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CanadaWINE150: A tip of the hat to the pioneers, the risk takers and visionaries in the Canadian wine industry

By Lydia Tomek

Being Canadian is something that I am so proud of.  My parents each immigrated here with nothing but the shirt on their backs and a big dream.

They saw this glorious country Canada as a place where if you worked hard, respected the land and always had an open mind, the possibilities were endless.

Note: For other columns on this #CanadaWINE150 series go here

Their first years in Canada were not easy by any means and they had their fair share of challenges; a new country, no parents, little education and hardly spoke the language.

They did, however, have determination and vision which drove them to work those endless hours at the mill or steel plant, so that one day the they could have a home of their own and not have to sleep on a mattress on the floor. I’m proud of them because they overcame so much and are true testament to the Canadian Dream as they are happily retired now and are enjoying the good life.

I think the Canadian wine industry has, in a way, experienced a similar journey and owes a lot of its success to the pioneers, the risk takers, the visionaries, innovators; all those who shared that same common “Canadian Dream” of creating something beautiful for future generations to love and help grow.

When I think about the early years of when the first vitis vinifera grapes were planted, to the now 160+ wineries we have in Ontario, you know it hasn’t been easy either. There have been many challenges both environmental (i.e. winter freezes, drought, insects, climate change) and political (wine laws, labelling, licensing etc.), and where we are today could not have been possible without the love, hard work, determination, passion, and education that many of our wine industry’s pioneers contributed.

I am grateful for those who worked endlessly and passionately to bring education, innovation and recognition to Niagara. Because without them and their energy, this amazing place that I have always called home could never have been transformed from an industrialized peninsula into one of Canada’s major food and wine destinations.

Agro-tourism, driven by our wine industry, has become the beating heart of this region and I am so proud that so many of us contribute to it everyday.

It feels like yesterday that I made the decision to take my first steps in Canadian wine industry by enrolling into the brand new Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University. That was 20 years ago, and I will admit I was a little nervous entering the program as it was in its infancy and I wasn’t even legal to drink, but I just knew at the time I wanted to be a part of this special industry even if my teachers didn’t support me.

I am proud to say that I have been able to work as a winemaker now for 14 years. Who would of thought? Some wild young girl born and raised in Welland, Ont., would be living the dream making wine in one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions and making a living doing it?

I truly am grateful that I can say I love my job, and it’s just as exciting to work with some of the people that I have looked up to over the years. It is wonderful to see new blood coming through the pipelines.

We are sipping in exciting times where people in their 30s as well as in their 60s are excited to have a glass of Niagara Chardonnay, or discover the elegance in our Rieslings, or are searching for a well cradled and funky Pinot grown on our soils. It is also exciting that more new wine regions are popping up and people are taking that chance to create their own wine identity. It’s exciting to see that more and more people are open to learning about Canadian wine and reaping its rewards through enjoying what is authentically Canadian grown and made.

About Lydia Tomek

At the young age of 18, Lydia enrolled in the prestigious Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture (CCOVI) Program at Brock University. During her studies she received many scholarships and awards and graduated head of her class. Eight years later, Lydia’s hard work, community efforts and wine accolades paid off as she was selected as one Brock University’s of 50 Most Distinguished Alumni. She also became one of the faces for the University representing CCOVI and featured into their National Recruitment Marketing Campaign.

Lydia’s professional winemaking journey began at the age of 23 when she accepted a winemaker contract at one of Canada’s most reputable wineries, Hillebrand Estates (now Trius Winery). After completing her contract with Hillebrand, Lydia also worked an assistant winemaker position at the prestigious Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate and later moved on as Chief Winemaker for Hernder and Harvest Family Estate Wines. Working at the family estate for 10 years, allowed Lydia to further develop her craft but also work in all aspects of winery operations and marketing.

Lydia is currently the Head Winemaker at Burning Kiln Winery and is extremely excited about making ultra premium wines using grapes grown on one of Canada’s most unique microclimates. Once a prestigious tobacco farm in Norfolk Country, the rich soils of Burning Kiln Winery are now home to 30 acres of premium vinifera grapes and 6 kilns used to make world-class wines and appassimento style wines.

The work that Lydia has done outside her winemaking career is what makes this energetic mother radiate from the inside out. Whether it is posing for the Women and Wine Calendar to raise money for Grapes for Humanity, helping start a community foundation that is dedicated to improving cancer treatment in her community, guest speaking at community events to encourage young women in the careers, making a wine to honour a lost friend, or building the “LocaLove Garden Project” at a local school, Lydia has learned that doing things with love makes life beautiful. She takes those same principles to the vineyard and cellar as she believes wine is the most beautiful expression of time and place and needs to be handle with love and care.