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Flat Rock’s Sheppard named Ontario winemaker of the year, caps off 40-year career

Pioneering Canadian winemaker David Sheppard has been named the Ontario Wine Awards Winemaker of the Year.

Now in its 27th edition, the Ontario Wine Awards is one of the most prestigious wine competitions in the country and recognizes outstanding contributions to the wine world.

This is Sheppard’s first time winning the award in a career that has spanned four decades. His Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Rieslings have consistently been among the most highly acclaimed in the province, winning numerous honours over the years. Throughout his career, Sheppard has spent an unnumerable amount of time sharing his wines, his neighbours’ wines, and his love of the Niagara Wine Industry. “We are ecstatic for Dave! He has been a driving force in the development of not just Flat Rock Cellars, but the entire Niagara wine industry,” says Ed Madronich, president of Flat Rock Cellars.

Tony Aspler, Founder of the Ontario Wine Awards, noted that “Dave Sheppard was a celebrity winemaker before there were celebrity winemakers. His winemaking skills, honed over 40 vintages, speak to the long tradition of the fine Ontario wines that he has helped to create over the years.” While the 2020 harvest will be Dave’s last as a winemaker, he will continue to be an advocate for Niagara wines through his contributions with the VQA, GGO and other organizations.

The 2020 vintage was one of the best the region has ever seen, and the wines will have extra significance to those who have followed Dave’s career. Some of the 2020 aromatic wines have already hit the shelf, but many are still evolving in barrels and will be released in the New Year.

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, seen in photo below. 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 envious 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.

If you don’t know Sheppard, suffice to say he is an honourable, respected winemaker 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.

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, in photo above, and pass along as much knowledge and experience as I can to get her ready to take the reigns,” he told me. “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.”

About the Ontario Wine Awards

Tony Aspler, one of Canada’s most acclaimed wine writers, and Order of Canada Recipient, founded the Ontario Wine Awards in 1995. His vision was to catapult Ontario VQA wines into the most successful, most revered wines available to domestic and foreign markets by recognizing and promoting the top Ontario wineries for the quality product they produce.

Note: Written with some material provided to Wines In Niagara by Flat Rock Cellars