From Plonk to Praise

Canada’s flourishing young wineries are in vintage form—racking up awards and European rivals

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 9 1999

From Plonk to Praise

Canada’s flourishing young wineries are in vintage form—racking up awards and European rivals

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 9 1999

From Plonk to Praise

Canada’s flourishing young wineries are in vintage form—racking up awards and European rivals


Anthony Wilson-Smith

Those who still think of wine connoisseurs as namby-pamby lightweights—the sort of people not manly enough to appreciate beer—clearly haven't met Stu Morgan. For almost 30 years, the barrel-chested, steel-haired Morgan was a fighter pilot in the Canadian Forces—so good that he was a member of the elite Snowbirds aerobatic team. After he retired from the military in the late 1980s, Morgan inspected aircraft for Transport Canada, taking early retirement in

1997, at age 57. Then, he took his life savings and bought into the fledgling Lakeview Cellars Estate Winery, which two friends owned near the town of Vineland in Ontario’s Niagara region. Now, the three partners and their wives work up to seven days a week, none drawing a salary, at their tiny 13-acre site. “I love wine, and I love Canada,” says Morgan. “We want to show how great Canadian wine can be.”

It takes all kinds to make good wine—and a thriving wine industry. Not far from Lakeview Cellars is the enormously successful Cave Spring Cellars. Its president, Leonard Pennachetti,

Uncorking gold

Canadian ice wine taken many awards in international competitions in recent years. At the Challenge Internátional du Vin 1999, considered the wine Olympics, domestic ice wines took home seven top prizes.

But Canadian chardonnays and Cabernets are also starting to make their mark. Here are some of their 1999 honours:

Concorso Enologico de Vinltaly—

Verona, Italy


Peller Estates’ 1997 Founder's Series Chardonnay (Ontario)

Pelee Island Winery’s 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon (Ontario)

(The grand gold-medal winner was Strewn Estate Winery’s 1997 Vidal Icewine, Ontario)

Chardonnay du Monde 1999— Burgundy, France


Caloña Vineyards 1997 Artist Series Chardonnay (British Columbia)

Hillebrand Estates Winery’s 1995 Trius Chardonnay Lakeshore (Ontario)

is a former PhD candidate in social and political thought—while Cave Springs winemaker, Angelo Pavin, was a philosophy doctoral candidate. By comparison, the background of Greg Berti, general manager of the huge Hillebrand Estates Winery, seems mundane: Berti, 35, says he “just drifted out to Niagara for no particular reason” from university and stayed, working up through the ranks at the winery.

When it comes to the people who oversee the nations wine business, forget stereotypes—and that is even more true of Canadian wine. A decade ago, it was alternately dismissed or derided by purists. In an appearance before a parliamentary commission on free trade in 1987, author Mordecai Richler famously said of Ontario wine that “there is only so much plonk I’m prepared to drink for my country.” Back then, the grapes were the main problem. They were domestic varieties that had the virtue of sturdiness, but a flavour more suited to the production of sweet wines—or candy and soft drinks. For years, Ontario’s best-selling wine was a bubbly pink called Baby Duck. A 1979 Macleans article noted that Andrés Wines Ltd., had recently marked the sale of its 10-millionth bottle of the product: “Much maligned by sniggering wine critics, it is snapped up by wine buyers who believe bouquet is for spring gardens, [and] aging something to be feared.” Since those days, wine growers have ripped up the vines and replaced them with vinifera, the species from which all classic wines are made. And now, Andrés, which still produces Baby Duck among its modestly priced main lines, also owns Hillebrand and produces some of the country’s most high-end wines. “Andrés has had a lot of satisfied customers in all price ranges over the years,” says Berti, “and that’s what counts.”

In recent years, wineries in British Columbia and Ontario, the two provinces with important wine industries, have won hundreds of international awards for their quality in competitions. “Some of the best Canadian wines in some categories are equal in blind tastings to any around the world,” says wine writer Tony Aspler, editor of Winetidings magazine and a columnist for The Toronto Star. “If they’re not yet getting sufficient recognition, that’s because of a lack of quantity, not quality. They just need to be better known.”

For now, within Canada, Ontario remains dominant, in part through its sheer size. It produces 90 per cent of the wine made in Canada and its 20,000 acres of harvestable grapes is about seven times larger than British Columbia’s vineyard acreage. Though smaller in size, B.C. wineries are flourishing—they won 440 medals in international competitions last year alone. And in June, Wine Spectator, the influential New York City-based magazine, served up largely enthusiastic reviews of 13 B.C. and nine Ontario wines. The highest Canadian ranking, a 91 out of 100, went to a 1994 Chardonnay Okanagan Valley Family Reserve produced by Quails’ Gate Estate Winery of British Columbia. It was praised as “crisp and firm, yet supple and silky, too.” Overall, the big winners in international competitions have been in the category of ice wine: the sweet, complex and expensive wines for which Canada has become renowned—and which have become the focus of controversy abroad. But Aspler and others also cite Canadian Rieslings and white wines in general. Grapes used for these wines don’t need the same long, hot summers required to produce outstanding red wines. Respect also extends to such categories as chardonnays, rosés and, in years such as 1995, 1997 and 1998, when Ontario summers were long and hot, Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots. So far, conditions this summer also bode well for another standout year. “We’re long

Winemakers argue that Europe’s import limits are just sour grapes

past the days of apologizing for our wine,” says Allan Schmidt, the general manager of Vineland Estates Winery in Ontario— and some of his prices bear that claim out. Vineland’s 1997 Meritage Cabernet/Merlot, for example, is moving briskly in sales at $125 a bottle, even though it is only available at the winery, which limits sales to two botdes to a customer.

Perhaps predictably, success has also brought rivalries— and problems. Canadian vintners are now embroiled in a bitter dispute over the European Union’s decision to ban the import of ice wines. That decision holds despite Canadian ice wine having won numerous prizes in Europe, including a series of medals at the Challenge International du Vin in France in June. (In Canada, Icewine has become a federally registered trademark.) But European officials continue to bar ice wine on the grounds that—because of a high sugar content—the product’s alcohol content could increase with fermentation. The suggestion is that while ice wines are bottled at up to 11-per-cent alcohol, they may with time run afoul of Europe’s 15-per-cent limit.

That ruling “carries bureaucratic red-tape idiocy to the extreme,” says Cave Spring’s Pennachetti, who is also chairman of the Ontario Vintners Quality Alliance. At present, the EU, along with blocking all Canadian ice wine, limits regular Canadian wine imports to about 100,000 litres, or a value of about $1 million annually—while European wine producers, who sell $350 million a year in Canada, face no restrictions. EU officials argue that Canada does not have a satisfactory rating system for its wine, but Canadian winemakers point to the establishment last year of the Canadawide Vintners Quality Alliance. The VQA, using a system that had already been applied in British Columbia and Ontario, rates and certifies Canadian wines according to the origin of the grape and the quality of the vintage. Canadian producers say the EU objections are largely an attempt to keep a successful competitor out of their market.

Now, the VQA awaits federal rubber-stamping to win international recognition. Pennachetti and other winemakers want that approval quickly and suggest the provincial liquor boards could boycott European wine for 90 days to press the case for a more open market. The move, if it were ever to happen, would hurt both the French wine industry and Ontario wine drinkers—as the Liquor Control Board of Ontario is the world’s largest purchaser of French wines.

Yet, Canadian governments are not always allies to their wineries. Although many wineries now sell over the Internet, they are only allowed to make such sales within their home province. In Ontario, the government recently revoked a policy that had, in effect, discouraged local wineries from selling VQA wines directly to restaurants. Until then, the liquor board had charged the equivalent of a 58-per-cent tax on such sales—even though the LCBO played no part in the transaction. The result, says Joe Will, president and winemaker of Strewn Estate Winery of Niagara, “was that it cost us money to sell to restaurants. We had to pay all the delivery charges, and then the government took all that money.” Now, wineries will only have to pass along to the liquor board the equivalent of the lower tax on sales that they pay on shipments to LCBO stores.

Despite such problems and frustrations, wineries in the two provinces have been taking steady leaps forward in both quality and quantity. According to B.C. government figures, VQA wines accounted for $42 million in sales last year, more than six times the total of $6.9 million seven years ago. In Ontario, sales of VQA wines have risen about 40 per cent a year in the past decade, with the exception of 1994-1995, when sales slumped after a harsh winter damaged crops. More than 40 per cent of wine sold in British Columbia is

Morgan; an Okanagan vineyard (top): the vintner used to believe good red was French and good white was German

Canadian and the figure is similar in Ontario, even though most wineries are small and lack the resources for widespread advertising.

Still, relative youth and small size has not stopped some wineries from branching out into tourism. In British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley Wine Train began operations this summer. The train, composed of 10 vintage cars from the Super Continental series that operated across Canada in the 1950s, travels a route that includes Kelowna and Vernon, and offers passengers award-winning vintages. The seven-hour trip, which includes a stop for dinner and a stage show, ranges in price from $54 to $95. The province has more than a dozen annual wine events as well, including the Icewine Festival held in Kamloops in January.

Ontario’s Niagara region, meanwhile, has pushed the link between wine and thirsty tourists to sophisticated heights. The region is blessed with some of the country’s mildest weather, and lush, rolling scenery. Now, it also has a growing number of upscale restaurants—many tied in with the wineries. The first, and one of the best, is On The Twenty, which is part of a complex operated by Cave Spring that also includes their wine boutique and tasting room. The elegant Strewn Winery, located near Niagara-on-the-Lake, offers cooking courses and an upper-end restaurant, while the complex at Vineland Estates is run out of refurbished 19th-century farm buildings. Of the 30,000 cases of wine that Vineland Estates sells annually, about 80 per cent are bought on site. Recently, a pharmaceutical company booked its 65-seat private dining room in the carriage house, paying $200 a head for a private dinner that included 11 courses and 11 kinds of wine. “We want to be a final point of destination,” says Schmidt. To that end, he has big plans, including the construction of vineyard chalets and a culinary institute.

That is how the more monied operators conduct business. Perhaps surprisingly, there is more camaraderie than competition between them and the smaller operators, such as Lakeview Cellars, that are still struggling in the hope of eventual profit. Last year, Lakeview produced 11,000 cases—including some outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines that one vintner described as “the areas best-kept secret. They need to produce about 20,000 cases to become profitable, a goal they hope to reach in three years. “Around here,” says Stu Morgan, “everyone works for the greater good of the region.”

But there are frustrations that make the self-described “militant Canadian nationalist bristle. His wife, Ginny, he confesses, “gets mightily embarrassed” by his habit of requesting Ontario wine at restaurants—and “raising hell” if they have none. During his days in Europe as a pilot for the Forces, he says, “I used to believe that anything good and red was French, and anything good and white was German.” But now, “I figure the hell with the imported stuff,” he says. “We have great wine right here.” At his new winery, just as in his old life, Morgan and his partners are betting everything that the sky’s the limit.

Jennifer Hunter

A long road to respect

The Canadian wine industry began humbly, weathering a long-standing reputation for lowbrow bubbly. Today, it has emerged as a respected producer of some fine vintages.

1 1636 In “Jesuit Relations,” the annual report priests ra sent back to France, Father Paul Le Jeune writes of * winemaking in the early French settlements. Grapes were crushed into a foul-tasting sacramental wine.

Í 1800 Johann Schiller, a retired German soldier, plants Canada's first true vineyard along the shores of the Credit River in what is now Mississauga, Ont. The vines are imports from the Rhine Valley. By 1811, he establishes Canada's first commercial winery.

Í 1860s Father Charles Pandosy and the priests of the Oblate Mission plant British Columbia’s first vineyard on their property near Kelowna.

Í 1928 Stamford Park Wine Co. (later known as Chateau-Gai) of Niagara Falls, Ont., becomes the first company to buy the Canadian rights for the Methode Charmat-a process for the production of sparkling wines and champagnes.

A 1952 The Niagara Grape and Wine Festival is y| launched.

I 1966 The federal government passes legislation : allowing the importation of Europe’s premium vinifera grapes.

* 1978 Andrés Wines Ltd. of Winona, Ont., sells its 10-millionth bottle of Baby Duck, which has become Canada's top-selling wine.

Í1981 The federal government spends $2.5 million to buy 4,000 tons of excess red grapes from Ontario growers hit hard by the sale of low-priced imported wines and a consumer shift to white wines. The grapes are used to make juice, jam and brandy.

4 1988 Domestic wineries face tough competition with the anticipated arrival of the free-trade agreement and an international trade ruling against Canadian limits on imported wine and liquor. In response, federal and provincial governments offer aid to grape growers to replant fields with premium non-native vines, such as chardonnay, Riesling and Merlot.The industry is shaken, but better wines will emerge.

A 1998 The Canadian wine industry establishes the Vintners Quality Alliance, which sets standards to rate and certify quality wines. Vintners press for the federal government to pass legislation so the ratings will receive international recognition.

áj 1999 The number of Ontario and B.C. wineries climbs FI to 103 from only 29 a decade earlier.