PENTICTON, British Columbia — Before entering the business of wine, Sandra Oldfield was in the business of selling fashion. Dresses and ties, to be exact, at Macy’s.
She was so good at it that one year she was the top salesperson for the famed department store in all of California, her home state.
After growing up in Northern California and studying international business at California State University, Sacramento, she earned her business degree and “didn’t know what to do with it,” she says.
Thankfully for the wine world, she moved on from Macy’s to Rodney Strong Vineyards, working both on the sales side and in the lab at Healdsburg, getting four harvests under her belt before being accepted into the masters of enology program at the University of California, Davis.
“I had to upgrade all of the science ‘stuff’ and allow myself to be a science person,” she says, needing to ‘reframe’ her brain somewhat.
“I decided to run with it, but it kind of kicked me in the ass,” she adds.
But that was better than working in retail.
“I like having a basis for testing things out, testing hypotheses, and I can speak the science of wine when I need to.”
At UC Davis, she met Kenn Oldfield, who was there studying viticulture in preparation to launching Tinhorn Creek Vineyards near Oliver, British Columbia. In 1995, she loaded up her ‘66 Mustang and drove to Canada to become Tinhorn’s winemaker. Within a handful of weeks, she was in a new country, had a new job, married to Kenn and gained a new family.
As soon as Sandra landed north of the 49th parallel, she was keen to not only work in the B.C. wine industry, but also help shape it. She volunteered to serve on committees, participated in the establishment of the Vintners Quality Alliance program and made as many connections as she could.
At that time, there were just 28 wineries across the province. Sandra went on a tour of all of them, hitting the road on her own to meet the people behind each one.
“I wanted to get out there and get to know people,” she says. “Some were willing to share (information), and some were not, but you don’t need to have dozens of connections, just a few core ones.”
In her first vintage at Tinhorn, there was a misstep with Pinot Gris, but she also made a statement with Merlot. It featured new oak barrels — a “shock” to many in the province but an example of her education at the top winemaking school in the U.S.
During the next two decades, Sandra increased Tinhorn Creek’s production and sales from 1,000 cases to more than 40,000 cases, mostly from estate fruit. Under her leadership, Tinhorn became the first in Canada to use Stelvin screw top caps, and she championed Cabernet Franc. The winery also turned into a bespoke entertainment hub for the South Okanagan thanks to an incredibly popular concert series in the stunning outdoor amphitheatre.
A sense of community has always been important to both Sandra and Kenn, and in 1997, they founded the Oliver Festival of the Grape, a signature event that returns on Oct. 2 after a two-year absence as a result of the pandemic.
Then in 2011, Sandra stepped into the CEO/president role at the winery, taking on new tasks.
“The best part of running Tinhorn and changing roles was the constant learning, being able to empower and train employees, and — if you were engaged — you could help shape an industry,” she says. “I liked that I was able to work at bettering the industry and ‘bake the cake’ a little.”
As CEO, she led the drive for B.C.’s first sub-appellation — the Golden Mile Bench, which was established in 2015. She also established Tinhorn Creek as Canada’s first carbon neutral winery, and in 2016 her winery was named Canada’s safest employer. That same year, she ranked among Hospitality Canada’s Top 100 Powerful Women list.
In 2017, after more than two decades of effort by Sandra, Kenn and their team, Canadian giant Andrew Peller Ltd. — a publicly traded company — purchased Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.
“We built a good brand, and Peller saw value in that and what we had done,” she says.
For Sandra, though, it wasn’t about the brand.
“It was about creating and building an experience in the South Okanagan, something memorable. And for Kenn and me it was about the community,” she explains, noting the role Tinhorn has played in the growth and development of Oliver and the surrounding area.
As for the sale of Tinhorn, Sandra says it was an opportunity to reinvent herself.
She shifted more of her energy and hard-earned knowledge toward her passion to help people in their jobs. It prompted her and Kenn to create a consulting firm, Elysian Projects.
“It’s been very fulfilling,” she says. “I could effect change in a good way and help businesses create harmony in their employees’ lives.”
The Oldfields added to their family by adopting. Their now teenaged daughter has been around the hospitality industry almost her entire life, and now works in it.
“Intuitively, I think it has made me more empathetic,” Sandra says. “You start to see and recognize the pressure that everyone is under between your work and home life, and I certainly see it now with more women entering the wine industry.”
A genuine force on Twitter with more than 16,000 followers of @sandraoldfield, she began a weekly — aside from a summer break — one-hour Twitter chat via #bcwinechat. Twitterers from industry and/or fans of B.C. wine tune in at 8 p.m. Pacific on Wednesdays to follow a specific topic, or sometimes for a “free for all” discussion of what is in everyone’s glass.
She has yet to embrace newer platforms, preferring the “in the moment” aspect of Twitter.
“What I like about Twitter is that you tend to have a more authentic conversation,” Sandra says. “Even though (content) is archived, you don’t post something and then a week later someone comes back and ‘likes’ it. It is the right platform for #bcwinechat. You can talk to many people and engage for an hour.”
And anything by @sandraoldfield on Twitter is something she would post anywhere else online: “If it’s out there, then it’s appropriate to share elsewhere.”
If you’ve followed Sandra on Twitter, you may recall a conversation about firearms. To prove a point about the challenges of shipping wine interprovincially across Canada, she ordered a gun online and had it shipped.
While many wineries have found work-arounds and the Free My Grapes movement in Canada is somewhat quiet, the fact remains that depending on what province you’re ordering wine from and what province it’s going to, you may be breaking the law if your wine crosses provinces.
“It should be legal, no matter how you get around it,” Sandra says. “I still have the gun. When it is legal (to ship wine anywhere in Canada), I might auction it off with some fine wine.”
Sandra believes the wine industry — and almost any industry — must improve the management of its greatest resource. Not the land, not the grapes, not its production protocols, but its people. Once a business is healthy and profitable, great things can happen, she maintains.
One of Elysian Projects’s early targets was the Fortify Conference, a symposium for artisan fermenters, brewers and distillers launched in 2018 and set to return to an in-person format Nov. 14-15 in Penticton.
The Fortify Conference centers on the business needs of the province’s craft beverage industry with seminars and presentations on finance, marketing and human resources.
“It is an opportunity to get content to small businesses, give them some fundamental business basics and look at what you can do that makes life better for your employees,” she explains. “It took me a while to figure that out, but now Fortify is a way to help these industries up their game and get help in the areas most businesses struggle with.”
Fortify includes a robust trade show open to anyone on either side of the border, and speakers from the U.S. have presenters in Penticton. Through Fortify, Sandra says she’s gained knowledge and forged connections across the entire British Columbia craft beverage network.
“There’s a lot more risk in the industry right now,” she says. “Changing consumer patterns, online shopping, climate change, labour patterns … but there are super-smart people figuring it out without a lot of capital.”
Oldfield was recently named chair of the board for the B.C. Hospitality Foundation and continues to share her time and expertise with other associations.
Is there another chapter, or another story for Sandra?
“I might figure that part out next,” she says.