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.
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.
While 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.