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UPDATED: Devastating fire hits historic Niagara Hernder Estate Winery

By Rick VanSickle

A devastating overnight fire at the historic and popular Hernder Estate Winery in Niagara has left the main Victorian cattle barn in ruins but spared the historic covered bridge, warehouse and production facilities, according to St. Catharines Fire Services.

St. Catharines firefighters worked throughout the night battling the blaze with tanker assistance from Niagara Falls, Thorold, Pelham, West Niagara, West Lincoln and Niagara-on-the-Lake, On Twitter, the service asked the public to avoid the area around Eight Avenue Louth east of Seventh, and to not “sightsee” as “fire operations from multiple department on scene.” There were no reports of serious injuries, however, four civilians were reportedly treated in hospital for minor injuries.

Niagara wineries
Photos of the aftermath of the blaze above and at the top by Niagara fire services.

Wines In Niagara attempted to get to the scene early Sunday, but access was blocked by Niagara police. A witness said later today that the road is now open and the fire did not spread to the landmark covered bridge at the estate. The Hernder family has asked to civilians not entry their property for safety reasons.

See this dramatic video by photographer Shane B. Murphy here. And follow Shane on Twitter here.

While news of the fire  is heartbreaking for Hernder, it also impacted 30 small businesses that lost all of their products that were there to to sell at the Moms Market of Niagara. The work that goes into preparing, producing and being at a vendor at the show is huge. If you are able to support, please, do. A Go Fund Me page as been set up here.

Well into its third generation of grape growing, the Hernder family transformed a love of viticulture into one of the largest family Estate winery operations in Canada, opening its doors to the public in 1993. With 500 acres of land between St. Catharines and Beamsville, the St. Catharines winery produces more than 25 varieties of VQA wines. It has become a popular “wedding winery” with over 125 receptions held annually.

See more photos here.

Ravine Vineyard winemaker Lydia Tomek, who was the winemaker at Hernder for 10 years between 2006 and 2016, made a passionate post about the winery on Facebook today. (Note, Angela Kasimos is the current winemaker at Hernder and Wines In Niagara has reached out to her. On her personal Facebook page, Kasimo said: “Today, instead of posting photos of the devastation, I am focusing on some memories of this beautiful property. I encourage anyone who has photos of the estate to do the same. Let’s continue to help the Hernder family cope with this loss while respecting their privacy during these difficult times.” For her full post, go here.)

Here is what Tomek said:

“I have changed this post endless times post as no matter what I seem to write, it just doesn’t say how heart broken and sad I am about this news,” she said. “When you spend 10 working years with the same people at the same place, that place Hernder Estate Wines, and those people, become an extension of you home and family. They make an eternal imprint,” she wrote.

“My heart aches. I cannot even think or feel what the Hernders are feeling. I think I have cried more this morning about this news more than I have cried about some peoples passing. I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t think of what Fred, Ricky, Angel, and Chris must be going through. I feel awful for the staff. It’s tragic. It’s heart breaking. It’s not right.

“This barn means so much. It represented a man (Fred) taking a chance and putting his heart, soul and body, his everything towards a dream. And reaching it and killing it and setting precedent for wineries being more than wineries and an event space. A space where so many people shared loved for each other, celebrated life, raised money to help people, employed people.

“This place was a place that took a chance on a 24-year-old girl from Welland who had a lot of grit, smarts, and ambition and made her their head winemaker. For that I will never forget and be eternally grateful.

“I don’t know how to say anything more to make this horrible situation better but in the end our life and health and each other are what is most important, and I am grateful that Fred and Ricky were not in their home while this happened, so thankful there wasn’t a wedding going on, or that no one in the family or staff got hurt.

“I remember Fred always talking about how he bought the farm and when he told people what he was going to do to the barn they all called him crazy. But he did it, and he made it beautiful, and honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d make it great again. I know you guys maybe haven’t seen my face in a while but I’m always thinking about you guys and just wish all of you love, strength and so many hugs to get through this.”

The history of Hernder Estate

A natural progression of events began after Gottfried Hernder emigrated from Germany to western Canada. In 1939, the family moved to the Grapeview area of St. Catharines to a mixed fruit farm that included acreage of indigenous grapes. Fred Hernder’s boyhood chores would become the foundation for future skills. After the passing of his father, Hernder purchased the family farm in 1968, and began the acquisition of others. His success was heralded when he was crowned as the youngest Niagara Grape King in 1977. Forever the entrepreneur, Hernder began selling not only grapes and juice, but also winemaking supplies to the growing home market as well as wineries.

With the advent of the free trade agreement between the United States and Canada in 1988, local wine producers faced the very real threat of dramatically declining percentages of Ontario grape juice in Ontario wines to imported grapes. This prompted Hernder to make two important decisions: to replant his acreage with classic vinifera and French hybrid varieties and to purchase the Victorian cattle barn (circa 1867) on 8th Avenue Louth — this, to launch his newest endeavor, that of his own winery.

The first vintage in 1991 consisted of 7,000 bottles of Vidal. Two years later, on September 17, 1993, Hernder Estate Wines officially opened to the public.

Since its beginnings, Hernder Estate has expanded its operation fivefold to presently producing more than 25 varieties of VQA wines from its 500 acres of land spread between St. Catharines and Beamsville. Since their very first international recognition in 1995, Hernder Estate Wines has gone on to achieve many more domestic and international awards adding special recognition to the Hernder legacy.

Current plantings focus on traditional vinifera varieties including Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Gris. Other popular varieties include sturdy French hybrids that are ideally suited to Niagara’s cool climate growing region and includes Vidal and Baco Noir. The juice from these grapes is then vinified using a blend of traditional methods and modern technology that includes a complete inventory of the finest equipment for the field, pressing, tankage, and cooperage. All Hernder table wines are produced from 100% VQA Ontario grapes.

This destination winery featured an entrance through Niagara’s only covered bridge, to stone walled patios surrounding the original post and beam structure. In its most picturesque setting, Hernder Estates became known as Ontario’s “Wedding Winery” with over 125 receptions held annually in rooms to seat up to 500 in total indoors, with 150 accommodated on the two patios.