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UPDATED: Ontario wine industry reacting quickly to evolving COVID-19 epidemic

By Rick VanSickle

The news is moving swiftly as Ontario Wine Country grapples with the COVID-19 Pandemic and wineries and restaurants adapt to the ever-changing landscape.

In news just this morning (Thursday), the Ontario government announced it will begin allowing restaurants to sell booze with takeout orders beginning today after a petition was started by PondView’s Marcel Morgenstern.

Ontario wine

Establishments with a valid liquor licence will be able to participate. Booze deliveries will be able to happen between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. seven days a week, with deliveries being carried out by the restaurant themselves or by a third-party delivery service. The liquor licence holder will still be required to ensure the person ordering is of age and is not intoxicated.

The government said that delivery drivers will be granted a 30-day grace period to become Smart Serve certified so that deliveries can start immediately.

This is a welcome measure to assist the local hospitality community during these challenging times and to help many Ontarians who depend on delivery services in order to follow social distancing guidelines, said the Ontario Craft Wineries Association in a news release. “Now more than ever, Ontario wineries are thankful to restaurants who feature and offer local VQA wine.”

“The local Ontario wine industry is thankful that this opportunity is now available to support local VQA wineries and their restaurant partners in this difficult time. Restaurant wine sales are important to restaurants and wineries.  This change by the Ontario government will help both industries as they try to keep their businesses afloat.

“It’s never been more important for Ontarians to buy local,” said Richard Linley, President, Ontario Craft Wineries. “From supporting farmers and small businesses to protecting jobs, choosing local strengthens our regional economies. These restaurant delivery changes give Ontario residents an easy way to enjoy the local Ontario VQA wines they love in a safe way, while pairing them with the food offered by our local restaurant partners.”

“The Ontario wine industry is closely connected with our important business partners in the restaurant and hospitality industry and is grateful for this new way that Ontarians can support great Ontario wine and their local restaurants,” said Aaron Dobbin, President & CEO, Winery and Grower Alliance of Ontario.

In addition to the delivery option, the government will allow the sale of alcohol in retail outlets as early as 7 a.m. The reason for the move is to allow seniors who are taking advantage of special shopping hours set aside for them at many grocery stores to be able add beer or wine to their food cart.

While many stores are offering special shopping arrangements for seniors between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., those grocery stores selling beer and wine have not been able to sell alcohol until 9 a.m. That change will also take effect immediately.

Meanwhile, Morgenstern has started a Facebook group for Niagara restaurants to share their takeout menus and for Niagara foodies to make new discoveries and recommend their favourites! You visit the page here.

In other news

• Corks & Forks, Kingston’s 2nd annual International Wine Festival, has rescheduled the event to Sept. 11-13 due to coronavirus concerns.

In a note on its Instagram page, organizers said: “We are hopeful that by September, we’ll get the green light to host events like this wonderful wine festival. Yet … if not, we’ll go back to the drawing board! We hope those who have bought Corks & Forks festival passes & tickets already will be able to join us in September. For everyone who wants to hang on to their festival passes & tickets, we want to thank you … we will give you 1 FREE Corks & Forks seminar -—you pick & let us know (exception: Riedel glassware seminar).

“We know the world is uncertain right now and September is a long way off. If you would rather have a refund, please email and we will arrange a full refund onto your credit card.”

Corks & Forks is designed to be a festival for anyone who enjoys wine. Consumers can discover new wines and learn new things from talented winemakers and wine industry notables from Canada and around the world. It will be a jam-packed weekend with wine and food events, tastings led by experts and seminars hosted by the country’s top Sommeliers, wine writers and pros.

New this year, you’ll travel across Spain’s wine regions without leaving Ontario! Daytime and evening events will highlight the diversity of wines made in Spain —  sparkling, white, red and sherry. Grab a wine glass and Ole!

• In a note to its members, Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake made the decision today to cancel its popular Dig Our Roots event.

“We have been closely monitoring developments regarding Covid-19 and in light of the most recent updates, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to cancel the Dig Our Roots appellation celebration, originally scheduled to take place at our member properties on April 17 to 19. We will be issuing full refunds on all previously purchased tickets. All refunds will be processed through EzTix and we appreciate your patience as this might take some time. We thank you for your understanding as we navigate our way through these unprecedented and challenging times.”

• Quench magazine, Canada’s only surviving wine-focused print product, has decided to not print the May/June and July/August issues after the printer, based in Quebec, was determined to be a non-essential business. Both issues will move online with the possibility of them being printed and mail to subscribers in the fall.

Wineries adapting to changing times

All around Ontario, wineries have been forced to shut down their tasting rooms, layoff staff, deal with self-isolation and social distancing all the while trying keep their businesses viable while weathering this virus crisis. Health and safety are everyone’s No. 1 priority.

Every winery is taking a different approach.

• Curbside wine buying — A lot of wineries are offering curbside purchasing. You drive up to the winery, call in your order and pay over the phone and a staff member delivers the wine to your trunk. How cool is that?

Vineland Estate winemaker Brian Schmidt’s backseat full of delicious wine going to a thirsty client.

• Direct local delivery — Many wineries are offering free local delivery of whatever wine you want. Often, the winemaker or assistant winemaker, drops your order on the front porch, wipes the boxes clean with sanitizer and moves on to the next job.

• Ontario delivery — Every winery is offering delivery of their wines to your home. Most are offering free delivery (some have conditions). We are keeping a list of wineries in Niagara and Prince Edward County participating in deliveries across the province here.

Virtual tastings

I had a blast last night (Wednesday) taking part in virtual tasting with Fielding Estate winemaker Richie Roberts. It was a nice diversion from our new reality.

The idea was to buy the wine from Fielding, join in on a live broadcast via a link on Facebook and Instagram and taste along with Roberts as he gives the story behind the wine, how he made it, what to pair with it and answer questions from viewers.

The wine tasted was the just released Fielding Estate Winery White Conception 2018. Roberts plans on doing at least two more episodes on Wednesday’s at 8 p.m.

Roberts opened the tasting by saying: “I hope everyone is healthy and safe. I’m doing this to take your mind off everything and have some fun out there. In a time like this, when people can’t get out and taste, I thought this would be a way to do it.”

He then thanked first responders who are “risking their lives for all of us” and also gave a shout out to Dillon’s Distillery for producing an alcohol-based sanitizer free to all first responders.

Then he led us on a tasting of the White Conception. The 2018 vintage is the first White Conception made since 2013. It’s a 68% Sauvignon Blanc, 32% Semillon blend that sees a bit of barrel fermentation and aging for “texture and complexity.”

Roberts’ presentation included some hand-made drawings by his children of the various flavours and aromas perceived in the wine. The drawings brought a smile to my face, even though a glitch showed the artwork and words inverted to the viewers. Growing pains.

Roberts also had to navigate some tricky questions.

— “This wine pairs well with your mom embarrassing you on a live wine tasting.” Clark Tyler (Roberts’ assistant winemaker, by the way, pictured above, dropping off the White Conception and Cab/Syrah)

— “Should I pair it with Hagen Das mint chip or choc peanut?” Dianne Wright Kirwin

— And my favourite. “Do they taste better when you drink them out of a Gatorade bottle?” Mike Bannister

Roberts took all the questions, frivolous and informed, in stride. It was a humorous yet informative diversion from all that’s happening around us.

Here’s my review of the White Conception (next week it’s a Cab/Syrah blend. Tune in, have some fun, grab some wine and join in. You can view the first episode here.

Fielding Estate White Conception 2018 ($26, online, 91 points) — As mentioned, a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend that is barrel fermented and barrel aged in neutral French oak for “texture and complexity.” There isn’t a lot of Semillon grown in Niagara and Roberts had to to trade some estate Riesling to acquire it from Legends Winery. It has such a lovely nose of pink grapefruit, pear, grassy/herb notes, lime, subtle Mandarin orange and spicy accents. It’s clean and fresh on the palate with green apple/pear/citrus fruits, a waxy lanolin note, lovely texture and vibrancy with a long finish that shows just a pinch of spice. Roberts calls it “fresh, focused and vibrant” and will age nicely for five years or so. He had his friend Margaret Kaupp offer up some pairing ideas: roasted chicken, creamy risotto, pad Thai and round, fat cheeses such as gouda or Havarti.

Winery vignettes

I asked some wineries a few key questions on how they are handling the new reality. Here are some of their responses (will add more as they come in).

The Foreign Affair Winery

How are you and your winery navigating isolation and social distancing while still trying to keep the wine flowing?

“The production team (my Assistant Winemaker, Alyssa Tharby, and myself) have continued to come in to work to ensure that the 2018 red wines and the last of the early 2019 white wines are blended and ready for bottling in early May. We practice all proper distancing and sanitation/disinfection techniques advised by the WHO. The 2018 red wine blends have been finalized (bench trial blends) and are stunning! There are a couple small lot wines coming down the pipeline that our Wine Club members will love, also. At the end of the workdays at home, we have been enjoying some fantastic local wines to both help support the local wineries and help us deal with this unprecedented time!”

 What’s hot from your online wine shop?

“The online wine shop is still receiving and filling wine orders. Wines that are popular include: ’18 Conspiracy Bianco (Ripasso white blend of Riesling and Sauv Blanc); ’17 Embrace (Ripasso style 50/50 Pinot Noir/Gamay blend); ’17 Conspiracy Red; ’17 Dream; and the ’16 Temptress is always a fan favourite.

 How do people get them?

You can continue to order Foreign Affair wines from the comfort of your home. To give back to the community in this time of need, $5 from every online order over $150 will be donated to Food Banks Canada to help combat the shortages being faced due to the spread of COVID-19. All shipments are sent via Canada Post, for the most up to date delivery policies regarding postal service, click here.

Please send a selfie photo that shows your current mood.

Attached is a selfie with our Sommelier Ed Haddon and Kelly Josephson (manager of sales and marketing) shooting some virtual tasting videos for our website (while practicing social distancing) so that our customers can still experience the winery from home with shipped wines. My current mood could be described as joyful, optimistic and determined. I am thankful that our production team of two is still healthy and able to continue to work together producing the wonderful wines at The Foreign Affair Winery for our customers to enjoy!

Barclay Robinson
Foreign Affair winemaker

Pillitteri Estates Winery

Gary and Lena Pillitteri are in self-isolation after returning from Florida on March 15. They will be in self-isolation for another few days before the social distancing begins for them. Apparently they have found “the Crown” and been binge watching it. They look like they are making the best of it.

How are you and your winery navigating isolation and social distancing while still trying to keep the wine flowing?

“Pillitteri has closed the retail store for the safety of our staff and customers. We are continuing to offer online sales across the country. We have only a few staff still on site at the winery preparing the orders while most of the administrative, sales and marketing staff are working from home. Luckily we had recently invested in a new server with remote desktop functionality so our sales team could work while travelling. It is coming in handy right now as we can all work as if we are at our desks. Also, the technology we put in to our brand new winemaking facility has been invaluable as it can all be remotely monitored and controlled with limited direct interventions to maintain wine in a storage state. This basically allows us to work with a very limited crew on site in wine production. The plan is to continue winemaking operations while keeping all staff the required 6 feet apart until this is resolved.”

What’s hot from your online wine shop. Do you have a couple of wines you would highly recommend to consumers to see them through these difficult times?

“The Team Canada Wine Collection has been very popular. They are available online and $1 from the sale of each bottle goes to support the Canadian Olympic Foundation. With the Olympics postponed and uncertainty surrounding athlete training we are proud to be able to help provide some stability in funding to them. We are also proud that Team Canada took a stand and was the first to call for postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

We also have our collection of rosé wine, the Market Collection Lucia’s Roseé is a sweet fruity rosé for $16 that is a Cab Franc base. The Racina Pinot Squared Rosé is a dry crisp rose with some body to it and is available for $23. With spring coming both are perfect to enjoy on a patio or balcony.”

How do people get them?

“All Pillitteri wines are available online with free shipping across Canada, no minimum order, no minimum bottle count, no promo code needed. Free shipping will be available indefinitely during the pandemic and will be re-evaluated once this situation is resolved. We will also begin offering specials and case promotions beginning in April on our social media channels.”

Jeff Letvenuk
Marketing and Media Manager, Pillitteri

Hidden Bench Estate Winery

How are you and your winery navigating isolation and social distancing while still trying to keep the wine flowing?

“We have closed our retail shop since Saturday two weeks ago and are only doing online orders with free shipping and 10% off. Minimum quantity 6. In the winery and vineyard we have implemented social and physical distancing protocols, which the team is adhering to. ie: no visitors, one person in lab only, etc. We are taking this very seriously and hope that we can help flatten and eliminate the curve.”

What’s hot from your online wine shop. Do you have a couple of wines you would highly recommend to consumers to see them through these difficult times?

“People are seriously spending on some great wines ie: Sparkling ( Natur and Balance de Blanc) La Brunante, Locust Lane Pinot Noir., Nuit Blanche.”

Hidden Bench also put out a call to its industry partners and in the spirit of community and cooperation:

“As we all weather the current difficult conditions, nature continues along its path, indifferent to our human concerns. The combination of weather, agricultural worker availability, and regulatory environment presents Hidden Bench with some unique opportunities to offer temporary vineyard work to those of you willing to take up the challenge and have some fun on the Bench.

“As the growing season is quickly approaching, we would initially have work available for 12-15 people for a period of 2-3 weeks and if things continue on, this work availability could be extended.

“The work is all outdoors (so please consider your ability to dress appropriately) may be weather dependent and will consist primarily of the following activities.

• Vine pruning
• Vine tie down
• General vineyard work

“If you have never worked in a vineyard environment the work is repetitive, physical work but can be fun and provide a sense of satisfaction.

“Our work schedule would be 9-6 daily (weather dependent) and you would be responsible to arrange your own daily transportation to the vineyard sites. Please note that strict COVID-19 social and physical distancing protocols will be part and parcel of the management of this vineyard work and we will require all team members to strictly adhere to these protocols for everyone’s health and safety.

“Beside the opportunity to learn a bit about viniculture and enjoy the fresh air and the beauty of the Beamsville Bench, the compensation we are offering for this work would $15/hour worked plus a 6-pack of selected past vintage HB wines on a weekly basis. In addition, we will be making a special wine this year to acknowledge all those who help HB through this challenging vintage and you will also receive a six pack of this wine in 2021 or 2022 when it is bottled.

“Those interested please reach out and drop a note to Mike Boland ( ) or Joel Williams ( ) so that we can begin to formulate our schedule for work to start next week.

“While we recognize that the need in our community is great, our ability to offer everyone who steps up employment, is simply not within our ability to grant at this time.

“Come join us and help us make some awesome, 100% estate, certified organic juice!”

Harald Thiel, Hidden Bench Winery

Southbrook Vineyards

How are you and your winery navigating isolation and social distancing while still trying to keep the wine flowing?

“Isolation is hard, but we’re doing the best we can to stay positive. We closed our retail store two weeks ago, but we have been fulfilling orders from our website and phone number – shipping free anywhere in Canada (no minimums), doing curbside pick up at the winery and doing deliveries where we can. Our priority is getting wine into the hands of our customers, not worrying about the bottom line. We’re also keeping busy in the vineyard and the chickens are back pecking under the solar panels.”

What’s hot from your online wine shop. Do you have a couple of wines you would highly recommend to consumers to see them through these difficult times?

“We are really pleased that the LCBO has recognized that Ontario Wineries have a much shorter and less risky supply chain. They have stepped up orders from us over the last week. Ontario consumers also seem to be recognizing that Local is a great option. Customers have been looking for our unique organic and biodynamic offerings like Orange and Pet Nat, but our 6-packs that tell a story are hot too: explore the Triomphe range and ‘meet Heather Laundry’s vineyard’ have been flying out of here.”

How do people get them?

“Anyone interested in ordering can do so through our website or via phone 905-246-1348. We are working with Lincfarm at Southbrook to organize the delivery of wine with their meat and eggs.”

Bill Redelmeier, Southbrook Vineyards

Henry of Pelham Estate Winery

How are you and your winery navigating isolation and social distancing while still trying to keep the wine flowing?

“We have made many steps such as people working from home, sterilizing equipment, cash registers, etc. Safe work spaces and much , much more. Our employees have been amazing at not only adapting but coming up with great ideas to stay safe while continuing to work. We have amazing people who are really dedicated working at HOP.”

What’s hot from your online wine shop. Do you have a couple of wines you would highly recommend to consumers to see them through these difficult times?

“We are doing flash sales online, and at the winery store. The current one is our Family Tree white and red. Both are $5 off per bottle!!! Next week, we are offering a discount on our Sibling Rivalry Wines. We want to give people a real break in these difficult times. People should go to for details and sign up to be an Insider to get the latest updates on our specials. We are also planning a virtual Happy Hour exclusively for our Wine Club members.

“We also have some big Limited Time Offerings in the LCBO starting April 1st. Currently our Henry of Pelham Sauvignon Blanc is $2 off but lots more next week.”

How do people get them?

“Free home shipping per case (12 bottles) anywhere in Ontario and wine store at Winery (no minimums open 12-5pm 7 days). See above re wine club, that is key for best and most deals. LCBO has different opportunities.”

Paul Speck
President of Henry of Pelham

13th Street Winery

How are you and your winery navigating isolation and social distancing while still trying to keep the wine flowing?

“We’re certainly doing our best as a small business to work to survive in the current situation – has not been easy and things are changing by the day (if not minute) but it seems like we’ve found a working balance between social distancing, serving our customers and friends and keeping many of our team employed. We’ve had amazing feedback thus far with so many people excited to be supporting the local economy through their purchases. And it has been busy!”

The tasting bar is closed but we are currently offering the following:

• Bakery pick up of ready-to-cook meals (i.e. our chef’s frozen meat pies, cabbage rolls, soups and daily specials such as a fresh pasta dish this weekend), our famous butter tarts and local fruit tarts and of course wine! All of which is pre-ordered by phone or online and ready for at-a-distance pick up or trunk delivered on arrival. No orders taken on the spot so no payments are exchanged.

• Online orders of wine with free Ontario delivery – use the code “free” at check out. 10% off for orders of 12 bottles or more and we’re working on some weekly specials/online tasting and education opportunities – i.e. we will be opening up a Pinot Party offer later today to get the wine ready for an online Pinot Party a week from tomorrow – a mixed case of Pinots at an amazing price! And then everyone is encouraged to join in the live feed next Friday hosted by our Director of Onsite Sales Corinne Maund live from our vineyard cottage (aka our Air bnb)!

• Our most popular wines have been our Burger Blends, our Pinot Gris, our Gamays and of course our sparkling wines! Production and bottling of 2019s and barrel aged 2018s continues so stay tuned for new releases coming soon.

Ilya Rubin
Director of Sales

Fielding Estate Winery

How are you and your winery navigating isolation and social distancing while still trying to keep the wine flowing?

“We are undoubtedly in uncertain times, and doing our best at the winery to navigate uncharted waters. We want to encourage people to keep drinking local wines at home, while staying safe and healthy!

“At the winery, everyone within our team has pulled together in these challenging times. We have put into place a number of new internal cleaning and distancing protocols within the cellar and retail store, and have personal protective equipment available to help all staff safe and comfortable.

“Our loyal customers have been incredibly supportive of the changes which we’ve put into place. People are continuing to support us by buying and drinking Fielding wines at home, and we truly appreciate their optimism and support during this challenging time!”

What’s hot from your online wine shop. Do you have a couple of wines you would highly recommend to consumers to see them through these difficult times?

Many of our loyal following have their Fielding favourites, so they are all popular at the moment! Go-to wines like our Fireside Red and Unoaked Chardonnay are great value and always popular, but new releases for the spring, including the 2018 White Conception (Sauv Blanc/Sémillon) and 2017 Cabernet-Syrah, are exciting choices as well!

How do people get them?

For the near future, we are encouraging our customers to order our wines online at and/or by phone (905-563-0668). We are offering free shipping with no-contact porch delivery (6+ bottles, web code SHIP2020), or free curbside pickup here at the winery (by phone order). As always, mixed packs are welcome, including cider! Our retail store currently has limited hours for bottle/case sales and we are not offering tours or tastings. Limited customers are allowed in the store at this time, with a maximum of two persons at a time. Only our staff is permitted to touch or pack wine. 

As well, Fielding is offering front line workers in the battle against COVID-19 a complimentary bottle of wine on any order of 5 and and two complimentary bottles on the Purchase of 10 to complete their case! We will select the wines based on the customers’ order, picking wines to suit their preference! Use code FieldingCares.

Richie Roberts
Winemaker, Fielding Estate Winery