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Jay Drysdale and Wendy Rose of Bella Wines Announce the Sale of Their Iconic Winery

In the hospitality industry, offering a glass of sparkling wine is a way to show love, respect, or an extra good time to your guests; and in BC, that often means serving Bella. When someone gives a glass of Bella, they’re not just offering bubbles, they’re giving a knowing wink that says, “I know you appreciate that what I’m pouring comes from good people who care about the land they work, the grapes they grow, and the wine they make, and I want to share that mutual appreciation with you.” Nothing about the hospitality, wine or farming industries are particularly easy or massively lucrative, so it’s these moments of pause and appreciation for the beauty of the work that bonds people together and makes the hard days feel a little more manageable.

When Jay Drysdale of Bella Wines called to let us know that he and his partner Wendy were selling, we selfishly wanted to know it was going into capable hands — someone who would respect and carry on the incredible work that they had poured into for well over a decade. Here is what we uncovered…

Scout to Bella: Let’s cut to the chase: you have some pretty major news to share. Can you tell us what exciting developments are unfolding?

Bella (Jay Drysdale and Wendy Rose): After building up our sparkling wine house over the past 13 years, we’re pretty excited to announce we’re passing the reins of our business on to Brianna (“Bree”) McKeage. For the next 18 months, working alongside Bree and her partner Rajen Singh (of Ursa Major Winery) as we transition our business over to Bree and its relocation to their new production facility in the Similkameen Valley.

If you know us, you know this team makes sense on so many levels. One way or another, we’ve supported each other, through good times and bad, for quite some time. As we contemplated leaving our industry, it was important to us to “leave it in a better state than we found it.” In addition to pushing forward natural sparkling wine production and good farming practices, providing a leg up to the next generation of winemakers as we exited was a must. Helping Bree and Raj through an existing brand and licence is our legacy.

Scout to Bree McKeage: Why Bella? Why now?

Bree McKeage: The answer to this question is layered and has changed so many times over the past while—as I have changed as well. The short answer is this: as we’ve all done some soul searching, planning, heavy admin, and worked through the bones of this deal, it became evident that this is more than just me acquiring Bella—we are really doing three things: 1) we’re building an example/model that we hope will benefit others 2) we’re helping our dear friends Jay and Wendy to transition out of the industry in a way that feels good to them, and 3) we’re building our business portfolio to help develop our property. Raj and I are fortunate to be putting ourselves in a position where we can one day do the same for the next generation.

On a personal level, Bella has always been a part of my wine life—from drinking it straight from the bottle naked on the beaches of Tofino with my girlfriends eight years ago to selling it at Vessel liquor store in Victoria when I worked there—it’s always been my first choice for a special occasion. When I moved to the Okanagan from Vancouver Island 5 years ago, I quickly fell in with the natural winemaking crowd and spent more and more time with Jay and Wendy, asking questions and getting to know their approach, so much of what they did made sense to me—you can’t talk about regenerative farming and holistic agriculture without mentioning Bella. Before this all went down, it was a brand I considered almost holy. Bella was always just a safe space where philosophies on viticulture and community collide, and I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion.

Over the past two years, I feel that I’ve gained practical business experience akin to a hands-on MBA. This, along with navigating climate challenges and industry shifts, made me realize that my skills, knowledge, and knack for community-building would be better applied to developing my own business than they would be working for someone else. By investing my knowledge into my own business, I can also help my whole community. I can hire people, and I can become the boss I never had: someone who can create opportunities for others to learn. That allows me to give back what has graciously been offered to me. Many stars aligned for me to buy Bella, but it is also the result of all of us taking action to help each other enter the next phase of our lives. For Jay and Wendy, it’s time to relax, and for Raj and I…we’re just getting started!

Scout to Bree McKeage: How do you see the two visions coming together as Bella and Ursa Major under the same roof?

Through Rajen’s and my relationship timeline—we’ve helped each other create our own winemaking styles and skills—Raj taught me how to let go and walk away from my wines more, allowing them to develop themselves effortlessly. I’ve taught Raj how to hone in on the details and create more stable, fresher wines. We’ve simply elevated each other’s skills by creating wines and vibing out. Bella and Ursa have always been closely related in the market; we share agencies, etc., and the two brands complement each other very well, like Raj and I.

The benefits of collaborating under one roof mean that both businesses will now share fruit sources and the expense load of mortgages, employee retention, and everything that goes with owning a massive vineyard. Also, Jay and Wendy aren’t in a place in their lives to scale Bella, and Rajen and I can. Bella has been such a staple for BC Bubbles, and that’s not going to change; it’s just going to be done in conjunction with resources and philosophies all four of us share.

Photo credit to the talented Miguel Santos

Scout to Jay and Wendy:  Why do you feel Bree and Rajen are the right duo to pass the baton to?

Jay Drysdale: How much time have you got? I’ve known Raj since he was in high school. I still remember when Raj showed up a while ago to one of our winemaker’s dinners, brain on fire with questions about our ancestral wines, doing more with less, and farming. His raw passion was infectious. Last year we worked harvest together, and I’m not afraid to say this old dog learned some new tricks. Constant curiosity, a similar approach to winemaking and farming, always questioning and finding a better way—it was a no-brainer. And Bree? Wow, her and Wendy are like the same person—it’s almost scary when they get into something. I am really looking forward to working harvest with Bree this year and next. We have great philosophical and academic discussions of what’s going on in our industry, tips and tricks and such, and it’ll be nice to see how that plays out in our winemaking. Together.

Wendy Rose: Have you had a bottle of something these two have made? Definitely something I want to be drinking. But since the reins are technically falling into Bree’s hands, let me say this: she has the perfect combination of passion, confidence, stubbornness and creative spark to make a success in tough times—which is really what owning/operating/making wine is all about. She is the triple-threat, and I saw it in her when I first met her many years ago. Raj is the old soul, the calm grounded one with an exceptional playlist for the circumstances at hand, that will keep the keel even. Does this couple sound familiar? Finally, we (Jay, Wendy, Bree, Raj) are a team. This isn’t your usual “dump and run” winery purchase. We are here for Bree and Raj, both short-term and long, whenever they need us. Passing a baton to those you enjoy and respect is effortless.

Scout to Bree McKeage: How will Bella’s distinct identity and heritage be preserved or absorbed into the Bella/Ursa Major house, especially with moving Bella to the new production location in the Similkameen Valley? Will you have to make any logistical or operational adjustments?

Bree McKeage: I think there are some concrete ways in which the brand will adapt, and there are also a lot of areas where the brand doesn’t need to change at all. The customer and distribution channels are in place, and I have plans to reach some new markets, so obviously, some tweaking here and there to fit those niches will happen over time—but I’m also not naive to assume that I have the answers. I’m here to learn more than anything—my approach is to learn and improve, not overhaul. All that’s happening is I’m taking the knowledge and practices Jay and Wendy have built and scaling them with our existing operation. Will there be some surprising new wines? Sure. Will the same fresh taste be preserved in the vintages to come? Most definitely. It’s all going to be about learning as we go— I don’t think BC has done a sparkling Similkameen single vineyard Seyval Blanc/Pinot Meunier natural traditional method bottle, so why not play around with what our vineyards have coming down the pipeline?

Scout to Bree McKeage: Are there any projects or innovative winemaking techniques you’re particularly excited about as Bella’s sparkling wines start being produced under the Bella/Ursa Major banner in the Similkameen Valley?

Bree McKeage: Yes. I’m excited to play with our Similkameen terroir and the new varieties we have chosen to plant. We will still have numerous vineyards and lease contracts up in Naramata, so that juicy Gamay style isn’t going anywhere, but I have many creative options ahead of me. I’ve learned so much in my career, and right now, I want to combine Jay and Wendy’s techniques, with techniques I learned on Vancouver Island, skills and winemaking practices I gained from my time in Australia, and also my own creative styles.

Photo credit to the talented Miguel Santos

Scout to Jay and Wendy: Having spent the last decade pushing the boundaries of the BC wine/viticulture landscape forward, what advice would you give the next generation of winemakers?

The landscape has certainly changed since we started in 2011. We often say we felt like the last car on the ferry: an old, beat-up Dodge Dart screeching to a halt behind a ferry full of brand-new Porsches. Although the price of entry is steep today, it doesn’t have to be a rich person’s game—collaboration is key. Why buy 5 different tractors, 5 presses, 5 de-stemmers, 5 tanks for 5 wineries? That model is outdated, proprietary, protectionist, and inefficient. It’s time to share resources and band together. Together your buying power is greater.

Embrace hybrids. Yes, farming is hard and very unpredictable (look at the last few years!), but there are certainly better varieties suited to our extreme temperature swings and drought conditions and with better disease resistance. Our industry is still so young; let’s spend the next decade seeing what grows well here and not replicate another already famous wine region (which is nothing like our own) to watch it die off with winter kill.

Be transparent and vulnerable, and explain “the why.” The days of a wine purchase being made solely on a point score or award won at a competition are over. Own why you’re doing something (or not doing something) and connect your story with those enjoying your efforts.

Scout to Bree McKeage: Making wine in the Okanagan is more and more challenging. Some would have given up and moved away (some have). Can you tell us what factors inspired you to dig in even deeper by acquiring Bella?

Bree McKeage: In times of crisis, I’ve seen people take one of two paths: some choose a Machiavellian and cutthroat approach, perceiving resources and power as a zero-sum game—a narrow-minded and unappealing route. The other path, the one we’ve chosen, is about collaboration, sharing, and helping. It’s about the smaller guys banding together, just like big brands do, to survive.

The nuts and bolts of this acquisition make sense and serve as an example of what accurate stewardship means and looks like: how can businesses pass on assets and opportunities to the next generation? I hope other companies can see this as a way to creatively circumvent economic, political, and operational obstacles. It’s better when we are together.

I mean…yeah, farming is hard; it’s the reality of the business; you can’t let fear of failure or fear of the next disaster stop you from achieving your goals. There are ways around it if you’re willing to put your ego and greed aside.

And being in crisis mode has allowed Rajen and me to evolve just as humans. Suddenly, things that used to be huge problems are now manageable. We are miles away from the finish line (moving target anyway), but Raj and I are also so far away from where we started with the property two years ago. We’ve built and accomplished more than I could have imagined; doing even just 1% a day, moving the needle slightly, has added up to overcome so much. It’s character-building in the end, and I think the most inspiring factor in this situation is realizing that anything is possible if you have determination paired with love.

I’m also so grateful for our families, friends, and even our fans contributing and helping in any way they can—I feel very fortunate to have such a robust community constantly propping Rajen and me up. Raj also has this factor where you can’t help but be involved. I think Raj and I are both visionaries, and even though that is incredibly lonely, it inspires people as well. We wouldn’t be anywhere we are today without our families and the community of support we’ve built, so overcoming obstacles in tough times is a group effort.

Photo credit to the talented Miguel Santos

Scout to Bree McKeage: How have you prepared yourself to become the caretaker of a loved brand like Bella?

Bree McKeage: I don’t think you can prepare for the future as perfectly as you expect. We all want to be able to peer into a crystal ball for assurance that everything will be ok—that’s not how life works. I have had many great experiences and learning curves in my career and learned from many notable winemakers. I’ve also had some crazy things happen in my personal life that have forced me to grow. I gave up heavy drinking in December, and that journey alone has given me something priceless: self-love. This self-love has motivated me to continue to grow and learn.

That’s what I’m here for: to learn. I can’t say that I am a fully formed businesswoman and have perfected my winemaking and farming; it’s a moving target of development and personal growth; it never ends. So, I think I’ve become somebody who can buy a business, but I’ll only learn by just getting in there and playing around. I have a long way to go, but this leads me to something I really want to say to anybody reading this doubting themselves: for me, the risk of never taking action and being stuck in analysis paralysis is far more likely to bring disappointment than the possibility of failure. Take the risk, take the jump, because then you enter the realm of risk; suddenly, there are infinite possibilities at your fingertips simply because you stepped outside of your comfort zone.

I think being brave and taking chances is a massive form of loving rebellion, even though we are conditioned to be terrified of it. Eight years ago, I was a bartender…you think I predicted all of this back then? Not a chance. So, to summarize, I believe I have prepared myself enough to be here, but in terms of learning everything, well, that’s never going to end.

Scout to Jay and Wendy: What’s next?

Hah! Good question! We’re both coastal babies, so although we enjoy our time in the desert, the ocean calls us now. We will most likely land on or near Vancouver Island. We’ve definitely got another adventure in us but not entirely sure what that is yet. For now, Jay very much intends to continue his deep dive into his current passions: soil health, learning indigenous plant and land knowledge, and integrating animal husbandry into polyculture ecosystems. He’s also excited about foraging from the sea. Wendy intends to finally finish writing the novel that brought her and Jay together, while looking west over the ocean, drinking a glass of something Bree made.

There are 3 comments

  1. So proud of the people involved and encouraging a positive cycle for Bella. Congratulations! We look forward to the next chapter of something amazing from both groups.

  2. I’m so glad you’re coming home, and am looking forward to the novel, Wendy. 🌹

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