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Beloved and missed, the legacy of Tawse winemaker Paul Pender

By Rick VanSickle

The outpouring of love and respect for Tawse winemaker Paul Pender has been heard from across the wine world and from the countless people whose lives he touched in some way.

Pender died tragically on Feb. 4, leaving behind his wife Allison Findlay, his three children, family and extended family at Niagara’s Tawse and Redstone wineries, where he directed winemaking operations.  Following an investigation, OPP have now charged Bradley House, 31, of Hamilton, with second-degree murder in connection with Pender’s death, according to a news release issued today. He was 54 years old.

When news spread that Pender had died, reaction was immediate and heartfelt. None was more poignant than the words of the man who hired him to help build one of Canada’s most awarded wineries. Moray Tawse said this:

Niagara wine
A moment of levity during a photoshoot after Tawse won one of several Winery of the Year wine competitions. L to R, René Van Ede, Paul Pender and Moray Tawse.

“Last night I lost a brother, a mentor, a partner and one the nicest human beings I have met. Our winemaker, Paul Pender passed away last night tragically as he tried to help someone in distress. Over the last 17 years he built, we jointly (built), a vision for Increasing the quality and reputation of Ontario wines. Our family is crushed and will never recover from this loss. Thank you, Paul.”

Other heartfelt comments came from winemakers far and wide — well-known international wine writers, friends, colleagues and just fans of the wines Pender made for 17 years at Tawse. We have compiled a partial list of many of the comments and attached them to the end of this story. Many other comments are posted here and you can read the comments left on that post. A Paul Pender Photo Memorial Group has been set up on Facebook by the family and it’s open to the public to share photos of Pender.

The dream team

Pender wasn’t at Tawse when the winery was conceived by Tawse; he was a mature student at Niagara Collage lured by the love of wine and giving up on his carpenter career. But the groundwork for the “dream team” of Moray Tawse and Paul Pender was in the works.

By 2001, Tawse had hired his first winemaker, Deborah Paskus, and construction for a state-of-the-art gravity flow winery was underway. In the first vintage, a paltry 200 cases were made in a storage shed on the property while subsequent vintages moved to the cellar of the new winery as it was being built in Vineland.

It was a slow, but deliberate beginning for Tawse. After the first vintage of 200 cases, only a couple thousand cases of wine were produced in the next few vintages. Not nearly enough to sustain the business model.

Pender, fresh out of Niagara College’s wine and viticulture program in 2004 as a mature student, was embarking on his new career after years as a carpenter. He had passed by the emerging Tawse winery several times and was struck by its architecture and the surrounding vineyards. He was required to do a work placement as part of his wine studies and was hired by Paskus to work as her assistant.

By the time Pender, now 44 years old, graduated from Niagara College in 2006, Paskus decided to move on, and Pender was given the job as full-time winemaker, a meteoric rise for someone just out of school. “There was a lot of investment, but not a lot of wine being made,” Pender said at the time. “The Tawse name was getting out there in certain circles, but 2,000 cases don’t go too far.”

It was Pender’s job to triple that production without sacrificing quality. “If we were going to lose money,” Pender said with a chuckle, “we were going to lose money making good wine.”

The organic program at Tawse was something Pender felt strongly about, while Tawse, 55 years old at the time, insisted on the biodynamic aspects after long admiring the best vineyards in Burgundy that farm using biodynamics.

“I was convinced that biodynamics made a huge change in the soil,” said Tawse. And he firmly believed that is the reason behind his wines’ success with the various awards and consistently good reviews from Canadian wine critics.

In just a decade since its first vintage in 2001, not only was Tawse named top winery two years in a row, but it was also awarded a total of 24 medals in the competition for its wines, including a record-setting six gold medals, seven silver and 11 bronze for a portfolio dominated by Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Riesling.

Pender had benefited from Tawse’s love of the Burgundian style of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Once a year Tawse took Pender to Burgundy to taste the wines from the best vineyards, including the wines from Tawse’s own vineyards he had purchased and the label he created with his Burgundian partner, Pascal Marchand, called Marchand-Tawse. He had also purchased Domaine Maume in Gevrey-Chambertin, expanding his family holdings in Burgundy, which included Premier Cru vineyards in Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet and Beaune.

He (Tawse) allowed me to paint my palate with these flavours,” said Pender. “I have a different understanding of what good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay should be.”

Pender was a believer in organic and biodynamic vineyards. You need to have “living soils in order to produce truly terroir-driven wines,” Pender said. “We need microbial life in order to make the nutrients and minerals available to the plant. The microbes break down mineral and nutrients and convert them into soluble forms, which the plant’s roots can uptake. Through our work with biodynamic preparations, we are adding more microbial life to our soil and hopefully encouraging more definition of terroir in our wines.”

Pender walked nearly 16 km a day through the vineyards looking for signs of disease or potential problems. While Niagara’s winters can be harsh and often brutally cold, the summers are generally warm and humid, prime conditions for both powdery and downy mildews as well as black rot and botrytis later in the season. Any sign of trouble, and Pender calls immediately for organic remedies such as homemade horsetail tea or copper sprays.

Pender looks at making wine the same way a farmer looks at farming. The crop is an eco-system that sustains itself and good practices begin in the vineyard.

“We sometimes forget that wine is an agricultural product. It’s about the vineyards. It’s about farming,” he said. At Tawse it goes beyond grapes. Sheep, up to 100 of them per season, are used for leaf control and weed cutting, and later butchered for their meat, Muscovy ducks (Pender’s favourite) are raised for food as are chickens — both for their eggs and the meat.

During harvest, Pender insisted on gentling handling of all the fruit beginning with hand-harvested, hand-sorted grapes that are pressed and processed within 20 minutes of it being picked. The first sorting is done in the field, so trimmings are returned to the land before processing. The reds are de-stemmed before pressing and the whites are gently whole cluster pressed to avoid the bitter characteristics from the stems, skins and seeds.

For Pender, the thrill of making wine happens in the vineyard not in the winery. “This where you can really delve into a wine. Stand back, watch it happen in the vineyard. Don’t try to get in the way or manipulate the flavours. Nature has a better way,” he said.

Tawse, now a profitable business, has one the most interesting portfolios of wines in Canada, with the best being single-vineyard, terroir-driven Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Rieslings and Cabernet Francs along with the addition of Redstone winery, just down the road from Tawse, that concentrates on bigger red wines.

Since joining the Tawse team in 2005, Tawse has achieved Ecocert organic and Demeter biodynamic certification and was named Canadian Winery of the year in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016. He earned the title of Winemaker of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards in 2011 and Tawse has continued to collect awards after awards.

During that string of Wine Access Wine Awards (later purchased by WineAlign), words like dynasty, juggernaut, supernova, dream team, unprecedented and unstoppable were being uttered in Canadian wine circles to describe Pender and Tawse’s rapid success.

But those words only began to describe the accomplishments that Niagara’s Tawse Winery had achieved in a short amount of time and continues to do so.

After its third-straight Winery of the Year honours it was getting harder and harder to find the right words to define the enormity of what Tawse and Pender had achieved in such a short amount of time.

But the really scary part, at least for all the other wineries in Canada, was that the Tawse portfolio would only get stronger as the estate vineyards matured and Tawse, with his core winemaking team of Pender and assistant winemaker at the time (now at Foreign Affair), René Van Ede, better understood the terroir of their 180 acres of organic and biodynamic vineyards.

It was no accident that Tawse continued to dominate the industry in terms of quality wines. It’s quite simple, really, Pender said at the time: “We look for balance in our wines. They are approachable because they are balanced and not showy or oaky. It’s just honest winemaking, there are no shortcuts. The future of winemaking in Niagara is in the vineyard, and it comes down to a great team from the vineyard to the winemaking.”

Pender’s legacy

Pender leaves a legacy of success at Tawse and in the Ontario wine industry. His family, colleagues, friends and even just fans of Tawse wines are grieving the loss of a man who was not only a brilliant winemaker, but also a passionate learner and teacher who was only too eager to help wherever he could.

I have known Pender since the beginning of his winemaking journey; our professional relationship predates this website. He was soft-spoken yet refreshingly honest when answering questions.

One of my favourite interviews with him, and there were many, was when the natural wine trend was just emerging. Knowing his background in organic and biodynamic farming, I thought he would be an important advocate for this style of winemaking. To my surprise, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After a hearty harvest lunch of lasagna, garden salad and gooey butter tarts brought in by a caterer to feed the hungry crew at Tawse Vineyards in the early 2000s, I had come to talk about the “natural” wine movement that was gaining traction in the world of wine. I had become interested in these wines and wanted to know if any Niagara wineries were attempting to make natural wines locally. I tweeted that very question and Pender responded almost immediately that he was making what he considers natural wines. That piqued my curiosity and we agreed to meet and talk about it.

The mere mention of “natural” wines back then spurred general discord among wine lovers. It had been called many different things — naked, live, naturel, among them — and it had its critics and supporters on both sides of the fence.

The strictest of definitions at the time was: “Nothing added, nothing taken away.”

The term natural meant “nothing” to Pender, and he viewed it as such a generic term now, on a whole range of products, that it has no meaning.

At Tawse “we try to be as natural as possible,” he said, but he’s not about to make “natural wines” under the strictest definition out there.

Pender farmed organically and biodynamically, used natural yeasts in 70% of his estate wines, gravity-flow winemaking and follows rules through the winemaking process governed by bio-organic principals.

“Natural wine in its purest form is going out to the vineyard and eating a grape,” mused Pender. “You can never be dogmatic. There is no room for dogmatism in winemaking because by noon you’re making compromises. Stuff happens and you need to react.”

Pender used sulphur as an anti-bacterial agent in winemaking. “It hampers the bad yeast and favours the good yeast,” he said.

“We need good, clean ferments to make wines with a sense of place. Terroir needs to be clean. We don’t want any faults in the wine.” Natural wines? “I don’t think it’s the way to go.”

By way of example, Pender offered a sample of the Quarry Road Chardonnay 2010 that he was having trouble getting to undergo malolactic fermentation. It was un-sulphured and essentially undrinkable with bitter, phenolic, bad whiskey flavours. Essentially dirty and unpleasant compared to the same Chardonnay that’s seen sulphur. That sample is fresh with minerals, citrus and rounded fruit flavours. It’s the same wine, sulphur vs. non-sulphur, with striking differences.

For Pender, nature happens in the vineyard. “This is where you can really delve into a wine. Stand back, watch it happen in the vineyard. Don’t try to get in the way or manipulate the flavours. Nature has a better way,” he says.

Now, those thoughts did not stand the test of time. A few years later Pender did end up making a natural wine, but I was never convinced it would be something you’d find on the dinner table at his own home. You can read story I wrote on Pender’s about-face on natural wine here.

Always available to chat

Paul Pender holds court at TasteCamp.

Through the years of interviewing Pender, he was always completely honest and happy to talk at the drop of a hat. He would call when he made his first cider at Tawse, he wanted me to see his still when Tawse ventured into spirits, he provided annual harvest reports, he always worked the room during wonderful live music events at both Tawse and Redstone, he donated wine to our charity Big Bottle golf tournament, and he hosted bloggers at the first Tastecamp held in Niagara. I am not unique in this regard; he treated everyone equally and spread his time between his own wineries and helping others at their wineries. He was beloved and respected by all who met him, whether you were a critic, consumer, fellow winemaker or worked on his team.

It is incomprehensible that he is gone.

Tributes pour in

Here is a sampling of comments from the wine community at large over the loss of Pender.

Anthony Gismondi (B.C.-based wine writer)

“Such devastating news. I didn’t know Paul the way so many in Niagara do but I knew him through his wines, and I knew him to be a gentle, kind person in the few times are paths crossed. My thoughts are with his family and friends who’ve lost a wonderful human being and a great Canadian.”

Jim Warren (veteran Niagara winemaker)

“I am deeply shocked and saddened by the death of Paul Pender, vintner extraordinaire! I was fortunate to teach Paul at Niagara College and he was indeed one of the top students from my time there. I remember Paul as rather quiet, self-effacing, but keen. His achievements at Tawse Winery simply speak for themselves. This is a huge loss for the Ontario Wine Industry and it must not be allowed to pass by without some form of recognition.”

Kevin Panagapka (owner 2027 Cellars)

“It’s with profound sadness to hear of the tragic passing of Paul Pender. I’ve personally known Paul for a long time, we all grew up in the Niagara wine scene, each one of us cutting our teeth at different wineries. Heartfelt condolences to his family and close friends. From the team at 2027 Cellars, we’ll miss you, Paul. A great loss for the Niagara wine industry as a whole. Rest In Peace, Paul.”

Pearce Predhomme Wines

“It’s with great sadness we say goodbye to one of our beloved partners from Pearce Predhomme Pender — affectionately known as the 3XP. Paul’s heart was bigger than a 500 L barrel and his passion and care dug deeper than the 20-year-old vines in the vineyard. We had the absolute pleasure to spend a lot of extra time with Paul while building our micro homage to Ontario Chardonnay. He was a true leader of industry and a pillar of our community. Our hearts go out to everyone that was close to him. He will truly be missed; we both miss him already.”

DJ Kearney (B.C.-based wine educator and wine judge)

“It’s a profound loss for our industry as Paul was a shining example of what matters in wine. Pristine farming, respectful winemaking, pure wines with an indelible sense of place. When he came out to the west coast, we lined up to see him. Stricken especially for his loving family, his grieving friends, and all our colleagues in Ontario.”

Ezra Cipes (owner Summerhill Pyramid Winery)

“This is a shock. So enjoyed all the times we got to meet on trade missions and at industry conventions. I always admired and looked up to Paul. He cut through a lot of bullshit and was a great communicator about wine and about organics. Sending love to Paul’s family, friends, and coworkers.”

Dave Hodge (Canadian sports announcer)

“I’ve just learned of the death of Paul Pender, celebrated winemaker and manager of Tawse and Redstone wineries. Those who know me through wine or music also know of my close association and friendship with Paul. I cannot summon further words at this time.”

Magdalena Kaiser (director of PR, marketing and tourism for WMAO)

“It seems impossible to express the incredible person that you were — but your spirit radiates sheer kindness and pure goodness. My heart goes out to your family and friends. I am so grateful to have spent so many years sharing wine adventures with you here at home and around the world. Your wines helped shape Ontario’s wine industry these past 17 years. I will cherish the memories of watching you share your passion and your beautiful wines across Canada and beyond. You are one of the wine world’s great ones. And through our work, we developed a precious friendship that I will never forget. Last night many of us raised a glass to you as we opened your wines.”

Ron Giesbrecht (co-owner Wending Home wines)

“I simply cannot imagine Paul gone or contain my grief. Paul was a driven individual who still managed to be kind and gentle – a rare combination of almost opposing forces of human nature. In his driven and creative mode, he was unstoppable, unflappable, and visionary. But I think that his sensitive and warm-hearted, fun-loving character was his true center or core. Rest in Peace Paul. As someone who rarely stood still, that will be hard, but you deserve peace if anyone ever did.”

Pascal Marchand (winemaker)

“That picture (above) is from almost exactly three years ago. Because of the pandemic it is the last time I saw Paul Pender. Hard to realize that I will never see him again. Such a great human being he was. That was a warm, full January evening at Barbarian’s with a lot of friends, Moray, Deb, John, Colin, Daniel, Geddy, Aaron, Allen, Rob … RIP Paul, you deserve it. My condolences to your family and all the Tawse team.”

Peter Rod (wine professor at Niagara College)

“What can one possibly say about the unbelievably tragic loss of Paul Pender that hasn’t already been so articulately shared by so many others? Hard to find the right words, but to say nothing in the search for perfect language isn’t acceptable either. Like so many others, I’m numb, in disbelief, saddened, and angry. The fact that my first great Ontario Cabernet Franc was Paul’s and one of my very first truly magnificent Ontario Chardonnay’s was Paul’s and so many truly world-class wines since were his, will always resonate with me, but much more important than that are the memories I have of a very unique and special guy. He was his own man in every way — how he dressed, his quiet confidence bordering on invincibility, his modesty, his incredible generosity, his goatee, his worn out Blundstones, his smile, his loyalty, and his very private and independent side. While it would be a stretch to say we ever became friends, I know for certain we shared a very deep mutual respect. I will always remember my times shared with Paul with great fondness. His memory will always put a smile on my face, and I thank him for that. Rest In Peace PP. The angels will be drinking better wine now that you’re with them.”

David Sheppard (former Flat Rock winemaker)

“What an incomprehensible tragedy. I am personally heartbroken for my dear friend and colleague Allison who Paul leaves behind at a time when they should be looking forward to a bright and loving future together. Paul will always be remembered by the wine community as more than a talented winemaker. He was a friend and colleague, generous and supportive to all of us that have had the good fortune to have crossed paths with him in our common pursuit of making great wine in Ontario. Rest In Peace Paul. Your memory lives on in all of us.” 

Wine Country Ontario

“Our local Ontario wine community is heartbroken. We have tragically lost an industry legend, Paul Pender. Paul touched the lives of so many people and deep sadness has spread near and far. Let us all treasure the gift of precious memories and honour his generous, kind and gentle spirit. He will be remembered as one of the wine world’s great ones.  Our deepest sympathy goes out to Paul’s devastated family, friends and colleagues. May he rest in peace.”

Doug Beatty (Ontario VQA wine ambassador at Wine Marketing Association of Ontario)

“I stood in awe so many times watching Paul eschew his rightful place in Ontario VQA wine stardom to just be himself with the LCBO Product Consultants touring his beloved Tawse Winery. He was soft-spoken, fully engaging and ever-so-ebullient about his craft. I regret that I did not get to know him as much as I would like to have but I think the generosity of his spirit gave me a privileged and cherished glimpse. I am deeply saddened for his family, his winery family and our industry as a whole for losing such a bright light.” ”

Stephen Ranger (director at Ranger Wine Inc.)

“Such a tragic loss of such a lovely man and hugely talented winemaker. Will always remember his kindness and generosity of spirit.”

Alain Paquette

“There are no words to describe this terrible tragedy. I met Paul 10 years ago and over the many years collaborating with Paul, a business relationship turned into a cherished friendship. Paul, always genuine, down to earth and inspirational in business and in life. My sincere condolences to Paul’s family and colleagues.”

Steve Gill

“I am shocked and saddened. I met Paul when he was inquiring about signing up for the wine and viticulture program at Niagara College. He ended up enrolling, being a great student and evolving into an incredible winemaker. My heart goes out to his family at this tragic time.”

Vladimir Skok (wine consultant at Enoteka Niagara)

“Still in complete shock – Paul’s journey and leadership by example on behalf of the great transformation of Niagara wine country has been taken from family, friends and followers way too early. He brought much pleasure, joy and a bit of magic to so many with every wine he produced. My favourite memory of this exceptionally thoughtful artisan winemaker was noticing him casually shuffle into a high-end Toronto event attended by a well-dressed crowd. Of course, he was garbed in his trademark dusty boots, worn jeans and t-shirt, tacitly reminding those around him of the very hard work, physically challenging and long lonely hours required of his vocation. He was truly a unique fellow, will be missed by so many and his star will always shine bright. Memory Eternal!”

Ian D’Agata (international wine writer)

“Paul Pender, one of the nicest people in Canadian wine, actually in wine period, has passed away unexpectedly. The director of viticulture and winemaking at Niagara’s award-winning Tawse and Redstone wineries, Pender loved wine, graduating from Niagara College’s Winery and Viticulture program (in fact, he was part of the second ever graduating class there, where he had outstanding teachers such as Jim Warren). He began working at Tawse in 2005 and never left, becoming Head Winemaker in 2006. Over the years he mentored many young winemakers, but also worked with and learned from some of the best, including Deborah Paskus and consultant Burgundian winemaker Pascal Marchand. Under Pender’s leadership, Tawse was named Canadian winery of the year multiple times (Pender himself was named 2011 Winemaker of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards) and earned Ecocert organic and Demeter biodynamic certifications. I was born in Toronto and love Ontario wines; part of that love stems from the many great people I have met there in wine country over the years, and Paul was one. I loved spending time and learning from him when visiting the winery or at tastings and dinners; I can’t believe he is no longer with us. May you rest in peace, Paul.”

John Nadeau (GM of Domaine Queylus)

“A terrible tragedy. So very, very sad. Paul’s messaging, humanity and good will to our industry will be continued by all his friends and colleagues. Sincere condolences from our family to his.”

Sherry Karlo (owner of Karlo Estates Winery)

Richard Karlo with Paul Pender

“I was so shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden death of Paul Pender, winemaker of Tawse Winery in Niagara. It has taken me a few days to digest it. It brings up a lot of emotions. I can only imagine how his family and teammates must feel. Paul was an icon and a true natural talent, yet he always made time for anyone interested in wine. I’ll never forget his generosity in sharing his knowledge with us when we were first starting Karlo Estates. And every time I have run into him since then he has always been kind and welcoming. My deepest condolences to his family and close friends. The wine industry has lost another great. May he rest in peace and share a few glasses with the big guy in the sky.”

Matthias Oppenlaender (GM at Huebel Grapes Estates)

This is devastating news, still in shock our thoughts and prayers are with his family. From all of us at  Huebel Grapes Estates our deepest condolences. “He was a great guy to deal with, we will miss him.”

Christine McConnell Coletta (owner of B.C.’s Okanagan Crush Pad)

“I ran in to Paul a few times at trade shows. ‘Well, Ms Coletta. Let’s talk organic and low intervention shall we.’ He pulled up a chair and we had a good chat. Paul was a very fine person, a talented winemaker and very generous and supportive. A massive loss for our Canadian winemaking family.”

Andrew von Teichman (founder of Von Terra)

“This is such sad news. Paul was a such a bright star on the Canadian winemaking scene and this loss is felt by all those who so passionately belong to it.”

Angela Aiello (wine journalist, educator and influencer)

“Such a tragedy. He was such a good man. I called him the “Jesus Christ of Wine.” He was born on Christmas Day and now taken from us too soon. 💔”

Peter Boyd (sommelier)

“This is a tough one. Such a nice guy. Went out of his way more than once to help me with stuff. Passionate guy, a believer in responsible viticulture and a great winemaker, always up for some fun. My sincerest condolences to his family and the larger Tawse family, too. You are all in my thoughts. RIP, Paul Pender. Thanks for the good times. Wherever you’re bound, it’ll be made better by your presence.”