By Rick VanSickle
The owners of the new Locust Lane Estate Winery, that sits atop a prized perch on the Beamsville Bench, have some interesting plans for the former Mike Weir Winery.
Wine lovers will get a chance to taste the first wines and get a look inside the early stages of the reimagined winery this spring, likely in May or June, says winemaker Jeff Innes. But the most dramatic renovations won’t start until next January when the new team’s vision for their destination winery will begin to be realized.
For now, the biggest challenge for the owners and Innes is getting some Locust Lane wines into bottles for the spring opening.
The three new owners, Frank Mondelli and Michael Sannella, both real estate developers from Toronto, and Douglas Wheler, founder of an events and catering company based in Toronto, bought the 40-acre Weir property, retail/tasting facility and winery out of receivership for $4.625 million. The original listing price for Weir was a staggering $10.9 million.
“They are in it for the long haul,” says Innes, as we taste various wines in tank and barrel last Friday. “They like the business as long as it covers the costs of operation.” It was purchased as a real estate investment that they felt could be developed into a destination winery with a range of amenities that can attract wine lovers to the Beamsville Bench for more than just the wines made there.
And although none of the three owners has a background in running a winery, they are willing to learn as they go and will rely heavily on expertise from the Niagara wine community.
Innes, above and very top in the barrel room, and two others on the wine team are the first hires and they are tasked with crafting the wine program. The winemaker also makes wines for Stoney Ridge and is already intimate with the former Mike Weir vineyards and winery operation on the estate.
Locust Lane was left with 13 acres under vine with only 8 acres producing fruit, mainly Riesling and Merlot. There will be an aggressive program of replanting the correct grapes on the property and sourcing grapes from growers in Niagara. Innes is looking at planting Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Syrah in the estate vineyards, along with expanding the Merlot plantings.
He wants to open this spring with 10 or so wines in bottle — two banquet style wines, a red and white, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, a Riesling sparkling wine and a couple of reds, among others, with wines ranging in price from $15-$25 to super premium Niagara wines up to $50 at some point. The initial release will consist of purchased juice, some finished wines from various sources and a little bit from their own estate, such as the sparkling Riesling and rosé from the 2019 vintage. The oak treated wines will take a bit of time, of course, but some are already barreled down, a lot of them in new oak barrels, in the cellar.
I tasted a few of unfinished wines in tank and barrel with Innes and was impressed with the rosé, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and base wine for the sparkling Riesling.
“It’s exciting, a nice challenge,” Innes says. “The owners are great and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the next couple of years.”
In the short term, the old Weir retail and tasting facility will be spruced up for the opening this spring to welcome its first visitors and sell the first wines Innes and his assistants at the winery are presently scrambling to get into bottle.
In a year from now, the winery will undergo a massive renovation with millions invested to realize a much grander plan that includes:
• A major renovation of the main tasting facility to include two restaurants — a pizza/charcuterie venue on the main floor and a larger restaurant on the bottom floor that opens up to the vineyards and views down to Lake Ontario;
• The back of the retail facility’s main floor will be renovated to include massive floor to ceiling windows and a large sunken deck with spectacular views overlooking the Beamsville Bench and estate vineyards. On the right side of building, another massive deck is planned. In fact, all the decks are being rebuilt to expand the outdoor spaces;
• A private tasting room will occupy the top floor where Weir’s memorabilia was housed and the walls will be renovated to accommodate windows and more spectacular views;
• A showcase staircase is planned to go from the top of the retail facility to the bottom, connecting all spaces;
• A “glamping” site is planned on the property, possibly by this summer, for overnight guests who crave the experience of luxurious camping with all the amenities in an idyllic setting;
• And, down the road, a small, boutique hotel is envisioned for what is now a house on the property.
Everything, of course, is pending the proper licences and escarpment approvals.
“We are committed to do whatever it takes to get this property to the status it deserves,” Innes says.
Perhaps the goal of the new Locust Lane Estate Winery can best be gleamed from the mission statement:
“Provide our customers with delicious, award-winning, quality wines that are all handcrafted locally. We provide an unparalleled selection of wines with something to satisfy every palate, from unique, fruit-infused wines to traditional white and red varietals and more! Whether you are reflecting on your experiences in the Niagara region or the Bench where we are located or reside in this beautiful region, our goal is for our guests to regard Ontario Winery as the most memorable winery they have experienced and welcome our brand into their lifestyle with a unique innovated vision. We have many facets of our hospitality from wines to wine tasting to events to an up and coming new venture of the world-renowned Glamping.”
Don’t bet against these newcomers to Niagara. They are off to a flying start.