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CanadaWINE150: Wine writer Gary Killops’ EPIC adventure from Spumante Bambino to a love affair with Ontario wines

Canadian wine

By Gary Killops

For me, it started with Spumante Bambino. It was sweet, bubbly and most importantly it was affordable.

Around that same time Bob Seger had just released Night Moves, his first studio album with the Silver Bullet Band. I invited a couple buddies over to listen to the album. They were drinking Labatt Blue and as usual I had to be different and drank the fancy stuff.

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Canada wineBy the time Mainstreet popped and crackled through my Pioneer speakers (side two of the LP) I had finished that bottle of fizz and so began my introduction into the world of wine.

Le Piat D’Or was next, but only the white because the red always gave me a headache. Before Wanda and I got married this was our wine. We couldn’t afford to buy wine too often but when we did it was always Le Piat D’Or. This was also the wine we selected to serve at our wedding reception.

During those early years I knew about Colio winery. At that time, from my perspective, they made the table wine that was poured at most local wedding receptions and banquets. I don’t know what grapes they used to make the wine, but I do remember not really liking the wines.

Fast forward about 10 years, Wanda and I went to Niagara to see the touristy things and while there we decided to visit a few wineries. One of those stops was at Peller Estates. I don’t know how we did it but somehow we ended up in an upstairs private tasting room sampling some incredible red wines. I knew nothing about wine, except that they tasted good. This was the prologue to my passion for Ontario wines.

Essex County also had several wineries back then but I had not tasted any of the wines other than the Colio table wine I tried back in the 1980s. That was about to change.


As the number of wineries in the Lake Erie North Shore started to increase they formed a group called SWOVA (South Western Ontario Vintners Association). SWOVA organized an annual vintage tasting and each winery would pour their new wine releases for consumers. It was at one of these events that my interest was piqued for the wines of Lake Erie North Shore.

Tim Reilly, who was Colio’s winemaker at the time, poured me a glass of his Cabernet Franc. I was blown away; this tasted nothing like the wine from Colio that I remembered tasting years ago. Most of the wineries were pouring their Cabernet Franc that day. I like them all.

I have seen quite a few changes in Lake Erie North Shore over the past 10 years. New wineries have opened, one has closed, SWOVA became EPIC (Essex Pelee Island Coast) and is now just referred to as EPIC Wine Country. The Pelee Island appellation was merged into Lake Erie North Shore and became a sub appellation called “South Islands.”

While Lake Erie North Shore possesses all the essentials for excellent grape growing such as warm, long growing seasons, water to moderate temperatures and well-drained soil, the winters can be harsh. The wind machines that dart most of the vineyards were of little help during the winters of 2014 and 2015 when a polar vortex plunged temperatures to record lows causing 90 to 100 per cent bud damage to all of the vines in the appellation.

The passionate and resilient winery owners, vineyard managers and winemakers of Lake Erie North Shore had to get creative to survive. Wineries looked for other income opportunities during these challenging years by adding restaurants, building reception halls and buying grapes from Niagara to put some wine into bottles. Fervor and spirit, failure was not an option and the region now moves ahead stronger and much more self-reliant.

Ontario wine

Lake Erie North Shore is deep in Canadian wine history. In 1866 Vin Villa opened on Pelee Island. This was Canada’s first commercial winery. The ruins of this winery are on gated private property and tours of the property can be arranged through the Pelee Island Heritage Centre on behalf of the Vin Vila Foundation. A visit to these grounds is a must do for anyone passionate about the history of Canadian wine.

By 1891, 23 of Canada’s 41 wineries were located in Essex County. When the Ontario Temperance Act was passed in 1916 prohibition abolishing this early growth. This early Canadian wine history will be part of an EPIC Wine Country promotion this summer to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. Ten EPIC wineries will feature a unique wine label that will tell the history of the 152 years of wine making in Essex County.

Lake Erie North Shore has the distinction of being Canada’s southern most wine region. The long warm growing season is ideal for Cabernet Franc and Merlot to achieve full ripeness potential yet it is still a cool climate wine region with the expected higher levels of acidity.

In the near future at least two more wineries will open. I can’t imagine what the Lake Erie North Shore wine appellation will be like a hundred years from now. If the last 10 years provide any clues I have no doubt that change will continue.

“In the pool halls, the hustlers and the losers, I used to watch ‘em through the glass .. Down on Mainstreet”  — Bob Seger

 About Gary Killops

Married to Wanda for 26 years, they have a son and a daughter who do not like wine. After 30 years of service with the Windsor Police Service Gary retired in 2015. He received the EPIC Wine Ambassador Award in 2013 for his promotion of the local wine industry via his wine blog EssexWineReview. He has been a board member and advisor to several wine festivals in Essex County. In 2015 Gary enrolled in the Canadian Association of Processional Sommelier program at Niagara College, completed his staging at Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., and received his sommelier certification. He is currently part of a sommelier team at Loblaws with wine locations offering wine and food pairing ideas. Gary is also the wine writer for Eat Drink London.