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Veteran Niagara winemaker Sheppard easing into retirement after 40 years of making wine

By Rick VanSickle

Veteran winemaker David Sheppard didn’t start his 40-year winemaking career in Niagara, but he certainly left his mark here.

Sheppard began making wine in the Mittelrhein region of Germany in 1980 when he worked for a small family-run winery. After that he worked for 21 years at Inniskillin in Niagara-on-the-Lake under the tutelage of the late wine pioneer Karl Kaiser. These opportunities helped Sheppard expand his winemaking knowledge with a focus on two of Ontario’s key grape varieties — Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In 2003 Sheppard joined Coyote’s Run as founding winemaker where he gained a respectable reputation for the wines he made there.

When new owners purchased Coyote’s Run, Sheppard did his best to put a brave face on the situation, but things began to unravel quickly for him. All wasn’t quite as it appeared to be in the early days of the sale. He was being asked to do things he did not feel comfortable doing, things that did not meet his rigid principals.

Niagara wine
David Sheppard with assistant winemaker Allison Findlay.

If you don’t know Sheppard, suffice to say he is an honourable, respected winemaker man and that’s the way he conducts himself in life and in work. If he comes to an arrangement, he honours it, and that’s the end of it. You don’t mess with that kind of integrity. Enter Ed Madronich, owner of Flat Rock Cellars, who as it happened, was looking for a new winemaker in 2017 to replace Jay Johnston who had just accepted the head winemaking job at Hidden Bench.

Madronich, who has seen some of Canada’s top winemakers come and go through the doors at Flat Rock, was looking for stability and experience to carry the winery through its next phase. Sheppard and Madronich found a mutual bond and sealed the deal.

Said Madronich at the time: “We are so excited to have Dave at Flat Rock Cellars. We always strive to up our game each vintage and Dave bringing his 37 years experience in making fine Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling to Flat Rock Cellars will certainly do that.”

Madronich and Sheppard spent several years together working at Inniskillin, so they both knew what they are going to get from each other.

David Sheppard with Karl Kaiser.

Sheppard will be hanging up the Blundstones at the end of June and passing the torch after 40 vintages of making wine.

“Yes, I decided to call it at an even 40 vintages. Part of my mandate the last couple of years has been to mentor (assistant winemaker) Allison Findlay and pass along as much knowledge and experience as I can to get her ready to take the reigns,” he told me today. “This past year I realized how keen and excited she has become to do just that, and it happened to correspond with my believe that she really has what it takes now.”

Sheppard will be staying on part time in more of a support/advisory kind of role until the transition is fully comfortable for everyone, likely later this summer.

“Ed and the gang at Flat Rock have been really good to me and a pleasure to work with these past four years, so I am happy to start playing more golf wearing a Flat Rock polo shirt,” he said.

While golf is certainly part of the “semi” retirement gig ahead, Sheppard will still maintain participation in organizations such as VQA, CCOVI, Niagara College and the GGO. And also “daytime hockey rather than the usual red-eye time slots, skiing and travel once things open up, and time with my two little granddaughters,” he said. “I’ve also never in my working life had an autumn vacation, or even a Thanksgiving weekend off, so they are definitely on the new agenda too. Lots to do while my aging body is still able, and before a five-level gravity flow winery breaks it completely. Gravity is a wonderful thing as long as you’re going down.”

We asked Sheppard a few key questions as he winds a magnificent career in wine. Here are his answers.

Wines In Niagara: What was the first bottle of wine you made entirely on its own (do you remember what it was and how it tasted)?

David Sheppard: Yes, it was a 1998 Montague Vineyard Pinot Noir that was encouraged by Donald Ziraldo who said to Karl ‘come on Karl, give the kid a chance to show his stuff.’ I happen to have one bottle of it in my cellar and would be happy to taste it with you. I have no idea how or if it is holding up, but it would be fun to find out. Editor’s note — um, yes I want to taste it with you!

WIN: Who was your inspiration behind the style of wines you enjoy making the most?

Sheppard: My inspiration for Riesling was the late Fritz Bastian whom I worked for in Germany in 1981. He was actually my inspiration for getting into making wine as a career. Karl Kaiser with his Burgundy influences was my inspiration for Pinot Noir to a large extent also Chardonnay.

David Sheppard with former Coyote’s Run owner Jeff Aubry.

WIN: Favourite variety to work with in Niagara?

Sheppard: Pinot Noir from the right places in Niagara wins this one for me.

WIN: Favourite variety/blend to drink from anywhere?

Sheppard: Hmmm, what day is it? I love a crisp dry Riesling with a particular love of Austrian Rieslings from the Wachau. Love a great Niagara Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. So, hard to pick one favourite. Had some amazing sparklers from the UK lately … who new, eh?

WIN: What is the biggest difference between now and when you started 40 years ago in the Ontario wine industry?

Sheppard: RESPECT!!!! Respect of the wines and the industry. The world of wine related suppliers now come to us with their wares, whereas in the 1980s we had to seek them out as we really weren’t identified as a viable market for them. Same deal with consumers who formerly had to be convinced to even try our wines.

WIN: Best bottle you have ever tried in Niagara?

Sheppard: Oh man, that is really a tough one … I have memories of an awesome Cab Sauv made by the late John Marynissen, and an awesome Black Paw Vineyard Pinot Noir from the late Coyote’s Run … although there admittedly is probably some heavy bias on the palate there. Brian Schmidt has made some killer Rieslings and although I forget now which vintage it was, he also made a Cab Franc that I thought was the best one I’d ever had to that point in time.

David Sheppard with assistant winemaker at Flat Rock, Allison Findlay.

WIN: Worst vintage (toughest to make wine) in Ontario?

Sheppard: 1992 was horrible. The summer sucked and the fall was worse. I remember unloading bins of grapes with 5 cm of snow on top of them and that was in the first week of October!

WIN: Best vintage (easiest to make wine) in Ontario?

Sheppard: 2012 was a breeze but may be rivalled now by 2020.

WIN: Favourite vintage (that you made) in Ontario?

Sheppard: I think that this has to be 2020 despite the pandemic. The grapes were amazing, the weather was perfect, the harvest crew were awesome, and somewhere deep down inside I knew that it was the last time that I’d work 40+ consecutive days.

WIN: What are your plans moving forward?

Sheppard: I love the business, and Flat Rock too much to walk away completely just yet, so my plan is to officially pass the torch … and make myself available part time/on call however it works, to offer assistance and guidance wherever and however needed. There is definitely more golf, skiing, travelling, day-time hockey for a change, and playing with grandkids while I can still keep up with them, all in the forecast.

WIN: What will you miss most about winemaking?

Sheppard: I absolutely love the sense of camaraderie among my colleagues. Since the advent of Inniskillin and the new wave in wineries, there has been an overriding sense of sharing common goals and having shared experiences (good and bad) that bind us all in a spirit of cooperation. It continues to be really inspiring. When you know that you can pick up the phone and solicit help, advice, borrow equipment, and so on from any or all of your competitors it’s a wonderful thing … and nobody likes to drink beer and share laughs more than a room full of winemakers of all genders, colours, shapes and cultural backgrounds.

David Sheppard (far right) at a historic tasting of old Niagara wines.

WIN: What will you miss least about winemaking?

Sheppard: Bottling. Always hated bottling for some reason.

WIN: Biggest error you ever made making wine that no one knows about until now?

Sheppard: Haha,well I’ve given myself the odd red wine shower, which is never fun, (but everyone within earshot would have known about that). Honestly I’ve had a couple doozies but always fessed up so I can’t think of one that remains a secret. In my first winter at Flat Rock I took a turn too fast with a pallet of Pinot Noir on the back of the truck and launched the entire top layer of cases into a ditch. I kinda thought that might have shortened my tenure but apparently not … thanks, Ed.

WIN: What was your most important “aha” moment you had on your winemaking journey?

Sheppard: My most important ‘aha’ moment was back in Germany in 1981 when I realized that, as hard as it was, winemaking was the ONLY thing that I wanted to do as a career.

WIN: What part of your career are you most proud of?

Sheppard: My days with Karl Kaiser was a time when we as an industry had to work so hard to prove ourselves when virtually everyone in our own backyard was either skeptical, or dead set against the notion of fine Ontario made wines from Ontario grown grapes. Proving the naysayers wrong has been incredibly rewarding.

WIN: If there was one thing you would do differently over 40 year of winemaking, what would it be?

Sheppard: I think that I would have embraced and promoted the making of sparkling wines much sooner, as it took a while to realize what a fantastic area we have for producing top-notch bubblies.

WIN: There are some pretty colourful stories from the early years of winemaking. Do you have a story (without naming names) that stills cracks you up to this day?

Sheppard: Oh yeah … but not sure that they are publication worthy even without names. I’ll save that for the golf cart one day, Rick.

WIN: And, lastly, when you finally get to celebrate your ‘semi’ retirement, what bottle of wine will you be opening?

Sheppard: Well I actually know that one already. I have been sitting on the last bottle of Cabernet Franc that Karl Kaiser made at home and had given me before his passing. In his retirement years Karl used to call me to stop in and taste and discuss his wines before he did any last minute tweaking prior to bottling. He, of course, knew exactly what he was doing, but was always reassured when I offered opinions that, for the most part, aligned with what he planned for the wine all along. In the back of my head I can hear him saying ‘come Dave, drink that bottle … I didn’t make it for looking at.’ It seems a fitting tribute to the man that, in no small part, helped to facilitate and inspire a 40-year career.