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Prince Edward County mourns death of trail-blazer Pat Del-Gatto, 59

By Rick VanSickle

Pat and Heidi Del-Gatto took a leap of faith in the summer of 2002, selling their house in Oshawa and moving their young family to Prince Edward County to join a growing chorus of pioneers in the emerging wine region.

The previous year, the couple had purchased a 74-acre parcel in Cape Vesey, off the beaten path of most wineries in The County, and after researching the area and believing in their abilities, the seeds were sown for the Del-Gatto Estates. It wasn’t long before the fruits of their labour finally made into bottles of wine that proudly featured hybrid and vinifera grapes in one of The County’s most diverse and interesting portfolios from estate fruit.

Ontario wine

Utilizing the skill of Del-Gatto’s father for laying out the grid of the vineyard, the vines were hand planted by family members. The estate currently maintains almost eight acres of a variety of vinifera and hybrid grapes, including Geisenheim, St. Croix, Leon Millot, Marquette, Petit Pearl, Baco Noir, Frontenac Noir, Frontenac Gris, L’acadie, and Pinotage (Ontario’s first commercial planting). 

On Thursday, Pasquale (Pat) Del-Gatto passed away after a cruel six-month battle with cancer. He was 59 years old.

An outpouring of support for Del-Gatto is being expressed to the family and fellow County winemakers, friends and neighbours are coming together to help with the harvest, including close friend and neighbour Jenifer Dean, owner (and a winemaker by trade) at the County Cider Company in nearby Waupoos, and Rosehall Run co-owner and winemaker Dan Sullivan. Del-Gatto’s son Austen has taken over much of the responsibility for the vineyard.

“Pat was a special man with a big heart and a passion for his craft,” Dean told Wines In Niagara. “He always had a big smile on his face and was willing to collaborate and help anyone. There are few winemakers growing and using some of the varieties he has in his beautiful vineyard. Pinotage, Frontenac Noir, Leon Millot, and Marquette are some of the hybrids he has used alongside Baco Noir and Pinot Gris. He ventured into Port and Vermouth, which would sell out quickly to those in the know.” Dean added that a few years ago “I was fortunate to share an entire bottle of Port with him, sitting on the back of a tractor in my orchard. He was justifiably proud of his creation and a I was honoured that he shared it with me.”

Dean said that Pat Del-Gatto and his parents “toiled long and hard, side-by-side until his father Giacomo passed away five years ago. For us to lose Pat at such a young age is devastating, to his family and those of us who were lucky enough to be on the receiving end of his generous friendship.”

Del-Gatto’s wife Heidi posted this note on Facebook Friday:

“We lost this beautiful, loving man yesterday. I have no words to express the gaping void in our lives right now. So much pain and suffering in a short amount of time. I ache knowing the agony he endured with the hopes of living with us, for us. I cry for our children watching the strongest man they’ve ever known fade away. I weep for his Mama to outlive her son. This man was loved and respected by so many. He was always willing to help others, welcomed everyone to our table, proud as hell of his family, and true to his word in a handshake,” Heidi’s note said.

“He was a good man, taken from us too soon. Life changes in the blink of an eye; hug your family, folks — tell them you love them.”

Pat Del-Gatto was a fourth-generation winemaker, hailing from Santa Croce, a small town of about 4,000 in southern Italy, approximately 75 km north of Napoli. His great-grandfather was the town’s winemaker. All the townspeople would bring in their grapes to be processed and made into wine. Since most were farmers with very little money, 10% of the wine yield was retained as payment. In the evenings, La Cantina was open to the men to come and play cards, enjoy some cheese, various cured meats, and wine.

Old world winemaking skills and secrets were handed down to Del-Gatto’s grandfather and then to his father. Eager to continue the family traditions, Del-Gatto spent years researching potential vineyard locations in British Columbia, California, and the Niagara region. Drawn to the latitude and longitude of Prince Edward County in comparison to other European wine regions, he toured various available properties and settled on the 74-acre parcel in North Marysburgh. Reinforced by the positive stories of farming history from local farmers, Del-Gatto knew he had a special piece of land.

Since the first plantings in 2002, Del-Gatto Estates has evolved into a grower of cool-climate grape varieties. The disease resistant and cold hardy vineyard produces small case lots of exclusive, premium quality white, rosé and red wines.  Aged ports continue to be popular, as are the full bodied Baco Noirs and Leon Millots.  

Del-Gatto believed that the journey from grape to glass begins with a vision. “Our vision is to create quality, hand crafted and distinctive, affordable wines. Lay it down in the cellar for that special occasion or enjoy it now with family and friends. We hope our vineyard represents who we are: a traditional, hard-working family, taking pride in a job well done and bringing you the best.”

I was introduced Pat Del-Gatto in the middle of the pandemic in September of 2020 by Dean, who insisted if our group came to visit her at County Cider, we must also visit Del-Gatto. The winery is on the far reaches of The County and I was oblivious to what was going on there. I was thankful that Dean shone a bright light on this unique winery and the man whose dream is now left in the hands of his loved ones.

Our group was smitten by Del-Gatto’s passion for his wines, and in particular, the hybrids he was championing and his beloved Pinotage, unique in Canada. As we tasted through the portfolio, Del-Gatto enthusiastically met us at the winery, and we settled in for a thorough look at the unique portfolio built by the family. We happily tasted his Marquette, Baco Noir, Vidal, always sold-out Riesling-Vidal blend called Dragonfly, Pinotage and, of course, his cult-like Blushing Peacock rosé made from estate Frontenac Gris. We were impressed, not only by the wines and his story, but also the passion Del-Gatto brought to his tiny piece of The County.

NOTE: Details for Del-Gatto’s visitation can be found here.