On Thursday Oct. 4th, famed Canadian entrepreneur, venture capitalist, author and “Dragon’s Den” star Kevin O’Leary ventured into the LCBO’s flagship Summerhill store for a special appearance to sign bottles of his new line of O’Leary Fine Wines for its official product launch.
What? Wait — Kevin O’Leary? THE Kevin O’Leary? “The Mean One” on the “Dragon’s Den” TV show? The man who has dashed the dreams and crushed the hopes of Canadian entrepreneurs and literally left them crying on national TV? The Dragon so mean he was brought on to the American version of the show called “Shark Tank” to do the same number to poor hapless American saps and single-handedly destroy our image as nice-guy Canadians with our neighbours to the South? The man who was once cornered by a complete stranger in the men’s washroom at Pearson International Airport just so he could tell Kevin he was a complete a**hole to his face?
Yes. That Kevin O’Leary. An accomplished businessman, he is currently the founder and CEO of O’Leary Funds, an investment firm that has amassed more than $1.5 billion in assets — all but unprecedented in the Canadian mutual-fund industry. Oh yeah, he also happens to be a passionate wine lover.
Mr. O’Leary created his wine line in partnership with Niagara’s own Vineland Estates (where iYellow’s own founder Ange Aiello got her start in the wine industry). Vineland Estates President Allan Schmidt — who was in attendance at the event along with his brother, winemaker and Vineland Estates VP Brian Schmidt — informed me of how the partnership came to fruition as a result of a single glass of Vineland Estates wine.
One night Mr. O’Leary was having dinner at celebrity chef Mark McEwan’s One restaurant in Yorkville. Mr. O’Leary was quite taken with a glass of wine he had been served with the meal and the sommelier informed him that it was an exclusive blend made for the restaurant and was not for sale anywhere else.
Mr. O’Leary lamented this and then casually remarked that he should consider getting into the wine business himself. The sommelier told him that if he was serious, the winery that made One’s custom blend was Vineland Estates and they would be a great partner for him if O’Leary wanted him to connect them with each other.
As it turns out, Mr. O’Leary was indeed serious about the venture and made the contact with Vineland Estates . Allan informed me that Vineland was pleasantly surprised by the completely unexpected proposal and that they and O’Leary set out to work immediately on the wine line over the next year, with O’Leary actually choosing the final blends of the wines himself. The O’Leary Cabernet-Merlot and Unoaked Chardonnay were released two months ago to wide acclaim including a recent Best Value in Wine award from the prestigious Intervin international wine awards.
But still… we’re talking Kevin O’Leary here. People literally accost him in the men’s room at Pearson just to tell him off! What would happen when an ENTIRE STORE full of people got to see him face to face? Was there going to be a full-scale mob riot inside the Summerhill LCBO? While there was indeed a large mob, thankfully there was no riot. Instead, they were all fans anxiously lined up with bottles of wine and copies of his book for signing who greeted O’Leary with cheers as he walked in through the doors.
As it turns out, in person Mr. O’Leary is hardly the meanie he is on TV. He was extremely gracious and friendly, smiling all throughout the event as he signed bottles, books and even an entire case full of wine for one enthusiastic fan and wine lover. In between signings, he also posed with autograph seekers for pictures on their smartphones and he even accommodated a camera crew that was interviewing him all while graciously meeting the General Manager, Assistant General Manager and staff of the Summerhill LCBO. Quite the multitasker. O’Leary was also surprised during the event with the news that his wines had won three more wine awards since the awarding of the Intervin award.
One great moment occurred when a cute red-headed eight year old girl approached O’Leary with a copy of his book for signing. O’Leary signed and took pictures with her for her family. Fortunately, only her parents were purchasing wine so the LCBO managers cut her a little bit of slack and allowed the special moment to happen instead of asking her to show some ID.
Before and all during the signing, Allan, Brian and several staff members of Vineland Estates graciously poured several complimentary glasses of O’Leary’s Unoaked Chardonnay and Cabernet-Merlot for the LCBO’s customers to sample. Vineland Estates restaurant Executive Chef Justin Downes was also present and prepared a savoury appetizer bite for everyone to enjoy with their wine as well.
As the event approached its end, O’Leary told the camera crew interviewing him and those in attendance his own personal background and history with wine. His family had always been wine aficionados and they allowed him to taste wines during family dinners since the age of 3. He laughingly acknowledged that he knows that such a practice is taboo but it did help him develop his life-long love of wine. It was in this spirit that he chose to put together a line of what he called “fantastic everyday drinking wines” and put his name on them. He told us that the number one criteria driving him all throughout the entire venture’s development was that he wouldn’t put his name on a wine he wouldn’t drink himself. He hopes to be a success in the wine industry and create more jobs in it and enter more wine categories and varietals in the next 10 years.
Mr. O’Leary also thanked the 50 employees at his O’Leary Ventures company for putting the deal together with Vineland and said he couldn’t have pulled off this venture without them, graciously giving them credit where it was due. He told the crowd that Canada needs more entrepreneurs and he hoped to be a role model for them so that they could buy freedom for themselves and their families with their own success.
When asked why he chose to do this special LCBO appearance, Mr. O’Leary told the crowd that his motivation was to quite simply to share the experience of wine with others. Advertising, he said, will never beat tasting a wine directly. With that final bit of wisdom and the last few items signed, the O’Learys Fine Wines product launch came to an end. The final image of the night was of O’Leary, his wife, Brian and Allan from Vineland, and the staff and managers of the Summerhill LCBO exchanging handshakes and congratulations on a successful event and posing for a few last pictures.
O’Leary’s Fine Wines Unoaked Chardonnay and Cabernet-Merlot are currently available throughout the LCBO and at the Vineland Estates winery retail boutique and tasting room, as are of course Vineland Estates own wines. You can watch Mr. O’Leary on CBC’s “Dragon’s Den” and ABC’s “Shark Tank.” His book “Cold Hard Truth” is available for purchase at Indigo bookstores and online via Amazon.ca.