Susan O'Dell knows what it takes to create a super pinot noir, as well as a cheery chardonnay. Merlot, too. As president of EastDell Estates, her Niagara region grapes gush to produce some of the finest wine varieties this side of the Napa Valley.

It's been a quick climb up the vine since O'Dell, along with partner Michael East, co-founded EastDell in 1999, transforming an existing winery and restaurant that offered charming rural vistas but poor to middling wines, into a sparkling enterprise that's garnering prestigious VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) medals and accelerating international renown.

"There were lots of raised eyebrows when we started," says O'Dell, recalling the skeptical looks she received as the local rookie oenophile. "A woman winemaker is an oddity."

That she had no background in winemaking made for an even bigger curiosity to her fellow growers, many of whom have been pressing grapes for generations. "But this was a dream of mine and I was committed to making it work," she says.

Photo courtesy of Lakeport Brewing Corp.
Lakeport Brewing CEO Teresa Cascioli keeps the cases flying off the shelves.

And while EastDell's vintner victories have validated her vision, O'Dell also hopes her penetration into the world of wines and vines will inspire other women to take on the beverage domain, historically a male-dominated industry.

Of the approximately 821,000 women movers and shakers in Canada's entrepreneurial pool, only a handful are steering the fortunes of a sector that generates a mouth-watering $15.3 billion in annual retail sales (wine, spirits and beer combined).

O'Dell is delighted whenever she meets a female CEO.

"I remember a flight to Montreal and I was the only businesswoman on board," she says. "Part of the reason for the dearth of female CEOsĀ is that those of us in our 50s, who started and stuck with careers, are few in number everywhere and especially so in the beer and spirit sales preserves. The CEO, especially in the wine business, requires great financial skills and a deep pocketbook."

Echoing that view is Teresa Cascioli, president and CEO of Lakeport Brewing Corp. in Hamilton, the only woman in Canada steering a major brewery. "I see fewer women CEOs in general, so it isn't surprising there's a particular scarcity in the beverage field," she says.

Most agree that one of the biggest problems facing women entrepreneurs is that many men believe women approach business too conservatively.

But Cascioli is anything but conventional in her business plan. When she took over the brewery in 1999 it was oozing red ink. The numbered Ontario company that had purchased the assets and plant of the former Amstel Brewery in Hamilton to become Lakeport Brewing Corp. in April 1992 sold its limited proprietary beer primarily at The Beer Store and the LCBO.

By 1998, floundering against the heady competition of a growing pack of smaller breweries, all battling suds behemoths Molson and Labatt, and swimming in a debt load of nearly $18 million, Lakeport was injected with a $3.1-million investment in equity and working capital by AlphaCorp Holdings. Teresa Cascioli, a Hamilton native and a municipal finance manager, was called in to steer the company back to health.

That she did. First by expanding the product line, redesigning the labels, moving to a can format (because it chills faster than a bottle) and then, heavens, reducing the price of a case of 24 to $24 - nearly $12 less than top-selling domestics such as Blue and Canadian, and about $20 below that of the imports.

The company's market share has since bubbled up more than 400 per cent to a little more than seven per cent of total beer sales, establishing Lakeport as the fourth-largest brewery in the province and the sixth-largest in Canada.

Photo courtesy of Niagara Cellars Inc.
Niagara Cellars president Susan O'Dell has her wine company in an expansion mode.

"We've been the catalyst, forcing everyone to wake up," says Cascioli, who teamed with venture capital in January to assume 100-per-cent ownership of the company. "We just can't run our business the way we did yesterday."

Not only has Cascioli bested the beer sphere, she's won over admirers - some her former detractors when she took control of the failing brewery. "When you say you're a business person from Hamilton, people automatically assume there's something a little less sophisticated about you. That's not true. Never discount the underdog when she has banking, brain and brawn on her side."

Cascioli's leadership has netted national attention.

Last year she was named one of Canada's top 10 women entrepreneurs by Profit Magazine, received an achievement award from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and, at 43, was recognized as the 2004 Ontario Entrepreneur of the Year in the turnaround category by Ernst & Young.

Ongoing, Cascioli is determined to continue convincing drinkers to shift from the mainstream beer category to the value-priced alternatives. "This will be our main goal for the next year or two. It's all about sustainability of profitability."

O'Dell says she's also had to skirmish against naysayers and an often truculent Mother Nature to carve out a niche in winemaking.

"We've certainly had our share of fast, relentless lessons in the wine business, but persistence, hard work and the exciting momentum of Ontario's wine industry have contributed to our success in growing brand recognition among consumers," she says.

No stranger to new landscapes, O'Dell spent 15 years helping other entrepreneurs make their dreams reality, along the way building her own successful business, Service Dimensions Inc., a Toronto sales and marketing consulting firm.

The Butterfly Customer: Capturing the Loyalty of Today's Elusive Customer, which she co-authored with Joan Pajunen and published in 2000, detailed how enterprises can develop difficult-to-attain customer trust and loyalty through predictable and consistent service experience. It remains an entrepreneurial must-read.

Although consultancy was lucrative, O'Dell hankered after larger challenges. "I yearned to escape the city - that wasn't what I wanted to wake up to every day," she says. But founding her own piece of heaven on the fertile soils of the Beamsville Bench skirting the Niagara Escarpment, she concedes, was just the start.

"Just as the initial Niagara wine pioneers pushed the boundaries for vinifera grapes, those of us entering the business now bring a New World vision that marries strategic marketing with a totally enveloping customer experience so that visitors have no doubt they have been to a unique corner of the wine-growing world when they leave our properties and our region," O'Dell emphasizes.

Under the parent company, Niagara Cellars Inc., EastDell started with just 15 acres. With the purchase last year of an accompanying boutique winery, Thomas & Vaughan, the operation has now spread to 150 acres. "A good size for a Niagara winery, but we're not stopping yet," O'Dell says.

Although women haven't chosen the wine business in great numbers, O'Dell predicts that as they get more comfortable in the world of wine, they will want to join the industry.

"It could be a surge from Bay Street to the Niagara vineyard," she says. "Just watch in smart restaurants. The wine list isn't automatically handed to the man, but placed in the middle of the table. I love it when the woman picks it up to confidently order her favourite VQA wine."

(Jack Kohane can be reached at kohane@businessedge.ca)