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It’s the War of 1812 all over again … but this time, it’s St. Davids vs St. David’s

By Rick VanSickle

There’s nothing sexier than two white dudes who drink booze for a living arguing over an errant (or maybe not!) apostrophe … but here we are.

For all you persnickety grammarians out there, the interchangeable spelling of St. Davids/St. David’s, the former a tiny village in Niagara, the latter a VQA sub-appellation, is cringe worthy. Can both spellings be correct? Who is right and who is wrong?

VQA wine

This very issue was argued at some length between Wines In Niagara beer/spirits contributor Stephen Beaumont and the editor/publisher of this very site (me) recently after he filed his column about Ridgeway’s Brimstone Brewing, which included a reference to St. Davids. In his review of Brimstone’s Let There Be Lite IPA, he wrote: “Brewed in collaboration with Grist Craft Kitchen & Brewery, coming soon to St. Davids …”

I have routinely changed all spellings of St. Davids to St. David’s because, well, VQA is a legally binding document, passed by the government of Ontario, and spells it as a singular possessive. I come from the wine side and rarely use the village name, so it became “style” for this website to always use the apostrophe. I changed it in Beaumont’s copy (probably the only thing I did change as he is pretty much a flawless writer when it comes to spelling and grammar) to the site’s style, published the piece and received an email quickly thereafter.

Hi Rick;
Every reference I can find suggests that there is not an apostrophe in St. Davids.
Cheers, S.

After some research (Googling), I wrote back:

Lots of references to both spellings and no one seems to know the actual legal spelling, but I long ago settled on St. David’s just to be consistent.
Not that Wikipedia is a reference, but here it is.
And not that VQA is the final voice of the spelling, but it is a legal entity and spells the sub-app of St. David’s with the apostrophe when referring to the St. David’s Bench, which is one and the same as the village of St. David’s. (Have a look here)
• 880,000 search results for St. Davids
• 801,000 search results for St. David’s
The St. Catharines Standard waffles between styles, but more with the apostrophe, see here.
For the sake of argument and because it’s your piece, I will go and change the spelling to what you had, while I continue to seek out a legal, correct spelling. I have calls out.
Cheers, Rick

But that did not sit well with me. I appreciate the close attention veteran writers give to their work and usually relent even when style and capitalization are in question. But this was something that has been written one way for a decade or more on this website and I had changed it to something different.

With one push of the delete button St. David’s became St. Davids. The town’s name went from one David to two or lord knows how many Davids, and, of course, how the hell can that be? What’s a guy to do? I jumped in my car in search of answers.

The first sign I came across was from the Lions Club and a big sign that read St. David’s Lions. Further down the road, at the St. Davids-Queenston United Church, confusion was apparent. In the adjoining cemetery of the church on a plaque commemorating the town’s war dead, the Niagara Historical Society (which I’m thinking must know a thing or two) signed off by acknowledging support and collaboration from “the Board of Trustees of St. David’s Queenston United Church.” It was getting weird.

Another plaque relating to the burning of the town in 1814, used the St. Davids spelling and the sign welcoming visitors did as well.

After driving around town and seeing conflicts all around me, I was still not convinced there were two Davids behind this quaint little village. But, there it was, clear and convincing evidence at the world’s smallest Post Office. The sign on the side of the building read: Canada Post St. Davids. But just to be sure, I grabbed my mask and went in to ask questions. The delightful woman behind the counter was not surprised by my query. “If I was sending a letter to someone here, how would I spell the town’s name.” To which she replied very slowly: S. T. D. A. V. I. D. S. No apostrophe? No, she said, and left no doubt about it.

So, more work was needed to figure out how all this happened such a long time ago and who this David fella was, or should I say David fellas.

Denise Ascenzo, in a series called Niagara’s History Unveiled for Niagara Now published in December of 2018, had this speculation about the spelling of St. Davids and the origins.

“During the early days of this settlement, the village boasted several mills and people referred to it as Four Mile Mills (being situated on Four Mile Creek). By 1800, Richard Woodruff started referring to the town as Davidsville or Davidstown after his friend and superior officer, David Secord. At that time, men who showed great leadership were often referred to as “king” like a mayor of a settlement.

“So how did this town become known as St. Davids? Speculation has it that David Secord, who was known as King David, maybe reminded people of David from the bible and with a twist of words, the village became known as St. Davids – no apostrophe!”

Now, Paul Harber, a descendent of one of the original families in St. Davids (the Lowreys), is adamant about the spelling and leaves no room for the way VQA spells it as a possessive. He points to David Secord as the source of the spelling without explaining the pluralized spelling of the name today. Curiously, Ravine Vineyard, which is owned and operated by the Harber family in St. Davids, even spells the VQA legal term for the sub-appellation, St. David’s, the way the town spells its name, on its estate bottled wines, something they are alone in doing.

St. David’s Bench, which lies squarely in the boundaries of the town of St. Davids, is 10 km south of Lake Ontario and several meters above the Lake Iroquois Plain. This bench, formed when glaciers carved out the Niagara Escarpment, rises from the historic shoreline of Lake Iroquois toward the base of the escarpment where a steep ridge collects the lake breezes to circulate and then eddy them back over the plains. The appellation follows the contour lines that define the escarpment from the Niagara River to Beechwood Road, with a complex topography. Vineyards in St. David’s Bench are mostly located on north-facing slopes on the upper portion of the bench and along its southern boundary at the Lake Iroquois Shore Bluff.

Some of the key wineries within the appellation include: Ravine, Chateau des Charmes, Colaneri, Niagara College Teaching Winery, Five Rows Craft Wine and Queenston Mile.

I posed the question of the two spellings of St. Davids to VQA executive director Laurie Macdonald. As pointed out above, the second spelling, St. David’s, stems from legislation passed long ago that refers to St. David’s in the singular possessive form, which in fairness to VQA, makes perfect grammatical sense. Most accounts clearly give the nod to David Secord as the man behind the town’s name, so Davids is somewhat troublesome, to say the least.

Macdonald had some fun with the question, in the spirit of how the question was asked.

“Perhaps the appellation is not named after the town but after the (singular) Welsh Saint or a secret saint of the VQA movement. Are you sure Donald Ziraldo’s middle name isn’t really Dave? This could explain the singular possessive – it’s a secret beacon to be discovered by true appellation believers.”

She doubled down.

“The villagers may have been seeing double when naming the town after St. Davids, thinking there were two. In that case it speaks to a long wine growing history. Unfortunately that doesn’t explain why there is no apostrophe after the s but it was worth a try.”

And as a final aside, “Thank you Rick, for reminding us of the importance of good grammar.”

As not only a resident of the “noble village” in question, Peter Gamble was appointed the founding executive director of VQA, so I’m thinking he knows a lot on the matter, after all, he was there when the VQA document was written.

“I like to think that our forefathers here were particularly prescient and anticipated the removal of apostrophes in both corporate branding and names of the future. And being very entrepreneurial, there seemed little point in sticking with stodgy English dictates destined, like the Empire, to collapse.”

So … a town and a wine appellation at odds; a writer and an editor duking it out over grammar — it’s not quite the War of 1812, but unlike that historic battle that lasted two years and eight months, the modern-day version has reached an impasse that has been building for over 200 years. Grammar matters, people, so pick your side carefully.