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Sep. 24, 2021 | Friday
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Sunnybrook Owner Has Big Plans - At Home and Abroad
Richard Liu at Sunnybrook. (Special/Jill Troyer)

Richard Liu has his feet on the ground, and his eye on the future.

Just seven years ago Liu was in a high powered job in Hong Kong with multi-national investment bankers J.P. Morgan.

Today, he’s driving a major expansion at Sunnybrook Winery here in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He is also Chair of the Ontario Craft Cider Association. And, he’s on a mission to introduce international markets to Canadian wine and cider.

Standing outside the new production and retail space he’s building at Sunnybrook Winery on Lakeshore Road, Liu buzzes with energy as he talks about his plans, while half a dozen or more tradespeople inside move with purpose as they go about their tasks to complete the 10,000 square foot facility for use later this Fall.

“Once the new building is completed, we will change the entire property to more focus on cider, we’ll turn Sunnybrook into Ironwood, and really double down on cider,” says Liu, who bought Sunnybrook with his wife Roslyn, six years ago.

“The new retail space will have a bar, we will have at least ten different kinds of cider, like a brewpub, but with craft cider,” he adds. Liu expects the building to be ready for occupancy in November, and open to the public by early Spring 2020. “We’re in the final stretch, moving at full steam now.”

When we first bought Sunnybrook, “I thought, it can’t be that hard. I had a false sense of confidence,” says Liu, with a wry grin. “My plan was to convert it to a VQA winery, but soon I decided that cider was the thing to do, though I had never tasted cider before we bought Sunnybrook.” 

When Liu took over Sunnybrook in 2013, the winery was selling 500 cases of fruit wine, and 500 cases of Ironwood cider annually. “In our 3rd year, we got into the LCBO, and in bars and restaurants, and now, we sell 20,000 cases a year. 18,000 are cider, 2,000 are wine,’” explains Liu. “Our production space became a bottleneck to further expansion, so our new space will increase production capacity by 5 times.”

The existing retail space will be closed once the new space is completed. “There will be 30 parking spots, and I am hoping for our parking lot to be full all the time. What’s going to pay for this building is people buying pints in here,” he says.

Liu’s ambition doesn’t end with his hopes for developing new craft ciders and filling his new retail space with customers enjoying it. “My passion is putting the Canadian flag in export markets, my real passion is to sell internationally,” Liu explains. “I’m a long term thinker, so even if I hit 80% of my potential here at Sunnybrook, it can’t get much bigger than that. Export is such an unknown, and it might be substantial. Personally, doing export is what I’m passionate about, that’s fun, to meet people, to learn about different cultures, that’s where my personal fulfillment comes from.”

Liu already exports fruit wine to China, “just a small amount so far, one or two containers per year.” This week, he will be exploring European markets for cider, at the largest food and beverage show in the world, called Anuga, in Cologne, Germany. He’s going as part of a trade mission with the Toronto Board of Trade. There will be five days of meetings with governments, suppliers, and buyers. It will provide “full exposure to how people do things in Europe, and a chance to get to know the players there, and understand the markets,” he says. “It would be great to come back with a deal in hand, though I don’t think that’s going to happen. I hope to make some good contacts to develop into longer term relationships.” 

The path to where Liu stands today has not been linear. 

Liu grew up in a small town in Taiwan, where his grandparents were farmers, so “he’s never been a city boy,” he quips. He immigrated to Vancouver with his family when he was ten years old. After an undergraduate degree at York University, he worked in corporate marketing jobs in Toronto, Beijing, and Hong Kong. While living in Hong Kong, he and his wife went on vacation with friends to Paris, and ended up in Champagne for three days. 

“I was just blown away, I got bitten by the wine bug, we visited the vineyards and caves, tasting and touring, and I thought, this is great, this is what life is,” Liu recalls. After that, he “started learning, wine tasting, and formal training, to build my wine knowledge.” 

Liu’s entrepreneurial itch, his passion for wine, and his and his wife’s desire to start a family and raise their child in the countryside, converged to lead him to quit his job in Hong Kong, and come to Niagara to see what opportunities he could find. When Sunnybrook came up for sale, he “came to look, the price was ok, so I told my wife I wanted to pull the trigger, and she agreed.” That was six years ago. 

Liu’s attention shifts back to the present, and he’s eager to describe the innovations in the new building, including pre-insulated wall panels; a system to treat wastewater on site for safe release, to avoid having it trucked away to treatment plants; and pre-insulated chilling pipes to cool the fermentation tanks. “These are more expensive, but I’ve done my research, and it’s a wise investment, it’s energy-efficient, 30-40% more efficient than conventional, which can also break down earlier,” he explains. “We want to do it right the first time around so we spend money where it matters. If there’s a better solution, I’m going to use it, if it makes a material difference.” 

Equally enthusiastic about his role as Chair of the Ontario Craft Cider Association, Liu says the group now has 50 members. “Our mandate is to promote the growth of craft cider in Ontario. Right now, our priority is government relations, to work for a more fair tax rate for Ontario cider,” adding, “we’re also involved in marketing and public relations for our industry.” Liu says his work with the association is time consuming but worthwhile.

Liu says he doesn’t track the number of hours he works in a week, though he does admit, “I work a lot.” His plans for Sunnybrook are still unfolding and very important to him. “This is a family business, and I have to pay my mortgage,” he notes. “But I’m not content with doing well in Ontario. I didn’t give up that gig in Hong Kong just to do well in my backyard, I gotta do more than that.”

While the export work is his passion, he sees it as a longer-term endeavour. “For me, export is, in my mindset, a long term commitment, you have to know your partners and your markets. That takes time, and I can’t spend enough time there right now, but later I will have more time.” For now he’s sowing the seeds for future success. “I’m really trying to take small wins and make them bigger, I’m realistic about that.”