Squeezing cool profits from icy apples
Entrepreneur trades in Westmount living for life as an ice cider vintner

Canada's premium ice wines have been garnering increasing attention from experts around the world. But Charlie Crawford thinks that ice cider has as much, or even more potential. The only problem is that most people haven't heard of ice cider --yet.

"It's a uniquely Quebec product, like ice wine, except that it's made with apples instead of grapes," explained Crawford, president of Domaine Pinnacle Ice Cider. "You an drink it with deserts, cheeses or meals like fois gras. But I can talk all I want, you have to try it to see how good it is."

So far, Crawford has convinced a lot of people. According to the Société des Alcools du Québec, ice cider is one of its fastest growing domestically produced categories. Sales of at the liquor retailer shot up 675% last year to $1.1 million, and a good chunk of that was Pinnacle products.

Crawford took a long and winding route to get into the ice cider business. A boy genius, he skipped two grades, finished high school at 15, and was one of the youngest students in the 1984 MBA class at University of Western Ontario.

After several years of working in fortune 500 companies, Crawford taught, consulted and then ran and flipped a few startup businesses. He eventually wound up comfortably ensconced in a nice Westmount home which he shared with his wife Suzan Reid a Ph.D. candidate who is studying management and their two kids.

For many of Montreal's business elite, having a Westmount address means you've made it. If you're lucky, you can rub shoulders at the local depanneurs and garden parties with residents like Jean Charest, Brian Mulroney, and the cream of the province's movers and shakers.

But for Crawford, the thrill wasn't there. So three years ago de decided to trade in his digs for a gorgeous 400-acre estate, near the town of Frelighsburg, about 200 yards from the U.S. border.

The property included an old house, formerly owned by rumrunners, that offers spectacular views of both Jay Peak and Mount Mansfield. Buying the spread would enable the couple to raise their kids in the quiet country air. Little did Crawford know that it would also turn out to be a good business move.

"We'd seen the house many times on our way to ski at Jay Peak and fell in love with it," Crawford said. "But there was a big apple orchard on the grounds and we weren't sure what to do with all the trees."

Then an acquaintance told Crawford about ice cider. Ice cider is a premium wine-like product, similar to ice wine, except that ice cider is made with frozen apples instead of frozen grapes. It takes about 80 frozen apples to make just a small bottle. The high cost of inputs is reflected in its price. A 375-milliliter bottle can run you up to $25 at the SAQ.

Crawford was leery at first. But with 2,500 apple trees on his property and a glut in the worldwide apple market, there wasn't much else to do with the fruit. So he decided to give it a shot. He invested in some tanks, crushing, bottling and corking equipment, and the first year he produced 1,500 cases of a 2001 vintage which he called Domaine Pinnacle Ice Cider, named after his new estate.

To Crawford's amazement, the ice cider was an immediate hit. Even though almost no one had heard of it before, once they tasted it they fell in love. The fact that several critics, including the Gazette's Malcolm Anderson, gave ice cider the "thumbs up," also helped, and during 2002 Crawford boosted production to 4,000 cases and then to 10,000 this year.

But Crawford isn't just producing ice cider, he's also selling quite a bit of it. Revenues should hit $1 million this year, and are projected to double again within two years.

One of the big reasons for the public's increasing interest in ice cider was the Sociéte des Alcools du Québec's decision to start stocking more locally-produced products in its stores. But that small push was all it took.

"The ice cider is very well liked by consumers," said Josée Morin, a spokesperson for the provincial liquor retailer. "The packaging is attractive and we are going to include Pinnacle's ice cider in more wine tasting events in the near future."

Elyse Lambert, sommelier, at the Hatley Inn agreed. "(Apple-based ice cider) has a lot more potential here in Quebec than (grape wines)," said Lambert. "Apples grow better and the climate is good for anything cold."

But Crawford isn't just thinking local, he's already made trips to show his products to buyers in France and Japan, and he recently signed a co-deal with a international Cognac manufacturer Camus, which will see a co-branded Pinnacle/ Camus products sold in duty free shops around the world.

Crawford has three distribution channels for his products. Liquor boards and direct sales to restaurants are responsible for about 90 per cent of revenues. But he has also set up a small onsite store and tasting room, which attracts tourists out for a Sunday drive. If they call ahead he'll even give them on onsite tour.

You can visit Domaine Pinnacle, Wednesdays through Sundays, between 11:00 and 6:00. The on-site store, manufacturing facility and orchards are located at 150 chemin Richford in Frelighsburg. For information call 450-298-1222 or check out their Web-site at www.icecider.com.


Photo caption: According to Charlie Crawford, president of Domaine Pinnacle, shown here with his wife Suzan Reid, ice cider, which can be served as a desert wine or with cheeses and specialty meals, is one of Quebec's fastest growing value-added agriculture products.

Sidebar: Getting ahead:

o After running a string of businesses in Montreal, Charles Crawford decided move his family to a 400-acre estate which he bought in Freilighburg with his wife, Suzan Reid. The estate has 2,500 apple trees, but since there was a glut in the apple market, he decided to try making ice cider with the excess apples.
o Ice cider is a premium, wine-like product, which tastes similar to ice-wine. It is served mostly with deserts, cheeses and is used to cook specialty meals such fois gras. About 80 apples are needed to make each 375 milliliter bottle, which retails for about $25.
o The ice cider industry, a uniquely Quebec phenomenon, got a big boost when the Sociéte des Alcools du Québec started stocking the product. Sales of ice cider at the liquor retailer shot up 675% last year to $1.1 million.
o Domaine Pinnacle was one of the big winners of the upsurge in ice cider demand. Production jumped from 1,500 cases in 2001, to 10,000 cases this year.
o The company recently announced a deal with French cognac manufacturer Camus, to market a co-branded product in duty free stores around the around the world.





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