Dec 21 2015

In the words of the 15th-century theologian Martin Luther, “Beer is made by men, wine by God.” The sentiment is lovely, but one that Ontario grape growers probably take issue with. They might be more apt to agree with Victor Hugo’s proclamation: “God made only water, but man made wine.”
Without the legions of dedicated men and women passionate about pinots and serious about syrahs, there would be no grapes, there would be no wine and there be far less joie de vivre.

Grape Growers: Who Are These People?

Ontario is home to 500 families of grape growers who cultivate more than 40 grape varieties on 17,000-plus acres of vineyards (primarily in the Niagara, Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore grape growing regions.) Some are third-generation growers and all are passionate about their craft. These growers coax luscious, fruit-laden vines from the soil. Their grapes are plucked and trucked to the region’s 178 wineries, which produce 69 percent of Canadian wine. Next time you raise a glass of fine regional wine, give thanks to Ontario’s grape growers!

What Makes Them Tick?

Wine lovers know that great grapes make great wine. What makes great grape growers? Who better to answer than 2014-2015 Grape Growers of Ontario Grape King Kevin Buis of Glen Lake Vineyards, Niagara-on-the-Lake: Passion, patience, enthusiasm, dedication, and appreciation for nature are essential great-grape-grower traits, he says.

Passion is Paramount

“I love growing fruit, working outside in my shorts and boots in the summer, breathing in the fresh air, and feeling the sunshine on my face,” Buis says. Grape growing, he remarks, is like going on a long ride. “Some years it’s smooth, highway driving, but other years it’s bumpy back roads.” Without passion and drive, one could easily throw in the towel when the going gets rough.
Another grower, Jamie Quai of Quai du Vin Estate Winery near St. Thomas, Ontario echoes the importance of unwavering commitment. Growing great grapes is a full-time job,” he says. “Anyone can grow good grapes. Great requires near absolute commitment to the vineyard. There’s an expression that ‘the best fertilizer is a vigneron’s boots.’ That’s so true. There’s no substitute for hard work and a commitment to showing up each and every day.”
The reward for those who stay dedicated through the ups and downs and have the patience to weather Mother Nature’s whims is unbeatable, Buis says. “There’s nothing as rewarding as sitting down to see how that year tastes in a bottle.”

Knowledge is Power

To grow outstanding fruit, a grower must know his vines and the nuances of a particular year’s weather. “You’ve got to have an understanding of what a grapevine’s needs are at all times,” says grower Doug Funk of Funk Farms, Jordan, Ontario.
Buis agrees. “Always knowing where you are in the growing season and reacting to seasonal events in a timely manner, and staying on top of the plants’ growth stages is essential in growing consistently good fruit,” he says. “For instance, in really hot summers you may not want to leaf-strip Riesling much. In cooler summers, the growing season is shorter so Bordeaux varieties drop more fruit early. You have to adapt to what’s happening.”
Additionally, notes Quai, a great grower is one who has a thirst for learning. “Attend every workshop on new techniques, read books and visit other growers,” he says. “Even if you’re learning about something not relevant on your vineyards, understanding what your colleagues are doing helps you stay relevant. As the saying goes, ‘A rising tide floats all boats.’”

“Grape” Sense of Humor

One final characteristic of a great grower? A lighthearted outlook on life and a good sense of humor. As Buis notes, “Mother Nature really drives what happens in the vineyards.” Jamie Quai agrees, saying, “Nothing ever goes entirely as planned, so it’s important to be flexible and go with the flow. When Mother Nature throws a wrench into the plan, they say the best ways to power are to have a good podcast playlist and plenty of coffee on hand!”