As half of The Social Herbivore, I’ve become known as ‘that vegan wine girl’ so I feel it’s time I made a confession: I haven’t always been vegan, and I haven’t always loved wine. I used to love cooking and serving all kinds of meat and poultry (never much of a fish person) and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I began a transition to a vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons—for my health, for the environment, but mostly for the animals.
I became vegan just over a decade ago, around the same time that my appreciation for wine began to develop and I hosted one of the first vegan food and wine events in Toronto around that same time. That event featured the wines of Karlo Estates, so who better to interview during ‘vegan cuisine month’ than Sherry Karlo, Vintner and Owner of Karlo Estates? A vegan herself, she walks the walk and talks the talk.
I am fortunate to call Sherry a friend, and I have seen her spearhead the winery through some incredibly tough times. She is a pioneer, a marketing genius, a keen businesswoman, and a friend to all—humans and animals alike.
Watch the video to learn how and why Sherry became the owner of the world’s first vegan certified winery, and read the below Q&A to discover even more about Sherry, including how online dating played such a key role in the development of Karlo Estates:
VineRoutes: How did you come to be involved with Karlo Estates and what were you doing before life lead you to the wine world?
Sherry Karlo: I met my late husband, Richard Karlo on Lava Life. He was living in a four-bedroom house in the woods, in Ajax, with wine in every stage of completion. It was like walking into a wine cellar with a four-poster bed. He courted me by inviting me to come out to Prince Edward County to help him look for vineyard land. We interviewed every winemaker in the County to get their point of view on where we should buy. From that we were able to make our own hypothesis. We wanted to be about a mile and a half from the lake to get the moderating effects without the winter windburn; we wanted about 100 acres with south facing slopes of the now-famous Hillier limestone soil, a water feature on the land and a hip barn with a gambrel roof.
VineRoutes: Did you always love wine or did that evolve when you met Richard?
Sherry Karlo: My love for wine developed before I met Richard when I was working in advertising. Two of my clients were wine related. I did the design work for Altamira when they would have their fund management dinners at the Royal York Hotel. One year they decided to invite Hugh Johnston to be the keynote speaker, so our concept was to make each corporate table a different wine region of the world. The other client was Novotel Hotels. They would put on wine festivals in their lobby restaurants called Café Nicole. As a result, I fell in love with the lore of wine. I loved the labels, the typography, the etchings of the estates and the meaning on each label. Then, when I opened the bottles, I found out there was something really beautiful inside. So, I fell in love with wine from the outside in.
VineRoutes: You became one of – if not the – first vegan-certified wineries in the world. Why was it important for you to become vegan-certified?
Sherry Karlo: I first went vegan when I went to the Toronto Vegetarian Associations annual summer event at Harbourfront. I walked into a seminar room and saw a film on how animals are treated in slaughterhouses and decided I did not want to be paying for that. I fell off the turnip truck when I got into advertising because back then it was not easy to find vegan food on set. It wasn’t until I moved out to the County full-time and I was watching videos late at night on the internet again that finally did it. I have been fully vegan ever since.
When I discovered wine was not always vegan, I told Richard I would not be drinking wine anymore. He set out to prove to me our wine was vegan and had always been so. It was Richard that realized that if it was that important to me, it would be that important to others as well. So, it was his idea to get certified. This came out of his engineering training as he had done other kinds of quality assurance certifications for his other business.
VineRoutes: What has been the reaction from the wine community, the vegan community and your customers to your certification? Or your ‘vocalness’ about being vegan?
Sherry Karlo: At first the wine community didn’t seem to notice, or they would make jokes about it, but as we grew in popularity, they started to pay more attention. It’s interesting that now Prince Edward County has the highest number of vegan certified wines in Canada, and wineries that used to joke on social media about it now advertise on the front page of their website that their wine is vegan. I don’t think they really understand what that means however, because they still serve animal products alongside their vegan certified wines.
VR: You transitioned all the food in your tasting room to be plant-based, how have visitors responded?
SK: Our transition to vegan food was overnight. As I ran the front of house at Karlo, I have always come up with the food pairings. At first some clients complained because they especially missed the cheese, but as we were able to source better and better artisanal vegan cheeses, now they don’t even notice or are pleasantly surprised with how good vegan food can be.
VR: What are you most proud of in your journey with Karlo?
SK: I am proud we brought the winery back into a strong position after Richard died, despite writing off the entire 2014 vintage. I’m proud of us earning 23 gold medal scores in 2021 and being named on Vineroutes’ Top 20 wineries two years in a row and have two wines listed on the Top 50 wines in Ontario. I am proud of how we have been able to quickly pivot during COVID to offer virtual tastings with our mini bottles and creating outdoor concerts where everyone can feel safe and have a sense of normalcy during the pandemic. I’m proud that we are considered the “go-to” for award-winning vegan wine.
I am also proud of being named in the Ottawa Business Journal’s Fall 2021 issue among “Eastern Ontario’s 49 power people: A guide to those who are propelling economic growth in the region”. By Michael Curran published October 11th, 2021.
I am also proud to be only the second Canadian winery represented by the prestigious Opimian Wine Club.
I’d have to say I’m most proud of the team we have assembled. I’m very proud and grateful for the business genius of Saxe Brickenden, my Partner, and of course, the incredible talent of Derek Barnett and Spencer Mayer, our winemakers. I also could not do this without the help of Sandra Young, our Office Manager, Rick Juscenko, our Vineyard Manager and our incredible front of house team. We are tightly-knit and more like a family than co-workers.
VR: What is your favourite Karlo Estates wine?
SK: My favourite wine changes with each season. However, I’d have to say my current favorite is our 2020 Bubble. As we have never made a sparkling before, we thought it was going to be like that first sacrificial pancake one makes on a Sunday morning, when the pan is too hot so it ends up being burnt on the outside and gooey on the inside. You know, the one you eat yourself cause you can’t serve it to your friends and family. Our Bubble was released just a few weeks before the All-Canadian Wine Championships so we entered it just under the wire. We were absolutely delighted to have it win Gold for the category of sparkling wines.
VR: Who do you admire in the wine world?
SK: We are building this winery up by the bootstraps, so there are a lot of long days and little time for visiting other wineries. I am an expert on Karlo wines but don’t know much about others. I’m hoping this will be the year that changes now that we have such a strong team in place.
VR: What can we expect this year from Karlo – any new wines, announcements?
SK: We will be doing more online content and more virtual tastings to encourage online orders.
The next time your ‘VineRoutes’ travels take you through the Prince Edward County wine region, make sure you drop by Karlo Estates for a tasting. If it’s in the winter you can enjoy a glass in their cozy, luxurious Wine Lair. If it’s spring, summer or fall you’ll have the option of being in their sunny tasting room or outside in their vineyards and you’ll easily find them if you look for their distinctive Red Barn.
-Cover photo of Sherry Karlo taken by Ash Nayler.
A foodie and wine lover, Priya Rao has been active in the world of vegan food & wine since 2011 and is the co-founder of the duo, The Social Herbivore with Master Sommelier, Jen Huether. She has written for Prince Edward County’s Grapevine Magazine, Restaurants Canada and NatalieMaclean.com. Priya also created and co-hosted the tv show, THE DRINK, for Bell FIBE TV1. These days Priya is most often found with a glass of wine in hand entertaining guests at her vegan vacation home, Terra, in Ontario.