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A new winemaker at Niagara’s Ravine Vineyard, a new beginning

By Rick VanSickle

The first time I met Lydia Tomek it was after she had just posted an emotional video about her friend, a Virgil mother of two daughters who died of breast cancer.

Tomek was the winemaker at Hernder Estates at the time and had just made a rosé called Audrey’s Blend 2011 in honour of Audrey Davies. “My friend Audrey loved wine but she really loved Chardonnay so I wanted to make a rosé with Chardonnay. I don’t care what people think — that’s Audrey,” Tomek said at the time.

What struck me was the raw emotion that went into those videos as Tomek made the wine and talked about her friend. They were impossible to watch without being profoundly touched. I had to visit her at Hernder for the full story.

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Tomek, a Brock University (CCOVI) grad, is no longer at Hernder (pictured above), but as she journeyed from Niagara to Norfolk County’s Burning Kiln Winery and back to Niagara as the winemaker at Ravine Vineyard this fall, her passion for life, family, friends and making wine burns as brightly as it ever has. Only now it’s a lot easier to enjoy.

The winemaking job at Ravine in St. David’s is only minutes away from home instead of the grinding trek back and forth from Burning Kiln. Tomek couldn’t be happier to spend more time with her young son Dragan and husband Michael Nazareth (CEO of Dragan Brewing).

But there is a lot more to Tomek than family and winemaking. Her Twitter bio lists “winemaker at Ravine Vineyards, artist, scientist, food lover, writer, self proclaimed rock star.” She is all of that and then some.

Tomek has a black belt in Shotokan Karate, is always a featured boxer (and trains like the champion she is) at the annual Pearl Gloves Charity Boxing Event, helped start a community foundation that is dedicated to improving cancer treatment, is a guest speaker at community events to encourage young women in their careers, and built the “LocaLove Garden Project” at a local school. And still she has time to craft wines with the same passion and dedication she puts into every aspect of her incredibly busy life.

Scroll through Tomek’s Insta feed and you’ll find a mix of glamour and brawn, all aspects of winemaking from vine to bottle, strolls through the vineyards, sweat and grit while training for Pearl Gloves (photo above), in the ring pounding an opponent, glitzy photos, flexing her muscles Popeye-style, supporting her favourite football team — Atlético de Madrid, devotion to her religion, the odd Cuban cigar photo, and lots and lots of food shots. The fact is, Tomek appears equally comfortable in a sparkly sequin dress and high heels as she does is in old work jeans, plaid shirt and Blundstones or throwing haymakers at opponents in the boxing ring. She makes the most out of this life and appears to be living it exactly the way she scripted it. And she’s brought the Lydia Tomek show and all that comes with that to Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery. Buckle up, wine lovers, there’s a new sheriff in town.

As I sit with Tomek for the first time since she took the reins from winemaker Ben Minaker (now at Rockway Vineyards), it seems appropriate that one of her debut wines to be bottled is the soon-to-be-released Ravine Rosé 2019 just in time for Valentine’s Day. I was treated to a preview of the rosé as well as some of the other first wines Tomek and assistant winemaker Eden Garry made from the 2019 vintage — three Rieslings, a Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.

“I’m really proud of them, I’m excited,” Tomek conceded. With a lot of changes at Ravine and a gorgeous new events centre nearing completion, “it’s a new era for Ravine,” she adds. “For me, I’m focused on understanding the site. It’s organic and you need to celebrate and protect that.”

Here is what I liked. Please note, when I tasted these wines, none had been bottled so I scored them with a range of points and will reassess once they reach bottle.

The Rieslings

“Riesling is my go-to varietal to discover terroir,” Tomek says. It’s her 15th vintage making Riesling and Tomek says she’s learned to let Riesling unfold naturally. “This the no BS grape, it will tell you how to make it and when to pick it.” For her, that means picking on acidity and flavour and not being stuck on Brix (sugar).

“Riesling is that medium that has a connection with the winemaker.” She says. “Riesling is the most optimistic varietal we have in Niagara. It can save the day.”

Tomek is right, of course, and laments the fact, like many of us, that more people don’t embrace Niagara Rieslings. There is never a vintage that forsakes Riesling in Niagara, and the diversity of styles — from sweet to super day and all points in between, from minerally to tropical, from age worthy to quaffing — makes this the absolutely most versatile grape variety in the region, and Ontario just happens to make some of the best mid-range priced examples in the world. No question about it. Period. End of story.

Tomek has produced a range of styles to be released in the very near future.

Ravine Sand & Gravel Riesling 2019 ($20, 88-89 points) — Quite expressive on the nose with overt lime, peach and grapefruit notes. There is some honey sweetness on the palate with succulent peach, citrus and tension between the ripe fruit and acidity.

Ravine Small Batch Riesling 2019 ($25, 90-92 points) — Much more subtle, taut and minerally with lime, slate, grapefruit and citrus zest. It’s a river-rock mineral bomb on the palate with lime/citrus that builds in momentum with a touch of honey and racy acidity keeping everything in check. A candidate for the cellar.

Lydia Tomek’s first wine she made at Ravine now in bottle, the Patricia’s Block Riesling. (Photo by Lydia Tomek)

Ravine Patricia’s Block Riesling 2019 ($35, 92-93 points) — Built with 40 g/l of RS, this is a joyous wine sourced from a unique portion of the estate vineyard that usually yields some botrytis fruit from a low-lying dip that traps fog and moisture. Tomek made the decision to eliminate the noble rot for her first Patricia’s Block. This is more perfumed than the above wine, with lemon curd, lanolin, honeysuckle, lime/citrus and interesting spicy/mineral accents. It’s layered and honeyed with palpable tension from the searing acidity, sweetness and minerality providing a balanced attack of lemon, lime, peach and tangerine with a finish that goes on and on. I expect a blockbuster here once it settles down. Bravo.

Other White Wines

Ravine Sand & Gravel Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($20, 89-90 points) — The fruit for this wine is sourced from two farms over three different picking dates. There was some skin contact and about half the fruit was barrel fermented and the other half fermented in stainless steel tanks. On the nose, it’s highly aromatic with rich tropical fruits, gooseberries, grapefruit and a hint of herbs and spice. It’s generous and rich on the palate with layers of juicy guava, gooseberries, fresh pear and subtle spice with the racy acidity driving the bus here, keeping if fresh and vibrant through the finish. Tastes like a lot more than the $20 it costs.

Ravine Gewurztraminer 2019 ($25, 88-89 points) — The Gewurztraminer from the wild and crazy 2019 vintage didn’t go through veraison until the Labour Day weekend, so we will call this one a late bloomer. Tomek decided to make a completely dry style of Gew, which showcases the flinty minerality perfectly. The nose is rife in lychee, grapefruit, orange blossom, pear and spice notes. The palate reveals exotic tropical fruits, lychee nut, Asian spices and citrus accents on a vibrant, fresh finish.

The Rosé

Ravine Cabernet Franc Rosé 2019 ($25, released Valentine’s Day, 89-90 points) — Tomek made this delicious rosé with a 12-hour skin extraction using a gentle press, giving it a pale pink colour in the glass. “I wanted to showcase the fresh berries and watermelon so I dialed back on the RS (residual sugar),” she says. It’s pretty on the nose with aromas of fresh-picked strawberries, raspberries, watermelon and subtle summer herbs. It has lovely mouth feel on the palate with a basket of succulent red berries and a clean, refreshing finish.