2017 Grape King
Doug Whitty is a third-generation grape grower in Niagara. His grandfather established Whitty Farms in 1908, and the farm was built upon a foundation of work by many family members including Doug’s parents Joseph and Leith Whitty. Doug’s uncle, Rodger Whitty, was crowned Grape King in 1983. Today, Whitty Farms is a diversified agricultural operation including 55 acres of vinifera grapes and has expanded to include 13th Street Winery and 13th Street Bakery, all located on Fourth Avenue in St. Catharines.
Born and raised in Niagara, Doug graduated from Beamsville Secondary School in 1982 and went on to graduate from the University of Guelph in 1986 with a B.Sc. in Agriculture. His wife and business partner, Karen Whitty, has a degree in Biochemistry from McMaster University and worked at Agriculture Canada for 18 years. The Whitty’s participate extensively in farm research and host community activities such as the Grapes of Wrath Mud Run in support of Canadian Cancer society Wheels of Hope program.
Together with their three sons Luke, Benjamin and Thomas, Doug and Karen approach their work in the vineyards with an ethic of stewardship as they strive for harmony, balance and sustainability of the land, vines, people and business. Every crop is produced with a clear focus on making the best wine possible.
Sally and Rob Peck
Good Things Come In Small Packages
Sally and Rob Peck have been owners and operators of Sugarbush Vineyards, nestled in beautiful Prince Edward County, since 2002. Their decision to become grape growers stems back to a visit to British Columbia’s wine country, where touring small wineries sparked a passion in them that could not be ignored. In 2000, they decided that if they didn’t jump on the opportunity then, they never would. After looking at several parcels of land they decided on a 50 acre property that was planted to corn and soybeans. With an excellent location five minutes from the water, good drainage and suitable soil Sally and Rob planted their first grapes in 2002.
While Rob grew up in Prince Edward County on his family apple farm, Sally did not have any previous agricultural knowledge, but she jumped in with both feet. Together they decided the best grapes to grow are ones that they enjoy to drink themselves, while taking into consideration the soils and climate. With this goal in mind, they settled on growing only traditional European vinifera grape varieties, with Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc being their core varietals. Being located in a part of Ontario that experiences colder winters, Rob and Sally have learned to bury 2-4 canes per plant to ensure winter bud survival.
Wanting to maintain their hands-on approach to all aspects of the vineyard and winery business, the Peck’s have stayed small, focussing on estate-grown premium wines. A self-proclaimed Garagiste (GA-razh-EEST) winery, that is, a passionate winemaker who creates limited production of premium wine in a garage-sized winery, Sally and Rob transform their home-grown grapes into small quantities of hand-crafted premium-quality wines sourced entirely from their own vineyards.
Their wines are mostly available at their own Winery store, local Prince Edward County restaurants, and limited quantities through LCBO stores in Eastern Ontario. You might also catch Sally and Rob at local farmers markets showcasing their premium wines. In addition to running a vineyard and winery full-time, they are also raising three young children and Rob works as an engineer.
Sally and Rob love their hectic life in Prince Edward County and look forward to the future. They believe “the County” has provided them with immense opportunity with its strong agriculture base, culture and environment. They see the region growing into a top tourism destination and are thrilled to be an integral part of it.
Ann and Murray Wilson
Oxley Down Home Comfort
Oxley Estate Winery is nestled on the north shore of Lake Erie, on the idyllic Country Rd 50 near Harrow, Ontario in the heart of the Lake Erie North Shore wine region. When Ann and Murray Wilson purchased their farm, it was planted to melons, eggplants, peppers, tomato and cucumber crops. Both having grown up on farms – Murray on a family farm in Chatham and Ann on a cash crop farm in Sturgis, Michigan – buying a farm was a natural fit and an idea they dreamed about and researched for several years before purchasing their 17.8 acre property in 2010. Two years later, they purchased another 20 acres with a plan to expand their vineyards.
When Ann and Murray first planted several hybrid and vinifera grape varieties six years ago, they found the terroir to be ideal for grape growing. In addition to more traditional grapes such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir, the Wilsons are proudly growing Regent (a sustainable German variety) as well as three sustainable varieties of grapes (HG-01, HG-03 and HG-04) developed for Colchester/Essex County. Their farm, perched on high sunny bluffs above Lake Erie, experiences sunny days, cool nights, breezes and well-drained Fox sandy loam soil. They farm using eco-friendly farming practices to encourage a healthy and sustainable environment. Despite the past two bitterly cold winters, their vines are healthy and producing some of the finest grapes in the region.
If the vineyards weren’t enough to keep them busy, the Wilson’s Oxley Estate Winery retail store and event centre is located in the charming renovated 1920 barn on the home farm. The two small lofts were torn out and replaced by a larger space, “The Loft”, for events and meetings. They enclosed the open lean-to (where they used to park the tractor and wagon) to create restrooms and a storage closet, and added a kitchen on the west and small entry on the east. The Barn opens to the Wine Garden with its wood-burning fireplace. A delightful, comfortable and elegant setting for events (meetings or weddings) or a simple wine tasting.
Ann manages Oxley Estate Winery and its popular restaurant and along with his duties on the farm, Murray is also C.E.O of his business Black Stone Sports and is president of the Jack Miner Foundations in both Canada and the United States. A true family affair, the younger Wilsons (there are 6 of them) round out the vineyard and winery team. Meeting the Wilsons, it’s evident they enjoy what they are doing in the warm friendly atmosphere of “The Barn at Oxley”.
The Spinosa Family, of Exultet Estates Winery
Humbled by early success
Exultet Estates Winery in Prince Edward County focuses on the distinctiveness of their property. In 2013, their “Blessed” Chardonnay won top honours at the Ontario Wine Awards and the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Ontario Wines. It seems fitting that the winery’s name is Exultet, coming from the Latin word “Exsultet”, meaning ‘to sing praise’.
Such a unique winery name is suited to their unique location. Although the Spinosa’s had the idea of starting a winery in the Niagara Peninsula, the appeal of rural Prince Edward County was preferred. Gerry, having a background in science, and Lia, a teacher, had been living and working in the GTA and had relatively no farming experience before deciding to make the move.
The Spinosa family purchased a 200 acre farm in Milford, Ontario, once the home of a cheese factory, and are now growing a total of 10 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio and Vidal grapes in its place. The operation is mostly family run with the help of Gerry and Lia’s kids for tasks like cleaning, bottling and harvesting in addition to a couple of foreign seasonal workers.
The original owners of the farm were the Striker family, United Empire Loyalists, who operated a dairy farm and apple orchard from the early 1800’s. In 1870 the milk from the cows was used for cheese production, a popular enterprise at the time with approximately 30 cheese factories existing in the County. Operations continued until 1956 when the building was abandoned. In 2011, the Spinosa’s had the building historically designated and now the former cheese factory houses all of Exultet’s production.
With no previous experience in farming, learning to grow grapes in Prince Edward County has been an ongoing challenge for the Spinosa’s, but their willingness to experiment with different styles of winemaking continues to set them apart. An example of this would include a recent creation called “Mysterium” which is a white table wine made from red Pinot Noir grapes.
Being a small winery in a relatively new Ontario appellation (Prince Edward County only became a designated viticulture area in 2007), the Spinosa’s have to rely on what is in the bottle to sell their product. Gerry identifies his winemaking style as “working with the beauty that his property produces;” he views winemaking as a form of art over everything else. Noting that grapes grown on their property yield different flavours from those grown on lands just a half an hour away, they are pleased to see that once people try a wine from Prince Edward County they can truly appreciate the nuance and character that originates from that corner of Ontario.
While the Spinosa’s are serious about their wines, they don’t take themselves too seriously. They have just taken home top honors for their musical parody “We Will Crush You” as part of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s 2015 “Reel” Farm Video Challenge!
Grape King 2015
The tribe has spoken! Congratulations to Jamie Slingerland, Viticulture Director at Pillitteri Estates Winery and newly crowned 2015 Grape King.
According to Grape Growers of OntarioChair Bill George, Jamie is a fitting ambassador for the grape and wine industry.
He grew up on a Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) grape and tender fruit farm, coming from a long line of fruit farmers. In fact, the Slingerland family has farmed in NOTL since the 1780s. As a result, Jamie understands firsthand that great wine starts in the vineyard.
Jamie is “a testament to true leadership in the grape and wine industry,” says Kimberly Hundertmark, Niagara Grape and Wine Festival’s Executive Director. “His commitment to innovation, progress, and sustainability are reflected in the quality of his vineyards and the fruit they bear.”
Jamie’s marriage to Connie Pillitteri, daughter of Pillitteri Estates founders Gary and Lena Pillitteri, was a winemaking match made in heaven. Today, the award-winning vineyards of Pillitteri Estates managed by Slingerland account for Canada’s largest estate winery production of Icewine. The business is a true family affair. Working side-by-side with Gary and Lena are Jamie, Connie (CFO), son Richard and son-in-law Jared Goerz (both on the management team). Jamie’s daughter Rachel is a lawyer. Jamie’s Grape King honor is especially notable, considering that his father-in-law Gary Pillitteri was Grape King in 1981.
After graduating from the University of Guelph, Jamie worked as an inspector for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and later served on NOTL’s Court of Revision and Committee of Adjustment. His long history of service includes serving as inaugural chair of NOTL’s Agricultural subcommittee, which established a comprehensive zoning bylaw and an irrigation system for local wineries. He also was instrumental in transitioning the many individual winery signs that used to dot the Queen Elizabeth Way to today’s consistent and recognizable “Wineries of NOTL” signage.
Among Jamie’s other honors was the 2012 Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence, which he received for introducing the three Verona grape varieties to Canada, and shortening the period to establish new varieties and clones. As Grape King, Jamie will represent the region’s grape and wine industry at events across the country. In September, he appeared at the Mayor’s Grape Stomp and 64th annual Grande Parade.
Devoted to Tradition
Where do you see yourself at age 94?
Beamsville grape grower Warren Saunders, who recently celebrated his 94th birthday, wouldn’t dream of doing anything else than growing grapes. And the best grapes at that!
Warren has been growing grapes since the 1960s and has seen technology transform the farming industry. He has also witnessed changes toward higher-quality wines and standards that help him compete more globally. Regardless of these changes, Warren still prefers the good old ways and techniques like hand-picking.
Warren’s love for viticulture began at age 12 when he would pick raspberries with his parents in Hamilton. In his late teens, he worked at a local farm when they needed help, and by the time he was 21, he was working for Stelco. That job lasted 42 years, allowing Warren and his wife Ivy to buy some land in 1965 near Beamsville, in the Niagara Peninsula. Shortly after purchasing the farm, Warren and Ivy started their own family and were growing both fruit trees and grapes, eventually switching primarily to grapes and planting French hybrids and vinifera. Today, as a family-run certified organic vineyard, son Leslie and daughter Ann-Marie raise Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Merlot for small-batch, premium quality wines.
Warren learned the most by spending time at the Vineland Research Station, talking to other farmers. He says the generosity of fellow farmers in sharing information is something you can always count on. He believes this life is not for everyone. “People romanticize owning a vineyard, but it’s also really hard work,” he says.
Warren attributes his longevity to a healthy diet and staying active. Working in the vineyard not only keeps him engaged and happy, but it’s also his secret to a long life, keeping him alive and kicking!
Grape Kings: A Family Legacy
Kevin Watson, son of 1989’s Grape King, John Watson, did his late father proud when he became the second grower in the family to be honoured with the prestigious title. Bestowed by the province’s grape growers since 1956, the title of Grape King recognizes a specialist whose attention to detail and passion raise the bar in area vineyards. Since then, Watson has worked hard to uphold the Watson family’s reputation for excellence.
The Watsons settled on 45 acres outside Niagara-on-the-Lake and originally raised hogs. The stony soil, however, with its mix of clay and sand loam, was best suited to producing grapes of the highest quality. With his keen farmer’s sense, John Watson planted his first Vidal vines in 1979. Ten years later, he was crowned the first Watson Grape King.
His son, Kevin, took over in 1995, doubling the farm’s holdings and significantly expanding its operations. Today, Kevin and his wife, Cathy, produce 13 varieties from vines that include some of the province’s earliest plantings of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes that spring from Watson’s soil are some of the most sought-after in the province. Large Niagara wineries, such as Jackson-Triggs and Inniskillin, purchase the majority of these prized grapes.
Watson also serves the expanding market of hobby winemakers. His grape juice, processed on-site, consistently sells out.
“It wasn’t very fulfilling for my father and me to just grow a grape, put it in a truck and watch it go down the road,” he says. “You really want to taste what you have done all year long. That’s why we do it, that’s what helps us create the best product possible and that’s why I love this industry.”
Today, the passion that stems from growing up under the tutelage of the Grape King, continues to influence Kevin to put all he has into strengthening the local wine industry. From his point of view, the continued growth of Watson’s pairs quite nicely with expanded consumer and government education on the benefits of local wineries.
The Harwood family and daughter and son-in-law Kerry Wicks and John Rode
Off-Grid Grape Success
Nestled in the plains among solar panels and garden beds sits Harwood Estate Vineyards. Set in beautiful Prince Edward County, this 10-acre vineyard utilizes organic growing practices to produce Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, St. Laurent, Frontenac Gris, Marquette, La Crescent, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay grapes that are transformed into award-winning wine.
Harwood Estate Vineyards is the dream of two couples: Don and Judy Harwood and their daughter and son-in-law, Kerry Wicks (President and CEO) and John Rode. Before the family purchased the land that would become Harwood Estate, there were grape vines planted, but there was no power running to any of the buildings. The new owners quickly determined that this would be a costly fix that might well put their dreams of a vineyard on hold. Fortunately, Rode had studied electrical engineering and had the knowledge and skills to begin putting together an off-grid solution to their power problems.
Over the next several years, they worked to install their own solar energy power station, which continues to be Harwood Estate Vineyards’ sole source of electricity. With the exception of occasional fuel costs, the vineyard has no ongoing power bill. Thanks to Rode’s ingenuity, the vineyard can now run a huge, power-hungry wine press—that dates back to World War II—without worrying about running short on energy. In addition, the Harwoods, Wicks and Rode are also great at conserving energy. During the fall, which is the vineyard’s busy season, the operation runs on a “most important tasks first” basis.
Due to their devotion to energy conservation and sustainability, the Harwoods, Wicks and Rode have sought to make Harwood Estate Vineyards as low-impact as possible. They have installed LED lights and an array of solar panels to provide additional power. Their battery bank is extensive and they have plans to insulate the property’s buildings with tin foil sheets that feature a bubbled exterior. They have also made it their personal goal to hire locally, reduce their water consumption and be conscious about their pest management techniques.
Whether they’re making award-winning Friends Rosé or looking out for the environment, Judy, Kerry and John (Don passed away in 2014) can be found at Harwood Estate doing what they do best: using organic growing practices to make great wine in Prince Edward County.
The Bosc family
The Grape King of Château des Charmes
Château des Charmes owes its success to years of experimentation on how to nurture grape vines properly within the sub-appellation sites of St. David’s Bench and Four Mile Creek. As the Bosc family says, “To deliver in the bottle, you must first deliver in the vineyards.”
The Château des Charmes story began in 1964 when Paul Bosc Sr., a fifth-generation grape grower and winemaker, left France with his degree in Viticulture and Oenology from the University of Burgundy and immigrated to Canada. He soon found himself appointed Chief Winemaker and Director of Research and Development at Château-Gai Wines in Niagara. Bosc emphasized proper winemaking by letting the land tell him what it needed. The fact that the land in this region was similar to the northern regions of France didn’t hurt either.
In the early 1970s, Paul Sr. travelled to New York City for a wine competition and astounded people with the quality of his wine, which resulted in a news story across 18 American states. His winery, Château des Charmes, was born in 1976 on a 60-acre plot of land. Rather than using the existing grapes, he started from scratch to plant new vines and develop a vineyard from 100% vinifera grapes.
Paul Sr. and his wife produced the first vintage of Château des Charmes in 1978, and soon after, created the winery of their dreams. He was crowned the 1988 Grape King to serve as an ambassador for the industry. In 1999, Château des Charmes was the first vineyard in the Niagara winery area to install wind machines.
In 1994, Château des Charmes opened the doors to its current estate on York Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake. With fourteen different varieties grown in four vineyards and two distinct sub-appellations, each with its own microclimate and conditions, the Boscs are confident their vineyard planting decisions will yield the best from their land.
Château des Charmes is proud to produce 100% estate-grown wines bottled from the sub-appellations of Four Mile Creek and St. David’s Bench. Nurturing the vines year after year allows Château des Charmes to create excellent wines, such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Vidal, which is a testament to the vines, which were first planted in 1984 and are still producing today. As Paul Jr. puts it, “Only great grapes make great wines.”
Keeping the vines in order
While Erwin Wiens grew up on a tender fruit farm, he chose law enforcement as his first career and worked as a police officer prior to purchasing land and in his words “making a go of farming on my own.” Erwin and his wife Dorothy purchased a 15-acre parcel of land in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario in 2004 and started planting vitis vinifera grapes the next year. Since then they have been expanding, to their current size of over 80 acres including new plantings of Merlot and Chardonnay.
Admitting that it can be challenging to balance both careers, Erwin continues to work in policing as well as managing the family farm. He has learned to dedicate his time fully to one job or the other depending on the day, and knows that team work is key. The Wiens team includes family, one year-round employee and 7 seasonal workers who return year after year. Dorothy handles the administration, and book-keeping, while Erwin is hands-on tending to the grapes with their children helping out where possible. Erwin patrols the vineyards daily on the lookout for potential problems from a low spot in the vineyard that needs gravel for drainage, to determining where to de-leaf the vines for optimum grape quality, or making sure his employees have Gatorade on hot days.
Erwin has a down to earth grape growing philosophy: “Healthy soil makes for quality grapes. My goal is to leave the land better than when I got it.” It is this philosophy that led Erwin to incorporate sustainable viticultural practices by making choices in the vineyard that are good for the environment and the wallet. Erwin believes that giving back applies not only to the vineyard, but to his community as well. Both Erwin and Dorothy participate in community events and fundraisers, and the Wiens’ children play on local hockey teams and are involved in community activities. Erwin laughs, “Dorothy can take the credit for baking the pies and treats for bake sales.”
As Erwin says, “The business concept of being a grape grower is easy: get the grape, sell the grape, make the wine, sell the wine. It is all of the in-between parts that are tough.” Erwin aims for quality in all of his grapes and they are highly sought after, being crafted into wines at Peller Estates in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Vineland Estates Winery in Vineland, Ontario. Quality is always in the front of Erwin’s mind as he wants to grow excellent grapes that go into Ontario wines that make people say WOW!