Piling into a van to explore Nova Scotia's wine country with Susan Downey feels closer to a road trip with pals than a stuffy, scripted tour. She knows her stuff, but also knows how to read a crowd in order to flex just the right amount of expertise.
"I wanted to offer people a guided service, so they're learning but it's not pretentious," she says of Grape Escapes, the nearly two-year-old company she runs with her partner Michael Lim. "The type of tour that caters to the average Nova Scotia wine drinker, we don't necessarily all have refined wine palates."
Downey got turned onto wine in her early 20s while working at Premier Wine and Spirits, a job that evolved her interest into a full-blown passion, leading her to take sommelier courses and travel to wine destinations across the world.
"I noticed there was this growing wine industry and weren't a whole lot of means to get there," she says. "There was a huge demand and it wasn't necessarily being met."
So she started Grape Escapes Nova Scotia Wine Tours in 2012. It began as a seasonal business, leading one tour a day through a handful of local wineries. By the time the fall harvest hit, Downey hit her max as the lone tour guide and started plotting for the next year.
Grape Escapes partnered with World Class Limousine to charter vans on a per-tour basis and hired three part-time employees. Now, they set off on four tours a day---whether wine and lunch, an afternoon escape, or wine and dinner---visiting a varying lineup of local wineries, building the routes according to who's in the van.
"Maybe we have a beer drinker who's never tried wine, or we have some guests on board that are really into wine and are looking for more on the education side," says Downey. "We're not going to have a set tour or commentary...we don't say which wineries we'll go to, again we cater to the guest."
This year, she's hosted more locals than tourists, a switch from last year, and expects to triple last year's 70 tours by the end of the season.
"There's still some growth to happen. There's another winery opening next year outside of Port Williams [Planters Ridge] and there's a lot of interest in business owners and investors looking at how to get into the industry," says Downey. "It hasn't plateaued yet.... It's an exciting time to be part of it."
And as the industry grows, so does the demand for tours. But Downey sees other offerings, like the much-loved Wolfville Magic Winery hop-on, hop-off bus, as beneficial to her business because really, the more people to discover what's right under their noses, the better.
"The biggest lesson I've learned about the Nova Scotia wine industry is the importance of working together to focus on a long term growth strategy. Not only is it important that the wineries share skills, knowledge and support one another but also the cooperation of all members of the industry---from tour operators such as myself to members of Tourism Nova Scotia, the NSLC, private wine stores and restaurants," says Downey. "I am excited for the time when it's embarrassing to not bring Nova Scotia wine to a dinner party or serve it at your restaurant."