Trophy Wife Becomes Successful Vegan Vintner
Sherry Karlo is the co-founder and president of Karlo Estates Winery located in Prince Edward Country, Ontario, where they produce award-winning vegan wines, all made from grapes grown in Ontario, including their own vineyard.
If it’s news to you that some wines (beers and spirits too) are not necessarily vegan, Sherry explains why, what Karlo Estates does differently, and how they became the first winery in the world to be certified vegan.
Despite the loss of Richard Karlo in 2014, not long into their professional winemaking venture, Sherry and her team have made remarkable progress in growing Karlo Estates and expanding their offerings.
As Sherry said, “Being vegan is pretty cool.” It was such a pleasure to speak with this fellow vegan and be witness to her passion for sharing the beauty and ease of the vegan lifestyle. For that reason, I've left most of our conversation as a Q&A so you can learn from Sherry directly.
Please share your vegan story.
I first went vegetarian when I got into college and I gained that freshman 15 because I discovered that it was easier to keep my weight down and to spend less money if I was eating vegetarian. Through that, I went to the Toronto Vegetarian Association's Harbourfront Summer Festival that they do every year. At that time, I walked into a seminar room that was showing a documentary on how animals are treated in the slaughter industry. I was so shocked and appalled that I immediately decided that I was not going to be participating in that anymore. And I was very angry because I couldn't believe what we as human beings are doing to the Earth and our fellow sentient beings.
I was working in advertising, and it was getting hard at that time to be on set doing TV commercials all day long and find vegan food to eat. I fell off the turnip truck a little bit, and I started eating fish and chicken. Then I moved out to Prince Edward County full time in 2010, where they roll up the sidewalks after 9:00 p.m. so there's not a whole lot to do. I was surfing the internet, and I stumbled across another video about how animals are treated in the slaughter industry. I thought, that's it, I'm not participating in that. At that time, I also found out that wine is not necessarily vegan. I let my husband [Richard Karlo] know that I was no longer going to be eating animals and I was no longer going to be drinking wine because I didn't want to participate in that.
Please share your journey into vegan winemaking.
Richard set out to prove to me that he had been making his wine vegan accidentally since he started making wine as an amateur winemaker. We started making wine professionally in 2008, and he just wanted to prove it to me so I would drink with him. He did prove to me that he was using bentonite clay instead of fish swim bladders and scales. Casein, which is powdered milk, egg whites, even ox blood or pig blood, is used in the fining process to take little bits of seeds and skin and must out of the wine to help with the clarity. We mostly use time and gravity here. If we ever need to use anything to push all of those particles down to the bottom of the tank so we can then pump off the clear wine and let the sludge drain off, we will use bentonite clay. It not only has the benefit of not being animal-derived but also bentonite clay is often used in the cosmetic industry because it's an antioxidant.
We quite often get feedback from critics that our wines taste very clean and fruit-forward. I think that's partly because they're non-interventional wines, we're making them very naturally and the things that we're putting through the wine are making the wine cleaner, like the bentonite clay. There's another process in winemaking that decides whether a wine is vegan or not, and that is right before bottling, a winemaker can artificially age wine by stripping out the acids and tannins to get it to the shelf sooner. The problem with that is whenever you strip out acids and tannins, it's a very harsh process on the wine and it steals the wine's longevity. The wine no longer has the bones to lay down in your cellar for 25 or 35 years.
That's often not a problem because most people drink the wine within 90 minutes of purchase. But for those who have a wine cellar and want to lay down their wines and age them to get the most enjoyment, it's not a good idea to buy wines that have had their acids and tannins stripped out of them. The way that a winemaker does that is they put protein through the wine and the protein attracts the acids and tannins. That molecule becomes heavier and then it precipitates down to the bottom of the tank. Then again they rack off the clean wine into another tank. For us, rather than using ground-up animal parts, if we do have to adjust acids and tannins, we use pea protein, potato protein or pumpkin protein. But we generally use time and gravity in our winemaking process.
Those are just two of the processes off the top of my head that determine whether a wine is vegan or not. At that time, Richard said to me, “If it's that important to you, it's going to be that important to other people.” I think with his background as a civil engineer, doing a lot for quality control certifications, he said that we should get vegan certified because that way people don't have to just take our word—they can see that we have our certification. We got our certification in 2012. They asked us to document our process and all of our suppliers in that process. They contacted our suppliers and obtained affidavits for the things we were buying like corks or any glue on the packaging. Even inks on our labels are made with vegetable dyes.
We use our vegan practices in the vineyard. All of our food offerings at the winery are also plant-based. It's a complete 100% holistic approach to being as vegan as we can get.
Please share about your 2014 vintage being completely spoiled.
Richard discovered he was sick in January. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in April, and he died in November. We were going to all sorts of hospitals around April and May, and then eventually he came home to convalesce; he wanted to spend his last weeks at the winery. As he became more paralyzed, obviously he couldn't go out and look after the wine. I didn't know what I was doing. I was basically a trophy wife—at least he liked to think I was a trophy wife. We had wine assistants that were helping to look after the wine, but they didn't know what they were doing either. Because Richard wasn't able to be on-site to give them direction, things just went off. You need to look after the wines every day.
You have mentioned that you want to be international in the next 5 to 10 years. How are you going to make that happen?
We're called Karlo Estates. Karlo is singular Estates is plural because we get our fruit from vineyards that are not necessarily wineries. A winery is where you produce the wine, but a vineyard is where you grow the grapes. We not only grow fruit, but we buy from other vineyards throughout Ontario. The way we would grow is not only to plant here—it takes five years to get a vineyard up and running and fully producing—we would continue to buy from other vineyards throughout Ontario. We have estate grown, we have county grown, and we also have Ontario grown suppliers.
Can you tell me about your plans for an event centre?
We've always had a 25-year plan; for the longest time, it was just in Richard’s and my head. When he died, of course, I had to write it all down so I could prove to the banks that we could do this. And I've been very lucky to have my now partner and fiancé [Saxe Brickenden] help me with that. He was an entrepreneur when he was 14, has founded seven businesses and is a business builder. He's been instrumental in helping me get everything out of my head and onto paper and make a 92-page business plan.
It's always been a plan to have an inn on the winery. We're hoping to partner with an inn company or entity because we don't know a lot about that business. We know how to make wine and we know how to farm grapes, but we're not experts on an inn, so we would find a partner for that. We have a parcel of land on our 93 acres that's already separated. We would use 13 acres to build the inn. We back onto a golf course, so we would work with them as well to create wine and golf excursions. Even cross-country skiing because we're also on the Millennium Trail, which is an old railway bed that goes all the way across the county and hooks into the Trans-Canada Trail. There's lots of potential for that.
What's your biggest reward in doing this work?
There are two. One is the sense of pride in making world-class wines that win awards. That's very gratifying. And to know that these are vegan wines, we're not using all the same techniques that other people are using and we’re well respected. And the other thing is introducing people to vegan food and going vegan. People have become vegan because of my influence in their life. I've had family members go vegan. I've had customers go vegan. I've had staff members go vegan. So that's very gratifying.
What is something that you've achieved that you're most proud of?
I think it's pulling the business out of a really bad situation. When Richard died and we had to dump that entire 2014 vintage, we dumped over $600,000 worth of wine, and the banks don't like that. I'm proud that seven years later, here we are. The business is stable, we have a really good team and things are taking off. We have people calling us from all over the world who want to do stuff with us because of our ethics. They don't even care that we're this tiny winery. Our reputation—I'm very proud of that.
Does this work fulfill you?
That's a good question because sometimes I don't even have time to sit and think. I was supposed to be a fine artist and I'm a classically trained oil painter and I haven't had a lot of time to draw or paint since Richard died. But I do think the most fulfilling part is exposing people to vegan eating and a vegan lifestyle and that they see that it's not only delicious, but it's really good for you and doable. That's the most gratifying part for me, I'm doing my part to make the world a better place.
Do you see yourself doing anything other than what you're currently doing?
I hope to grow the business to a point where I don't have to be here day in and day out so that I can be painting. I'd like to get back to eventually being a fine artist. But I can't see myself ever selling the winery. I think I'm going to end up working in the business until I'm in my eighties, but I would like to get it to a point where I can take time off.
What's one simple thing that each of us can do to advocate for animals?
Cooking a vegan meal. I think that our way to save the world is through what's on the end of our forks—it’s through what's on the plates. Cook a vegan meal so people see how delicious and easy it is; there are vegan products and many things that are accidentally vegan—95% of what's edible on earth is vegan. By eating that way, we can expand beyond the usual meat and potatoes. There are so many delicious things to try that are good for you. I think the most important way of advocating for animals is to share vegan food. Telling people to do something is the last thing that's going to get them to do it. Show them the benefits and what's in it for them.
In your lifetime, what do you hope the vegan movement will accomplish?
I'm excited that we're getting close to the point where vegan food is going to be cheaper than animal food. I see that coming in the very near future and in my lifetime. I would like it to get to the point where we think I can't believe we used to eat animals, that people will understand that eating meat and animal products is bad for your health. I think that maybe by the time I'm in my eighties, we could be there. That's 30 years from now.
What will be your legacy?
I'd like to be known for being the person who instigated the vegan wine movement by being the first to certify our wines vegan in the world. I think that's something to be proud of. And the legacy of creating a world-class experience that's completely plant-based. I think you can show people that you can have that joie de vivre while being conscious of how you're living your life. You can still enjoy it to the fullest. You can have your cake and eat it too. You can be healthy. You can be considerate of other beings on the planet, and you can still have a gourmet, world-class experience.
Karlo Estates Winery
You won’t find Karlo Estates at LCBOs, but you can purchase their wines from the website, or go directly to the farm to make your selection. While you’re there, you may want to take part in a wine tasting and enjoy a visit with the queen of the tasting room, Little Bug. One of eight cats on the estate, Little Bug loves to hang out with humans more than her feline friends. She’s a chimera and has become the most photographed cat in the area, to the point where she ‘hosts’ a Little Bug photography contest each year with the winner receiving a back vintage bottle of wine valued between $80 and $500.
Every Saturday evening, Karlo Estates hosts a dinner and tasting. Different chefs create gourmet vegan meals which are paired with three Karlo wines that you can enjoy while being serenaded by a local musician. You may even meet a new vegan friend or two among the 45-seat capacity as people come from cities like Toronto, Ottawa and even New York to take part in these events. Check the website for the musicians who are scheduled to appear, and book early since they almost always sell out.
Karlo Estates wines are also available at fine dining restaurants in Ontario. Please check here for a restaurant near you.