Niagara winery

By Rick VanSickle

The 30th anniversary photograph suggested for Niagara’s three Speck Brothers — Paul, Matthew and Daniel — was for the trio to strike a philosopher-style pose against the backdrop of their Niagara winery, Henry of Pelham.

Afterall, all three brothers have degrees in classical philosophy from St. John’s College in Maryland, a noted U.S. Liberal arts school that has schooled other creative winemakers such as Helen Turley, John Wetlaufer (Marcassin), John and Alex Kongsgaard, and Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley.

Why, you might ask, was St. John’s a magnet for famous winemakers?

“I think it has something to do with what I call a disaffiliation with the modern world,” Winiarski famously told the Washington Post in this story posted here.

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I was intrigued about the reasoning behind why the Speck Brothers all went to that particular school, took the same course (with varying minors) and came away with the same BAs. The photo suggested to the brothers should reflect the brothers’ philosophical attitude and I suggested Auguste Rodin’s statue The Thinker as inspiration for one of the siblings to pose as for the photo and, for whatever reason (hey, I’m not the one with the philosophy degree here!) I suggested Atlas, the legendary Titan (you know the guy forced to hold up the heavens on his shoulders as special punishment for pissing off Zeus after he led a battle of Titans against Zeus which lasted for 10 years) as another pose.

Now, Atlas really has nothing to do with philosophy and The Thinker is not a person at all, but a statue that shows a man in deep thought and is said to be an icon of intelligence and philosophy. All of that did not matter, and not one of the brothers pointed this out. For reference, the photos are posted below.

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In fact, the Specks were eating it up. Matthew and Daniel both decided to rip right into The Thinker while the oldest brother Paul went for Version 1.0 of HIS IDEA of Atlas, holding the heavens in one outstretched hand. See Photo above.

In the second attempt, Matthew offered a different “Thinker” pose, Daniel holds the original pose, and Paul … well, Paul is still holding up the heavens in that weirdly misshapen hand. See photo above.

Their next move was an attempt at three Thinkers, then Paul realizes you can’t balance the heavens in one hand, so he tries it with two hands while the other brothers laugh their heads off. See two photos above.

In the final photo, Paul and Daniel finally realize that Atlas held up the heavens on his back, not in his hands and both offer that pose while Matthew simply lost it at that point. See very top photo.

The photo session capped a zany afternoon of the brothers trading stories and memories of building a winery together through tough times, losing their dad at a young age and creating something the Specks can all look back on with pride. Their father would certainly be proud of what has been accomplished at Henry of Pelham.

It wasn’t easy, Paul said during our lunch. “Let’s call it a 30-year sensation with a very slow start.”

In fact, none of the brothers had envisioned a career in wine. Sure, the they spent their summers at Henry of Pelham helping their dad Paul Sr. plant vines and other vineyard tasks when the 80-acre property across the street from the present-day winery on the Short Hills Bench was purchased 36 years ago.

Paul Sr. and wife Bobbi put their three boys to work hand-planting Riesling and Chardonnay vines. At the time, Paul Jr. was 17, Matthew was 14 and Daniel was 10. The back-breaking work continued over several summers and too many weekends to count.

Thirty years ago, in 1988, Paul Jr. was appointed president of Henry of Pelham, the same year that the very first vintage of wine was produced. Paul Jr. helped to establish the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) with a handful of other Niagara wineries that same year.

While the family continued to build the business, Paul Jr. had long given up on his dream to become a lawyer.

When their father passed away in 1993, the three young boys officially became the owners of Henry of Pelham.

Says Paul today, “I wasn’t totally thrilled to be here. We had huge debts to pay. It was out of a sense of duty … it just had to be done.”

The three boys rented an apartment in Port Dalhousie in St. Catharines and began the task of building a winery that was mired in debt from sources that charged, shall we say, interest rates far above what traditional banks charged and that wanted nothing to do with wineries in Niagara at the time because of the uncertainty of VQA and free trade.

“We had to get from under all that debt,” Paul says.

And for the next 30 years that is exactly what the three brothers have done. With an original target of a 25,000 to 30,000 case production of wine, the Specks knew that was not a sustainable number for their business model. The winery was located in a spot in St. Catharines that is not exactly on the well-travelled path wine lovers flocking to Niagara travel. Consumers don’t just stumble on Henry of Pelham, they chart of course to go there. In other words to have to want to go.

To get to the current 150,000 case production spread across four brands that Henry of Pelham now makes, the brothers needed good representation at the LCBO, Ontario’s main retailer of wine in the province, and also needed their wines on restaurant wine lists throughout Ontario and the rest of the country.

The Specks have not stopped there; their wines are now sold in nearly 20 countries.

Says Matthew Speck: “We’re feeling the rest of the world is really possible.”

As for the next 30 years?

“As long as it’s fun, I don’t see an end game at all,” adds Paul.

Henry of Pelham’s 30th anniversary celebrations continue all year long. To find an upcoming event, go here.

Five questions for the Speck Brothers

Wines In Niagara asked the brothers five burning questions about their 30th anniversary being celebrated all year long.

Wines In Niagara:

Who is the alpha male in this manly collection of brothers? I mean, what’s the “Specking” order here? Old to young? Most vocal to least?

Paul Speck (president, founding director of VQA, former chairman of the Wine Council of Ontario, and former director of the Canadian Vintners Association):

I would say we have a pretty flat line in our chain of command. We arrive at most, if not all major decisions, by consensus. If pressed it likely goes by age. I’m 51, Matt is 47 and Dan is 43.

Matthew Speck (vice president operations, viticulture manager and former Grape King at the Niagara Grape & Wine Festival):

I think we, by and large, run pretty equal among the three of us with each being a bit of the alpha with respect to our own areas. There are times though when it all defaults back to the pecking order from childhood, which goes by age. It’s amazing how those childhood patterns can be so ingrained. Also after a few glasses of wine all bets are off as to who is in charge!

Daniel Speck (vice-president of sales, studied math and science at St. John’s College along with his major in philosophy before returning to work on the farm/winery after graduation):

I’m the guy behind the guy behind the guy. I’m the youngest, but I have benefitted from watching my brothers, too. And my mother loves me most, at least in my mind.

Wines In Niagara:

If you were to pick any other location, any other region other than Niagara to make wine, like the world is your oyster, where would it be and why?

Paul: 

If you mean from a wine perspective, I would pick Napa or Sonoma for sure. I love California and America and always enjoy my visits out there. Ironically, California wines are not my favourite in the world, I prefer France and Old World wines in general; I just love the energy and people in Cali and the go big or go home attitude.

Matthew: 

That’s a hard one. As the person directly responsible for growing the grapes, there are times I wish to be in a desert type climate just for the shear ease it is viticulturally. The flip side to that is, though that I generally am not a huge fan of the wines that come from those type of hydroponic situations, I find them a bit one dimensional. Spain and France are my favourite countries for wine production after here. I would probably choose Spain as my top choice after (Niagara) as it has so many great terroirs, is so under-developed, has amazing potential, and is just a great place to spend time. 

Daniel:

I wouldn’t make wine anywhere else. Where would the challenge be? All these other places have it so easy that the wine basically makes itself (isn’t that what every winemaker says?). Which is boring. Instead I’d get into the movie business. Or become a psychiatrist. Or become a psychiatrist to people in the movie business.

Wines In Niagara:

Who is the brother most likely to spend $5,000 on a new suit and why? In other words, who’s picking up the cheque at lunch?

Paul:

I think I pick up the cheque for lunch most times, not sure why? Dan would buy the suit, as he likes fine clothes. I would buy a nice watch or sports car or Harley Davidson before I would go crazy on clothes. In my view you can’t spend too much money on food, booze, watches and combustion engines!

Matthew:

No question: Dan

Daniel:

Easy — it’s me. I just talked myself into two (not one) pairs of bespoke shoes that will take at least (at least!) three months to make. I think I was trying to impress my wife. WTF? I don’t even like shoes, except when I don’t have any. But none of us are chintzy when the dinner bill arrives. 

Wines In Niagara:

If the three Speck brothers were each dispatched to their own deserted island with nothing but a life-long supply of one wine from the Henry of Pelham treasure trove of Speck wines, which wine would you chose to drink for the rest of your life (P.S. there are four seasons on this island, oh, and great food)?

Paul:

In that case it would be our Speck Family Reserve Pinot Noir. I think Niagara does a fabulous job with Pinot Noir and it is the most versatile wine. Even in the heat I like to give it a slight chill and drink it in the evening. The SFR is drinkable off the bottling line and ages amazingly well.

Matthew:

SFR Chardonnay.

Daniel:

That sounds like you’re describing the island of marriage. Let me explain: my wife almost exclusively drinks quality oak aged Chardonnay, and luckily our Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay is her favourite. Counter to the saying, and unlike with magnets, opposites don’t typically attract — I also love Chardonnay, especially our Estate Chardonnay, but I’m agreeable and will drink the next tier up. That’s basically what we do now.

Wines In Niagara:

Three brothers in one house? That’s triple trouble there. What’s the worst thing you ever did to one of your brothers and did he get even with you?

 Paul:

We did live together a lot in the beginning but I don’t remember playing practical jokes on each other??? 

Matthew:

I used to routinely steal Paul’s cigarettes back in grade school, he still doesn’t know. (editor’s note he does now).

Daniel:

Nothing. And no. And not just with regards to my brothers. I get angry and spiteful in conversation about other people and things when venting with my brothers, but only to get it out of my system. The most interesting thing in the world is people, even when they do the wrong things. Like Mae West said ‘When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.’