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Winemaker Profiles

John Squair at Three Dog Winery

November 21, 2016
John Squair, winemaker at Three Dog Winery,

I first met John Squair, owner co-owner of Prince Edward County’s (PEC’s) Three Dog Winery, when I was just getting started on my wine journey. He was a tireless cheerleader for PEC wine and the region in general, hosting blogger events and promoting local wines every chance he got. Talking to him now, that passion for the area is still very clear, though since we met he has quite literally put his money where his mouth is and built Three Dog Winery alongside his wife, Sacha.

“I stared off making beer in the 1980s at brew your own places and the beer was disgusting, so I stared making wine,” he tells me during a recent phone interview. This ‘do it yourself’ style appealed to his love of biology and chemistry, but he quickly realized that he wanted to do things on a much bigger scale than simple home brew.

White from Three Dog Winery.He and Sacha bought their PEC home in 1998, before there were commercial wineries in the area and long before tourists had discovered the region and made it the go-to weekend getaway for hip Toronto and Ottawa wine lovers. The Squairs fell hard for the County and planned to build their retirement home there, perhaps with a little vineyard to make wine for themselves. That dream inspired them to develop a few test plots in 2000 and then they expanded their planting when they moved to PEC full-time in 2003.

John was soon working for local wineries and continuing to learn about making wine. There was a lot of learning, especially about the cold weather in the region and the need to “hill up” (bury the vines) in the winter and plant at a lower density, and some lost vines before they finally got their footing and decided to go all in with their very own winery. They built their winery building via a crowdfunding campaign (full disclosure: I made a small donation to the campaign) and called in friends for a planting party when they needed to expand the vineyard. There was a sense that Three Dog Winery would truly be a wine community – and that has proven to be the case.

Three Dog is located about 15 minutes from Highway 401 on Fish Lake Road and, while this is a little further from the cluster of wineries around Hillier, he has been thrilled to learn that the climate in his part of the County is excellent for growing grapes. “Initially everyone started planting close to the lake in the Hillier area with the theory that the lake would moderate the winter temperature,” he says.  “2003 showed that was not the case. The moderating effect isn’t really there, but what we’ve noticed over the last 15, 16 years is that where Three Dog Winery is, it’s dramatically warmer during the growing season being further away from the lake. So we’re usually three weeks ahead in the growing season compared to Wellington.”

He’s going to try and capitalize on having a warm area and grow some Cabernet Franc in the next few years. Dan Sullivan from Rosehall Run winery suggested it and John is eager to see if it will be a success.

Three Dog Winery SignageWhile they still have to buy some of their grapes from Niagara, as there’s just not the acreage available to make the quantity of wines they need to sell from their own vineyard alone, John has been producing more and more wine with Three Dog’s grapes. This fall, he’s releasing a new estate Pinot Noir and hopes there will be more estate wines in his future. He’s pragmatic about not being able to do only estate wines, “This is our only income,” he explains. “We didn’t start with deep pockets, so if we don’t sell wine, we don’t eat.”
And they hope to continue making and selling it for the long-term. A production building is currently under construction on the property and they have sold their house in town and moved onto the winery property.

John is excited about this year’s harvest, as the growing season was a good one for him. There was no rot or disease to speak of because of the lack of rain and he thinks the fruit was very clean with high levels of sugar. He’s excited to see how the wines will come together.

And while he’s making the wine, Three Dog will continue to be bustling with activity. Since they are a little outside the main winery cluster, they have had to make the winery a destination and they’ve done an excellent job there. They have big events once a month from March through to September, then in the winter they offer snow shoeing and cross-country skiing on their trails (about 8K). They also have a 15 acre sugar bush, where they tap the old fashioned way starting in February and invite people out to take part in the maple syrup process. If you want a fun County adventure, Three Dog is always a great place to start.

And, as he was when I first met him, John remains a huge advocate for PEC.  “The County itself is absolutely fantastic. The whole County culture is really fabulous. I couldn’t imagine doing this anywhere else,” he says. He is excited about the new crop of winemakers and wine industry members who are developing locally and how young people growing up in the area now have a thriving industry bringing work and creating jobs to entice them to stay and build lives in the area. And with Three Dog a big part of the heart of that industry, it will no doubt remain thriving.

Winemaker Profiles

North 42 Degrees Winery

September 27, 2016
The award-winning wines of North 42 Degrees are worth a visit to Lake Erie North Shore.

When we rolled into North 42 Degrees Winery on our recent trip to Lake Erie North Shore, it was obvious that things were growing here – not only on the vines, but on the construction site right beside the current winery space. Workers were busily working on a new building, which will house the winery’s new restaurant and tasting room (slated to open in November, 2016).

North 42 Degrees winemaker Martin Gorski.

Photo by Doug Lowson – supplied by winery.

Inside the current building, the production area is big and clean, with a lovely lavender shop tucked into the corner and a small tasting bar just on the other side. Serenity Lavender helped support the owner’s winery dreams while the vines matured and is still a major business consideration for owners Martin Gorski and wife Suzanne Dajczak. They have big plans for their winery and the new building is the next big step.

They planted their vines in 2007 and have been working tirelessly to develop these European varietals into great Ontario wines. Martin believes the soils of Lake Erie North Shore, which have a lot of sand and hold moisture well, are a key driver to the regions grape-growing prowess and he’s been very pleased with their crops thus far.

They have six varietals planted now and he’s considering others. When he and Suzanne started looking into planting a vineyard, they travelled extensively and did extensive research into what would grow well in the region. His attention to detail shouldn’t be surprising, as Martin has a background in biology and worked both in science and the industrial sector before deciding to go back to his roots (he’s a third-generation farmer from Harrow) and become a winemaker. He studied winemaking at Washington State University when he set upon his new path and looked at how he could combine his background in science and farming into making great wine.

Lavender soap from Serenity Lavender.And while he’s certainly on the right track with that, he says he still considers himself a grape grower first and foremost. “I do whatever the grapes dictate, he says. “Whatever the year is yielding, is how I make the wine.” This decision to be terroir-driven and really listen to the grapes mean that soil, weather and all the elements that affect the region really have an impact on the wines – so one year he will have a very New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc (2013) and another a very French style (2012). It’s the magic of vintage variation that can be both exciting and stressful for every winemaker, but being able to go where the grapes take you is an important winemaking skill.

Choosing the right vines for the region was also critical, and Martin looked for aromatic clones and open clusters based on his research of the area. He felt cluster openness would be key given the concerns in the region about disease resistance and the need to battle the humidity (rot and mold are common issues local winemakers cite, though most, like Martin, have developed strategies to counter this). He has also been looking at different ways to fertilize his crops, using liquid fish to add more nutrients to the soil and experimenting with liquid kelp. I ask if using liquid fish means his wines aren’t vegan, and we both ponder this – given that it’s in the fertilizer, we decide it’s likely still technically vegan, but I have to smile later when I recall the conversation – this is truly the stuff wine nerds like us revel in.

When it comes to making the wine, Martin uses traditional fermentation techniques as much as possible and designed the winery for gravity flow. He’s also embraced micro-oxidation over barrel aging, which is a unique decision. He hasn’t had much to work from in developing his technique, save for a PhD dissertation he found on how to do it, but it’s come together nicely so far and he’s looking forward to further experimentation.

Grape vines at North 42 Degrees Winery.Right now, he has his hands full as he prepares for the upcoming harvest while managing the construction of his new building. The restaurant will be a nice addition to the winery and will have beautiful views of the vineyards. Martin shows us the plans and he talks excitedly about how it will improve the property. It will certainly make it a destination – the lavender shop will remain, but will be more separated from the tasting room and the restaurant will give tourists a great new option in the region.

Well-situated along the wine route in Lake Erie North Shore, North 42 Degrees is perfectly located for wine touring and the wines are very good. This is clearly a winery where craft is a factor and Martin’s attention to detail, his passion for growing good grapes and his willingness to experiment with new techniques all combine to make this a must-visit for wine-lovers. I’m excited to see how North 42 Degrees and their wines develop in the years to come.

Winemaker Profiles

Quai du Vin Winery’s Jamie Quai – Winemaker Profile

November 2, 2015
JamieQuaiSmall

On our recent visit to Ontario’s Southwest, Shawn and I had the pleasure of stopping in at Quai du Vin Estate Winery, where we were impressed with the beautiful grounds and the enthusiasm of winemaker Jamie Quai. It was hard not to be taken in by his sheer passion for making wines in the region.

And the wines he makes are quite interesting – a mix of vinifera and hybrids that are very expressive of the region and tailored to meet the needs of his clientele. I was happy to pick Jamie’s brain a little further about why he makes wine and what influences his winemaking choices. I hope you’ll enjoy my latest winemaker profile.

Why did you decide to become a winemaker? What do you think drew you to the profession?

I’m at the beginning of what I hope will be a trend of second generation winemakers, grape growers and vignerons. The Ontario industry is so young that quite a few of the pioneers of the modern industry are still active. I had the good fortune of actually growing up in the vineyards. This was not a career I came to after too much searching.

Quai du Vin Estate Winery in Ontario

To be more specific; I decided this was the career direction I was going to take somewhere around grade 11 or 12. As it turned out, language classes were not my strong suit, I had no talent for music or art, and several wise guidance counselors pointed out that there was “little future in history.” It turned out that I loved and thrived in mathematics and the sciences. Ultimately, it was the realization that a job in wine would let me be a working scientist that drew me into the family business.

Truth be told, I disliked this industry as a young person. To me a winery was where my allowance came from, summer jobs, etc. On top of that, I saw the daily challenges, not the romance. Imagine being a child in a world that doesn’t deal with children (under 19 at least). Imagine not being able to wear your family business shirt at school because it promotes alcohol, or not being able to go with your parents to “take your kid to work day.” I really had to near adulthood before I felt drawn to the industry.

Quai du Vin Estate Winery

How have you found making wine in Ontario’s Southwest? What unique challenges do you face because of the terroir?

I love making wine in the North Shore of Lake Erie and Ontario`s Southwest. I describe it to students I’ve taught at CCOVI (Brock University) as “frontier winemaking.” After over a decade of vintages in a frontier region, I have a difficult time imagining what I would do with the relative comfort of being in an established region. Not to minimize all the hard work of those vignerons in an established region, but there is a whole different level of challenges that one faces as a frontier winemaker.

Here’s a relatively benign example of what I mean to illustrate my point: There are no major winery supply companies within a two hour drive of my farm. That means harvest needs must be planned out thoroughly when you are frontier winemaking. One cannot simply pick up that replacement part, or yeast or aid on the way from home to the winery.

When it comes to challenges of terroir, the biggest issue we in Ontario’s Southwest contend with is our own expectations of what is “normal” for Ontario. What we, as an industry, take as terroir gospel, is based on the whims of Lake Ontario (makes sense since that’s where the action is). Both Niagara and Prince Edward County terroir are driven by Lake Ontario. Despite both being Great Lakes, and the relative proximity of our regions to each other we must always remember that Lake Erie is not Lake Ontario.

Our season tends to start later than Niagara, our autumns tend to be warmer (on average). We’ve, anecdotally, had less issues with spring frost. There tends to be much greater seasonal variability from one vintage to another (our highs are high and our lows can be low). If we based our grape growing tasks around what Niagara growers are doing that day, we would fail miserably. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been on Twitter or Instagram and seen colleagues doing tasks weeks ahead of where our vines are developmentally. None of our challenges are unique – it’s just about perspective.

One great thing about our terroir, relative to Niagara, is that because of our similar continental climates and our delayed start to the season, Niagara tends to see disease outbreak first. They are my canary in the coal mine for mildew and pest pressure.

Vineyards at Quai du Vin Estate Winery


What do you think has been your best vintage thus far?

I’ve been making wine professionally my whole adult life. I break vintages into two categories: vineyard vintages and cellar vintages.

I’m going to exclude the obvious vineyard vintages from my mind (2004, 2007, 2010, 2012). Those were tremendous years for us, but I’ve started to think that those wines were mine to (potentially) screw up. Absolutely anyone could make great wines in those years. They were too straightforward to be my best (it may be semantics, but I’m differentiating between THE best and MY best).

I’ve come to really respect the cellar vintages. One of the pillars of quality is consistency. And a winery that can make consistently great wines, even in off-years (because of their great team), is where consumers should put their money. Cellar vintages need extra coaxing, and more and more they need patience. Off years take longer to show their true potential.

After thinking about this question for a while, and I think my best vintage would be 2011 (It was a toss up with 2008).


What grapes do you think grow best in Ontario’s Southwest and why?

Being part of a multi-generational wine business has given me some great lessons on what potential Ontario’s Southwest has to offer. Odds are, we’ve tried it, or know someone who has.
I see my role in the timeline, to narrow down some of the varietals we grow and put energy into helping realize the grapes fullest potential.

Here are four grapes that I see as the foundation of our region, and three that I have difficulty imagining as cornerstones of Ontario’s Southwest – these are only in the order they occur to me, by no means ranked.

  • Riesling. This grape just has it all. It has shown itself to really thrive in our soils, with our winters, and in our growing seasons.
  • Chardonnay. Definitely on the leaner side. This grape has proven itself, though some work by vignerons is needed to help the wines best express themselves.
  • Cabernet Franc. It does very well in our winters, we get the heat to ripen it properly. Much like Chardonnay, this grape just needs a little coaxing to realize its fullest potential.
  • Hybrids (a cheat since its more than one grape). We have vines dating back to the early 1970s of Vidal, Seyval, and newer plantings of Foch and Baco Noir that are creating some truly fantastic every day wines. These wines are responsible for some of the strongest brand loyalty we enjoy. I lose more sleep over Vidal then I do over Chardonnay almost every year

On the con side:

  • Pinot Noir (blasphemy, I know). We’ve tried it here and I’ve had lots of examples throughout the region. Many were tasty, most were good, none were great, and the word exceptional isn’t even a descriptive consideration. I don’t think this area is the best place for Pinot Noir in the province. And that disheartens me as a Pinot lover.
  • Sauvignon Blanc. Our winters just get too cold.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon. This goes back to the highs and lows comment earlier. I only see great potential in Ontario’s Southwest Cabernet Sauvignon maybe three of every 10 years. Those three are amazing, but one really has a challenge building a brand on that level of success.

 

2014 Maple Dessert Wine at Quai du Vin Estate Winery

What advice do you have for those hoping to pursue winemaking in Ontario?

Be a well-rounded person. Having taught at Brock University for almost 10 years now, I can say almost without fail, those who have succeeded in this industry were well-rounded people. That means being: intelligent, practical, friendly, worldly, possessing strong communication skills, strong work and personal ethics, being literate, possessing some humility, having interests outside of wine, and being open to the possibility that you could be wrong.

Centuries ago, a general would lead their army into battle. The soldiers drew strength from seeing their leaders. It’s only a recent affectation of battle that the general is out of harm’s way behind the theater. Find a winery whose leaders rally their teams in person, and learn from them. Find leaders who are the first one there and the last one out, and learn from them. Find a winemaker who is willing to walk into their tasting room to answer even the simplest customer question, and learn from them. You learn more about winemaking by working alongside great leaders, than you ever do from a drop-in consultant, elusive boss, or detailed work order.

Thanks so much to Jamie for this open and candid remarks about what it’s like to be a winemaker in one of Ontario’s emerging regions. Want to try his wines? You should! You can visit him at Quai du Vin Estate Winery in Ontario’s Southwest.

Winemaker Profiles

Brian Schmidt – Vineland Estates – Winemaker Profile

October 7, 2015
Brian Schmidt Vineland Estates
Brian Schmit – Photo by Carole Bozzato

When Brian Schmidt, winemaker at Vineland Estates in Niagara, posts a new photo on his Twitter or Instagram feed, it’s hard not to find yourself daydreaming over the beauty of the place he inhabits. Vineland sits on a gorgeous piece of property in the Beamsville Bench area, with lush vineyards surrounded by rolling lawns and sporting beautiful stone buildings that house their winery, restaurant and carriage house.

Brian fills his social stream with photos that capture his life on the Bench beautifully – landscapes, storm clouds, grape vines, they all make regular appearances as he chronicles his day. Following along, you learn not just about the beauty of the region, but about the hard work of the vineyard, the long days, the weather headaches (his icewine picking posts are always shiver-inducing) and the actual labour that goes into making all those bottles of Vineland wines.

Brian is the reason I blog about wine. I’ll put that out there right up front. I was sucked in by his photos, by the #CabFrancTuesday hashtag he and Tinhorn Creek’s Sandra Oldfield cultivated a few years back, chronicling a year of growing Cabernet Franc in Niagara and the Okanagan. I reached out via Twitter, Brian responded, he invited me into the world of Canadian wine and, because of that, I found my place in the world.

Brian Schmidt Vineland Estates
Photo courtesy of winesinniagara.com

Within the wine community on Twitter, Brian is beloved. Not just because his wines are good (they are), but because he’s gone out of his way to make people feel welcome – like they are part of the Vineland Estates family. Responding to people on social media, he explains to me, is like being at a dinner party. “If you ignore people who interact with you, they will retreat, just like at a dinner conversation.” For him, social media is a huge conversation that he’s happy to take part in.

This attitude imbues all that Vineland Estates does. Their wine club is one of the most popular and loyal in the region (they have an almost zero attrition rate). The wine club is a special one. They host parties, send wines from other wineries alongside their own, even host trips to Germany with members. “We know there are world class wine experiences everywhere,” Brian says. “There are world class wine experiences down the road at Tawse, there are world class wine experience is Italy and Spain and France, no matter where you go, there’s going to be fantastic food, because great food always exists symbiotically with great wine. The only way we can differentiate ourselves from all these other great experiences is by creating an emotional connection.”

Vineland Estates Winery Niagara
Vineland Estates

And that’s where Vineland excels – it’s about so much more than selling a bottle of wine, it’s about creating an experience. “We’re not in the wine business, we’re not in the restaurant business,” he explains of his philosophy, “we’re in the business of creating memories.” And from the impeccable restaurant, to the storybook grounds, to the sense of fun and family when you visit, that’s what you get. And it works because it’s genuine.

Shawn and I celebrate many of our big moments with a bottle of Vineland Estates Elevation Riesling—it reminds me of how I first fell in love with wine, how that first sip of Vineland Riesling exploded on my tongue and I understood that terroir and winemaking came together so that Brian was able to create this wine that spoke right to me. Sure, I’ve since had $150 bottles of California Cabernet and vintage champagne that made me swoon, but it’s always your first love that holds a place in your heart. For many in the Ontario wine community, Vineland is the place that always feels like home.

Brian Schmidt Vineland Estates
Photo courtesy of winesinniagara.com

It’s no surprise that Brian is so adept at producing that feeling in those around him. He practically has wine flowing through his veins. A third generation winemaker in a country that has only been producing wine for about three generations, Brian was born and raised in B.C’s Okanagan Valley, growing up in a vineyard. His grandfather had homesteaded the land and planted vines in that first vineyard, which still exists, but has since gone through a number of owners and names.

Brian Schmidt Vineland Estates
Photo courtesy of uncorkontario

His father went on to work at and own several wineries, at one point co-owning Sumac Ridge, an estate that held a winery, restaurant and golf course. The economy put an end to his part in that business, but winemaking still ran deep in the Schmidt family. Brian and his brother Allan had grown up planting vines, digging up rocks in the vineyard and helping make wine.

When Brian’s father sold his interest in Sumac Ridge in 1986, Allan stayed on as winemaker, but Brian was done with wine. He had seen the angst and financial troubles that could come with owning a winery and he wanted out. He spent four years working as a commercial scuba diver in B.C. Allan, meanwhile, accepted an offer to move to Niagara and work with German winemaker Hermann Weis.

For years, Brian’s father had been selling cuttings of Hermann’s vines in Canada’s Okanagan Valley and Hermann had been trying to break into the Niagara region. But local winemakers felt that it was too cold for vinifera, especially Riesling, in Niagara. So Hermann, determined to show that the terroir was perfect for Riesling, bought land on the Beamsville Bench and turned an old Menonite home into a winery. Vineland Estates was born.

Vineland Estates Winery Niagara
Vineland Estates

Meanwhile, Brian was starting to feel terribly mortal. He’d experienced the death of several close friends and was starting to realize that scuba might not be the right long-term career move for him. He accepted Allan’s offer to join him at Vineland to help with harvest. “I was just going to help for two weeks and I’ve been quoted as saying it’s the longest two weeks of my life because I’m still here,” he says with a chuckle.

Arriving on September 12, 1991, Brian took over winemaking duties in 1993 and hasn’t looked back since. He has become well-known for helping other wineries get their start and for being an enormous champion for Ontario wine.

He plans to continue documenting his adventures in winemaking across his social media platforms so that friends and fans can follow along with the journey from farm to table (his recent harvest photos have shown just how much hard work goes into every bottle of his wine). Vineland Estate wines are available across Ontario at the LCBO and at the winery.

* A huge thanks to Rick Van Sickle from WinesinNiagara.com and Shawn McCormick from UncorkOntario for allowing me to use some of their photos in this article. I highly recommend both their blogs.