A force to be reckoned with in the wine industry

“The biggest challenge of managing a business is managing the people. Even though it’s easier to do it yourself, team members can bring something new to the table. Give people the room, allow people to make mistakes.”

By Phil Norton

Viticulture is Latin for wine-growing, and when you say it like that it’s clearly an agricultural pursuit.

But Sherry Karlo doesn’t look much like a farmer. Even when she’s out inspecting the grapes in the vineyard, she has a stylish flair that is more suitable to the marketing side of her business. A fine art painter and art director by profession, she fell into the wine business when she fell in love with a wine-maker.

Karlo Estates in Prince Edward County, Ontario has garnered dozens of medals and rave reviews for their 20-plus varieties of wine. They created the first vegan certified wine in the world and pioneered food-wine pairings at their tastings.

Before the pandemic, they had a constant flow of tourists into, and bottles out of, the converted old rustic barn. Situated next to working dairy farms, the winery and vineyards are in the heartland of the Great Lakes tourist mecca, along a bicycle trail where guided tour groups arrive on e-bikes along with bus tours and gaggles of bachelorettes that emerge from stretch limos in formal attire. Patrons can stroll out to the arched dry stone bridge and sip wine while listening to live music. Even in winter there are special events like the outdoors snow-pants dance and comedy improv in the winterized lounge inside the barn.

Sherry took over the entire production when her husband died of cancer in 2014. She attributes her entrepreneurial success to keeping their shared vision alive to make Richard Karlo proud. She was thrown into the role of CEO while grieving her great loss.“It’s easy to be brave when you don’t have the choice,” she says. “You can be damn sure it’s going to be successful; if Karlo is not successful it will be like Richard died in vain.”

Managing it all is never easy.

“On the day that I can’t do this, I pull out the wins list. When something good happens I write it down, tuck it into a drawer.”

Her wins for the first quarter of 2021 include 23 gold medal scores.

“VineRoute named us in the top 20 in Ontario.” Last year, Karlo was named on the “Best of the Best of Ontario” list by Wine Align after Cuvée and the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) chose Karlo for their $500 gift certificate giveaway.

Richard had already been making wine at his place in Ajax when they met online. And Sherry had advertising clients with wine events at the Royal York and Novotel Hotels in Toronto. They matched because wine was their common interest.

“I came to wine from the outside in, whereas Richard loved wine from the inside out. He had lots of wine so it was good to be his friend.”

Richard recognized there was a business opportunity to be first to market with a vegan certified wine. He realized there would be others who where just as passionate about veganism and a plant-based diet to help save the planet as Sherry was. “Researchers at the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy from your diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent.” says Sherry.

“So many farms are changing from animal husbandry to plants for sustainability and personal health.” While the vegan designation is for the wine itself, Karlo takes it further. “From our vineyard practices, to our packaging and the inks on our labels to all of our menu items and even the leadership is vegan. We are as vegan as it gets.”

Her tip for a vegan diet without meat is “don’t dwell on what you can’t have but on what you can have. It’s not about deprivation it’s trying new things.” 95% of edibles on the planet are plant-based. “Pick up a piece of fruit you’ve never had before and try it. You don’t have to give anything up to live in a greener way.” Vegan cheese made out of nuts is offered at the winery. It uses the same bacteria, you just replace animal milk with nut milk. “Or try our walnut, mushrooms, lentils, olive oil, sea salt, coconut oil pâté. It’s our “Faux gras.”

Her new partner in life and in business is Saxe Brickenden. “Saxe says keep your eyes on the road and out of the ditch. You’ll drive towards what you’re looking at.”

Sherry says, “If you are going to earn what a CEO earns, focus on the things that are most important. Strategic marketing versus tactical production. Be the visionary who delegates to someone else for execution but monitor quality.”

“I’ll work on getting private corporate clients and wine clubs to purchase bigger chunks such as a whole skid of wine (56 cases) versus a couple of bottles.”

Generalist or specialist: the meaning of an entrepreneur

Sherry is the face of Karlo Estates. Her strengths include public speaking so she does presentations and focusses on selling. She does all of the design work for branding, from the logo design and the website to the labels on the bottles.

“An entrepreneur is a generalist. The biggest challenge of managing a business is managing the people. Even though it’s easier to do it yourself, team members can bring something new to the table. Give people the room, allow people to make mistakes.”

Sherry has done every job in the winery and is now the CEO. “Know enough to be dangerous. If you know how to do it yourself, you’ll know when people are pulling your leg. When you start something new, start it yourself, figure it out, then teach and hand it off to someone else.”

“Only the fine artist can do the painting. Someone else can stretch the canvas. As CEO, I am a perfectionist; I maintain a high standard. People are the hardest challenge. Finding ways to coach people in a way that’s inspiring not putting them down. Make them feel valuable and appreciated.”

Advice brings focus

“Don’t sweat the small stuff; pick your battles and know when to die on your sword. Give them coaching and advise but let them own the solution”.

“Great advice I got from my partner, Saxe, was to “pull on the chain to always be looking for the weak link. Fix that weak link then pull on the chain again to find the next weak link. If you keep fixing the weak links and then going onto the next one, eventually you’ll have a very strong chain.”

She has had sessions with business coach Stacy Tuschl. They speak about hiring personnel, efficiencies and trying to automate the business. The key to growing the business is to focus on the lowest hanging fruit, in Karlo’s case wine tasting.

Covid creates opportunities

A lesson from Covid pandemic resulted in changing their tasting experience.  They took the business online where she could host a tasting of 100 people all at once rather than just a few at the table in person. She even records the tastings of six different wines so people can watch it whenever they want.

One of her pivots during Covid was finding the mini 5-ounce bottles for the virtual tastings and a studio set up to record the video. They sent out a self-guided tasting kits including wine and a chart to learn about the wines. The key to wine tasting is to define what you like to make it easier to find what “suits your palate.”

Sherry Karlo is a force to be reckoned with in the wine industry. She is full speed ahead toward her vision yet grounded on the farm within a vibrant community. Her business is providing an economic stimulus locally as well as a lot of fun, mixed with purpose to model a greener way of growing wine. https://www.karloestates.com/

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