Story/Photos By Lindsay Schwenker
For a long time now I have been a lover of all things “Ravine Winery.” These guys are always finding ways to step out from the crowd — everything from the food to the wines and, of course, the ciders.
I can’t rave about this winery enough. They have made some changes in their cellar with Ben Minaker recently stepping up to the role of head winemaker at Ravine, so I set out on a mission to get to know Ben. I finally got a chance to chat with him and find out how this Ottawa-born, trained sommelier and now amazing winemaker made his mark in Niagara.
Editor’s note: This is Lindsay Schwenker’s first post on Wines In Niagara. To learn more about Lindsay, go here.
Ben, you are originally from the County, yes?
Originally from Ottawa, born and raised … both of my parents are from (Prince Edward) County, so moved there immediately after high school.
Did you move there for your passion in the wine industry?
Well, my family actually started a winery in Prince Edward County so, I moved there to work at the winery. I moved there to follow my passion but it was my family’s winery, so I was always going to do that.
So, 33 Vines Winery was your family run-business?
My dad’s idea … he spent some time in Napa on a job and was really getting into the wine scene there. The whole time there he was thinking “you can do you this in Prince Edward County.” It’s not the same in California … obviously, but there are some similarities in seasons, in soil, in whatever. He started looking for a site in 2001 and planted in 2004, which is the same year I believe as Norman Hardie.
Following in your father’s footsteps was meant to be?
I wouldn’t say there was any pressure. I was into it but we were into it together. I do have to admit … I didn’t go into winemaking immediately. The first route I went down was the sommelier path. I did the sommelier program at Algonquin College, made my way through a couple of restaurants, did that for a couple of years and enjoyed it. I loved it. I did find as a sommelier that you ‘pop a lot of corks’ and, really, I wanted to be a lot closer to the whole process.
Where in the world have you made wine?
• 33 Vines in the Prince Edward County, of course
• Château de Brondeau in Côtes de Castillon, Bordeaux
• Cambridge Road Vineyard in Martinborough, New Zealand
• Attended Niagara College Winemaking Program in Niagara-on-the-Lake
• Harvest at Le Clos Jordanne in Jordan
• Two Sisters in Niagara-on-the-Lake
• Ravine in St. Davids
Any advice you want to pass on?
With a group of friends I visited every winery in Niagara and tasted all of the wines that at the time were commercially available. We treated it like work and I thought it was so helpful at the time. You could have a conversation about any Niagara wine with anybody … and I really thought it was important. My second point would be that, if you want to stay in the business and become a winemaker you have to stay in the business.
You’ve been living in Niagara since 2010,
what’s your favourite part about living in here?
I just touched on it, but I still love just going out to wineries and tasting some wine.
Can you touch on your new role as head winemaker at Ravine?
Just before this past harvest kicked off, Marty (Werner, now Ravine general manager) shifted up to a more managerial role … and I have shifted into the winemaker role. I am loving it so far, of course, I mean it’s fantastic! It was great at harvest to be making some decisions, making some choices that were maybe slightly different from what we were doing in the past, although not that much.
Marty and I share a lot of (the same) philosophy on terroir and how to process grapes and that kind of thing, only really deviating on a few different ideas but really nothing major. I am looking forward to trying some new stuff as well!
Can you recommend a Niagara wine that you recently had?
The Tawse 2012 Beamsville Bench Chardonnay. I really enjoyed it!
What about something from the LCBO?
I did buy a bottle of the Whispering Angel not too long ago, which is a particularly nice rosé, but if I could just choose one it would be the Stéphane Aviron Vieilles Vignes Chénas 2014. It was $20 and it was awesome! Stand out!
What is your soundtrack right now?
I have kind of been into a chill vibe like Feist right now but my musical taste definitely varies. Earlier I was listening to Old School hip-hop The Pharcyde right before that and The Tragically Hip right before that.
What is your favourite wine to make?
Chardonnay is my favourite wine of all time; it requires nothing and everything.
What is your winemaking philosophy?
We try to make wine by respecting the fruit and where it comes from. In theory, if you grow good fruit, the fruit starts out perfectly and you just try not to screw it up along the way.
If you were a wine what wine would you be?
I would want to be a sparkling wine that is served in a normal wine glass — traditional method brut sparkling, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It’s cool and interesting, it’s under-ripe fruit and sometimes needs a little sugar … sometimes I do too.
Pretty much exclusively what I drink.
All day, but also really hot right now.
Really love beer!
I really enjoyed my beers with Ben and I’m super excited to see what else he has up his sleeves.
These are three wines from Ravine that Ben is really psyched about at the moment and this is what I think about them!
2017 Small Batch Riesling
WOW! This wine is beautifully crisp and totally Niagara. Tastes like fresh lemons and limes being squeezed out onto hot gravel stones. With loads of green apple and such a fresh feel this is bone dry and the most perfect thirst quenching, refreshing wine for a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon.
2016 Ravine Cabernet Franc
A very pretty, yet totally in power red wine. This Cab Franc has lots of ripe red fruits with substance — think raspberries and currants topped with a fine drizzle of dark chocolate. This wine might be able to squeeze its way into a pair of medium sized jeans but they would have to be ultra-stretch and there would definitely be a bit of ‘body’ bursting out the top. This wine has heaps of flavour with silky tannins that complement. A bit of dried oregano and a touch of sour cherry acidity are really what make me love this.
2015 Reserve Merlot
Oh dang, this wine has me stepping out from my usual glou-glous right now. It has me swirling and sniffing and looking like a total nerd. Beautiful aromas of incense, black and blue berries and sweet freshly muddled anise. Super powerful flavours on the palate of bright cherries and sage-y herbs. Lots of fruit, acidity and beautiful powdered tannins that will give this wine life. Lay it down or drink it now but those fruit flavours will stay with the wine as the tannins become ever so soft; a wine not to be chugged but sipped and savoured in every sense.