alcoholic buzz, but because young consumers like what mead represents.
“What’s happened in the last two to three years is we’re seeing a lot of millennials getting really excited about mead,” Vanderschee says. “They’re buying it, and they’re making it in their basements because they want to support the bees.
“Millennials are really making these choices, asking ‘what’s good for the planet? What’s good for my body? What’s good for the bees?’” she points out. “They’re looking for sustainability, so mead is huge.”
Sometimes they have to look pretty hard for mead on store shelves because merchandisers aren’t quite sure where to place it, Vanderschee notes.
“We’re being put in the refreshment beverage section in stores, we’re being put in the sparkling wine section, but sometimes it sells in the cider section,” she says. “Bliss is in the dessert section. We end up getting split up in the store, which isn’t great.”
For the bees. Benefiting bees is more than just a marketing message at Meadow Vista. It’s the company’s driving force.
Meadow Vista hung packets of sunflower seeds from its garden on 3,000 bottles of mead, encouraging consumers to plant them to provide bees with forage. The company has teamed up with local garden groups to promote bee mindfulness, and Logan is tapping into her experience as an educator and social worker to develop lessons that teach local school kids about bees and pollinators.
The winery will soon feature an observation hive so visitors can peek into the bees’ complex social scene. Guests can also walk around Meadow Vista’s garden, read its interpretive signage, and see the winery’s 120 hives, which are managed by local beekeeper Mark McPhail.
Vanderschee says Meadow Vista and its bees share the winery’s 5.5-acre property on the edge of Kelowna. It’s the site of a summertime bistro featuring bee-pollinated produce grown behind the winery. And it’s a great source of nectar.
“We’re probably using half the garden, and the bees use the other half,” Vanderschee says. “There are tons of wildflowers up there, and there are so many orchards around us, it just makes it complete. You get a whole lot more honey when they don’t have to work as hard.”
The growth of the meadery has created opportunities for other beekeepers, too. Not surprisingly, Vanderschee and Logan are committed to buying local honey, and their impact is being felt by beekeepers whose sales have been pinched by imports.
“We were really thrilled when we went to the North Okanagan Beekeepers Association, and they stood up and applauded for my sister and me,” Vanderschee says. “That’s the whole point: support local beekeepers.”
Growing pains. One of the benefits of working with honey rather than grapes is that Meadow Vista can make mead year-round, in two to three months. There’s no aging: bottled mead goes straight to Meadow Vista’s shelves and into BC liquor stores. The winery produced 3,500 cases of mead last year.
That wasn’t enough to keep up with demand through the May-through-November wine trail season, though. During the summer tourist rush, hundreds of people visited the winery every day and picked the winery clean of its popular bottles.
However, production cost can sting when it comes to cash flow.
“We’re not quite maxed out, but it’s not cheap to make mead,” Vanderschee confesses. “If you make it in the winter, you’ve got a lot of capital tied up waiting for May. I could easily stockpile $200,000 worth of wine. We’re growing so rapidly, and we’re at the point where we need equipment. We say, ‘do you want to make wine with the capital you have or do you want to buy equipment?’”
Beautiful business. A host of bee-related farm products help boost the bottom line.
It started with lavender, which Meadow Vista planted for bee forage. Vanderschee started harvesting the flowers and incorporating them into a honey scrub spa product line. Then came mint for homemade tea, and bath salts made with flowers from the garden. Today, those products share the winery’s shelves with house-made pickles, jams, and beauty aids.
“As you get more people in the shop, you want to give them a little more to do while they’re here and show them what you can do with a farm,” says Vanderschee.