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A treasure trove of old clippings shines a light on early days of Ontario wine industry

By Rick VanSickle

The early days of the Ontario wine industry are slowly but surely fading from memory, the paper it was printed on is now turning brittle, and those long forgotten stashed boxes of clippings are being relegated to the annals of history.

Those beginning days of the modern wine industry in Ontario, led by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser (below) with the founding of Inniskillin in 1975, laid the groundwork for a new, exciting wine region that many thought would never yield grapes good enough to rival the best wines in Europe. Inniskillin and the other early wine pioneers faced fierce opposition and skepticism from the wine critics of the day and, more importantly, the consumers who would make or break the industry before it even got started.

Ontario wine

It’s all documented in the writings of the day, a plethora of information, pontification, criticism, and doomsayers who just couldn’t see a future for good Ontario wine.

In a treasure trove of magazines, periodicals, critics’ newsletters, newspaper wine columns (every daily in Toronto had one) and glossy industry publications given to Wines in Niagara by the much-decorated amateur Niagara winemaker, Paul Nemy, a colourful and passionate history emerges from those faded pages.

In the era of Instagram, marketing-based websites, and other social media networks that favour style over long-form writing is a disappearing craft and with it, the history that would otherwise be preserved in digital form forever and ever. With fewer and fewer wine magazines and wine columns in daily newspapers, history will live mostly in the shadows or on websites/blogs that still publish in a fractured society that is re-writing the rules of engagement.

That’s just the way it is. Files like those that Nemy turned over to Wines in Niagara are being lost to time and there is no digital library for those words or photos.

I pored over the bag of old magazines, clippings, and writings that Nemy bequeathed me. These are the snippets of history drawn from the early days of the modern wine industry in Ontario as it tried to gain respect in the world and with its own citizens.

Harsh words for Ontario wine

In one of the most influential tomes of the day, Billy Munnelly’s Guide to Buying Good Wine at the LCBO (1991), a 78-page newsletter that covers all the wines released at the government liquor store, you can sense the disdain for Ontario wines.

Under the White Wines Canadian section, Munnelly writes: “This is the largest wine section in stores and also the most risky. I’m not surprised that many people avoid it altogether.”

In a conversation between two older men using pseudonyms, here’s what they (actually Munnelly talking to Munnelly) had this to say about local Ontario wine.

Knoselotts: “Every magazine I read has an article in praise of local wine but when I buy it, the stuff tastes awful. Who’s fooling whom?”

Bender: “The majority of local wines taste awful because they are made from a different family of grapes than all the other wines in the world. People like you, Knoselotts, who are used to European wines will have a difficult time with our local stuff.”

Knoselotts: “So why don’t they change the grapes and make wine I can drink?”

Bender: “They have. All the small, newer wineries grow the European grapes. That’s still a tiny percentage of the whole industry, but it’s a start. So, the first rule for you is to only buy wine from the smaller new wineries.”

Knoselotts: “Well, OK. But Bender, I still see hundreds of wines in this section. How is anyone supposed to figure out what to buy? Can I depend on this VQA designation to give me the best wines?”

Bender: “You can’t. VQA is like the French A.C. It only guarantees the origin and typicity of the wine. It does, however, offer a clue as to who is at least interested in trying to make quality wine … you’ll only drive yourself crazy taking potluck in the stores or being misled by noncritical magazine stories. Eventually there will be local wines with a track record and that will help.”

Munnelly goes on to recommend a scant few white Ontario wines, including Hillebrand Brule Blanc ($6.95, non-vintage), Brights Vidal 1989 ($6.50) and Stoney Ridge Estate White 1989 ($6.35).

As for the Ontario red wine section, Munnelly was even less impressed. “Some like to write off these wines as a waste of time but if you enjoy light, tart reds there are some things to buy.” He recommends the Chateau des Charmes Gamay 1988 ($7.40) and Inniskillin Marechal Foch 1988 ($6.50), among others. To be fair to Munnelly, he was exactly what the industry needed in those early days. He promoted the VQA designation and wines made from vinifera grapes, offered encouragement but did not hold back from being critical of wines that did not meet his standards.

Pricey vintages under fire

Tony Aspler, the dean of wine writing in Ontario then and now, wrote in the Toronto Star in 1992 about the emergence of expensive Niagara wines (some things never change!).

Under the headline “Pricey vintage promising debut for Stonechurch,” Aspler focused on the prices of the upstart Stonechurch Vineyards (which became Small Talk Vineyards and closed down last year). “Stonechurch Vineyards is the newest Niagara winery whose products, once the minister signs the licence, will appear on the market by the end of September,” Aspler wrote. “And it will offer the most expensive Ontario Chardonnay yet — a $20 bottle. This will no doubt cause Cave Spring, Inniskillin, Chateau des Charmes, Vineland Estate and Hillebrand to re-evaluate their own premium barrel-fermented offerings, which run $4 to $6 less.”

Aspler was impressed with the new winery’s offerings. “Judging by its debut wines, Stonechurch Vineyard’s offerings will be a welcome addition to the quality wines new being produced in Ontario.”

Ontario wines hit the big time

In the June, 1992 edition of Wine Spectator, a splashy feature written by Thomas Matthews put Ontario Wine Country on the map. Splashed over several pages, the full colour feature focused on the new wine region and featured photos at the Inniskillin tasting room, a youthful looking Henry of Pelham winemaker Ron Giesbrecht (at the time), and Henry of Pelham’s Paul Speck junior and senior. There were also photos of Karl Kaiser and Donald Ziraldo, Vineland Estates’ Allan Schmidt, Brights’ winemaker Jamie Macfarlane, Hernan Gras and James Berry and Klaus Reif of Reif Estate Winery. And finally, Jim Warren and son Marshall of Stoney Ridge and Paul Bosc Sr. flanked by sons Paul Jr. and Pierre.

Thomas spent five days in Niagara, attended the fourth-annual Cuvée Awards, visited seven wineries, and tasted nearly 100 wines.

“While their efforts are still inconsistent, Ontario’s vintners are taking advantage of a favorable environmental niche and producing racy wines that can achieve elegance and breed,” wrote Matthews. “Most of the wines were average to good, scoring in the mid-70s to 80s on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale.

Allan Schmidt, top, Jamie Macfarlane, Hernan Gras and James Berry (middle), and Klaus Reif (bottom)

“Overall, Riesling, made in a lean, crisp style offering plenty of steely varietal character, provided the best results. Chardonnay, closing in on Riesling in total grape tonnage, was less consistent but showed promise. The reds were too often light and tart, though rich, smoky Baco Noirs from Brights and Henry of Pelham proved that hybrids have their virtues in the uncertain north climate,” he wrote.

“Ontario’s ace in the hole is ice wine, very sweet, concentrated white wine made from frozen Vidal, Riesling or Gewürztraminer grapes harvested on winter nights. The vintners are learning to maximize production of what historically has been a quirky gift of nature. Quality levels already approach Germany’s, especially from Inniskillin, Reif Winery and Vineland Estates.”

Ontario wineries popping up

How many of these wine industry people can you name?

In 2000, Wine Regions of Ontario, a popular wine periodical, published a story by writer Kathryn Korchok under the banner headline: New Ontario Wines — 25 Years in the Making. The story mainly focused on Ziraldo and Kaiser and the long road to success in getting a licence and making wines from vinifera grapes. The editor of the paper provided a list of all Ontario wineries up to 2000. Here it is.


Peller Estates (Andrés Wines)
Vincor Int’l Inc. (TG Brights and Cartier — formerly Chateau Gai)

The Seventies — 1975 to 1979

Chateau des Charmes
Colio Wines of Canada
Hillebrand Estates Winery
Inniskillin Wines

The Eighties — 1980 to 1989

Cave Spring Cellars
D’Angelo Estate Winery
De Sousa Wine Cellars
Henry of Pelham Winery
Konzelmann Estate Winery
Lakeview Cellars
Pelee Island Winery
Quai du Vin
Reif Estate Winery
Stonechurch Vineyards
Stoney Ridge Cellars
Vineland Estates
Vinoteca Inc.

Niagara wine map from 1997.

The Nineties — 1990 to 1999

Archibald Orchards & Estate Winery (fruit wines)
Bellamere Country Wines (fruit wines)
County Cider Co. (cider)
Creekside Winery
Domaine Vagners
EastDell Estates
Hernder Estates Winery
Joseph’s Estate Wines
Kittling Ridge Estate Wines and Spirits
LeBlanc Estate Winery
Magnotta Wines
Malivoire Wine Co.
Maple Grove Estate Winery
Marynissen Estates
Meadow Lane Winery (fruit wines)
Milan Wineries
Norfolk Estate Winery (fruit wines)
Ocala Orchards Farm Winery
Pillitteri Estates Winery
Rush Creek Wines (fruit wines)
Southbrook Farm Wines
Strewn Estate Winery
Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery (fruit wines)
Thirty Bench Vineyard and Winery
Thomas and Vaughan Vintners
Willow Heights Winery

The Naughties (2000 to present)

Birchwood Estate Winery
Crown Bench Estate Winery
Harbour Estates Winery
Jackson-Triggs Vintners
Kacaba Vineyards
Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery
Royal deMaria Wines Co. Ltd.
The Thirteen Street Wine Co.

— The magazine apologized for any winery missing from this list

Cuvée awards 1990

There were wine competitions galore in the heydays of Ontario Wine, the early years. Cuvée was judged by the winemakers themselves and awards were handed out during a glitzy gala in a fancy event space in front of a live audience.

White Wines

Winner: Cave Spring Dry Riesling 1988

Others: Cave Spring Reserve Chardonnay 1988, Konzelmann Johannisberg Riesling 1988, Konzelmann Gewurztraminer 1988, Stoney Ridge Chardonnay Eastman Vineyard 1988

Red Wines

Winner: Andrés Chambourcin 1987

Others: Stoney Ridge Pinot Noir Lailey Vineyard 1988, Pelee Island Pinot Noir 1988, Inniskillin Pinot Noir 1987

Consumer’s Choice Awards

Best Sparkling: Chateau des Charmes Champagne Sec

Best Specialty: Vineland Estates Icewine 1988

Best Red: Brights Vintage Selection Merlot 1987

Best White: Stoney Ridge Lenko Vineyard Chardonnay 1988

In search of new markets

With only the LCBO to retail their wines beyond the winery retail stores, wineries were aiming for new markets outside of Canada to make their businesses viable in the 1990s.

In a St. Catharines Standard story published on Nov. 23, 1990, the headline “New winery looks abroad” appeared. One of the newest wineries in Niagara, Stonechurch, was already on the hunt for new markets, namely in Holland and Taiwan.

The winemaker at the time, David Hulley (above), told the paper he was off to a Dutch food and trade show in the hope of snagging customers there and then would chase down sales in Taiwan, a country with a growing taste for wine, he said.

We don’t know if Hully was successful in his travels, but we do know the thirst for finding new markets for Canadian wines has never waned, it’s just far more organized now and more concentrated on bigger markets such as China, Europe, and the U.S.

High Noon in the Vineyards

I loved a lot of the writing in the early days of Ontario wine industry. Here’s an excerpt from a story written by Jack Challis and published in the glossy magazine What’s Up Niagara. The headline reads: High Noon in the Vineyards: There’s Fame in Them Thar Grapes. The story focuses on Inniskillin’s hard work trying to get a foothold in the world of wine. This is the intro:

“The scene is Bordertown Niagara, standing tall, hands at their holsters, are Kid Ziraldo and his sidekick Big Karl Kaiser, ready to defend their territory. With them are the Bosc family, hands from Hillebrand and Montravin, the Reifs and Herb Konzelmann.

“Pennachetti and Pavan from Cave Spring, Al “Vineland” Schmidt, and “Stoney Ridge” Warren saunter down off the Bench to back them up. Coming over the border are the Gallo Brothers, the Wentes, Bob Mondavi from California, and the Taylors from upstate New York. It’s noon. Time for a showdown. Can the Niagara gang hold off the intruders, keep them from taking over?

Ziraldo (above, on the cover of another magazine) and Kaiser have been there before, one way or another, fighting for wine country. There’s some say it started at the Brights’ ranch, since they raised a lot of new stock years earlier; but they didn’t carry the fight into the street. No, it was the Kid and Karl all right — they’re the ones who really started to fight back.

“In ’74 there were the big guns, Andres, Barnes, Brights, Chateau-Gai, Jordan and Ste. Michelle Cellars, London Winery and Turner Wines who turned in their chips in ’77. There hadn’t been anyone new around since back in ’30 when the government decided enough was enough and said there would be no new winery licences issued. By the ’70s there were only six wineries left.

“Along came this young whippersnapper Ziraldo and his buddy and in ’72 they bought farmland out there in Niagara, at a place called Inniskillin Farm, and decided they would make wine — not just any wine mind you, but really good stuff, from grapes they call ‘vinifera.’ Well, everyone said they were crazy as coots — even the government horticultural station at Vineland said viniferas wouldn’t grow well in Ontari-ari-ario. ‘They won’t last long!’ That’s what they said about Ziraldo, Kaiser and Inniskillin.”

The story went at length to document the long road to respectability for Niagara wines, a fascinating read in its entirety.

Kings and Queens

In 1991 the Niagara Grape & Wine Festival was celebrating its 40th anniversary. In an 80-page glossy, colour brochure, story after story about the fledgling wine industry appeared in the pages. A few things caught my attention:

A message from King William: The reigning Grape King, William Lenko and his wife Helen were photographed if full regalia on the last days of Lenko’s time as the grape king, a tradition that continues to this day. “I thank my wife Helen and our four children — Marie, Danny, Lesia and Taras — for working with me and helping to bring such world-wide recognition to the little piece of land that God has entrusted to our care,” wrote William.

There was also a two-page spread on the 1991 “Queen Contestants” along with their photos. Sue-Ann Staff (can you spot her above?), now owner/winemaker at Sue-Ann Estate Winery, is pictured along with some of the other contestants and was represented by Grape Growers’ Mktg. Board. It should be noted that both her father (Howard) and grandfather (Lavelle) were crowned grape kings (1996 and 1967 respectively). I suspect Sue-Ann is a pretty good candidate to be third grape “king” in the family, but hopefully they will eventually upgrade the name to something other than king when a female earns the honour.

The 1997 Vintage in Niagara

Linda Bramble, another important chronicler of the Ontario wine industry in the early days, wrote in her 1997 vintage report for Wine Regions of Ontario, that the icewine harvest that year was a vintage of record.

The table grape harvest got off to a cool start with late bud break and a drought mid-summer that took growers into harvest with a “heavy heart,” she wrote. A month-long “Indian summer” in October saved the vintage and turned it into a “very good year.” Icewine grapes, however, didn’t fare as well.

It was the warmest January since 1982, a year that pre-dates commercial icewine production in Ontario. Growers had not experienced warm winter conditions up to the year of 1997. “A few cold days in mid-February allowed growers to get much of their crop in, if not for icewine, for Select Late Harvest,” Bramble wrote. “There were lessons learned in 1997. Ontario’s growers learned a lot about managing in conditions with which they have not had much experience such as drought conditions and the impact on premium varieties. It also re-educated icewine growers in terms of their expectations in time, risk, and crop management. “They will learn it is a big gamble to put as many eggs in one bucket,” said Kevin Ker reflecting on the high numbers of acres they netted for icewine.”

More awards, this time the 1988 Cuvée winners

Best Red Wine: Hillebrand Estates Winery Trius Red 1995
Best LCBO General List Red Wine: Colio Estate Wines Cabernet Franc Harrow Estates 1996
Best White Wine: VP Cellars Estate Winery Riesling 1996
Best LCBO General List White Wine: Cave Spring Cellars Estate Chardonnay 1996
Best Sparkling Wine: Hillebrand Estates Winery Trius Brut 1996
Best Dessert Wine: Hillebrand Estates Winery Barrel Fermented Vidal Icewine 1996
Best Red Hybrid: D’Angelo Estate Winery Maréchal Foch 1996
Best Chardonnay: Hillebrand Estates Winery Chardonnay Lakeshore 1995
Best Pinot Noir: Inniskillin Wines Founder’s Reserve 1995
Best Aromatic White Wine: Konzelmann Estate Winery Late Harvest Gewuztraminer 1996

First Sparkling Icewine

In the Wine Regions of Ontario magazine in 1988, another headline caught my attention: Sparkling Icewine is Dubbed ‘The Jewel of Niagara.’

The story began: World renowned for producing award-winning icewines, the Magnottas have created a “world’s first and only” sparkling icewine called Sparkling Ice.

Amber gold in colour, it’s described as “a unique aperitif and dessert wine flush with mango, pineapple and apricot aromas on the nose and an exotic caramel butterscotch taste suggestion tempered by a refreshing, small bead effervescence.” Intense in flavour, elegant in texture and exploding with life, this sparkling wine has already won gold medals at the prestigious 1998 VinItaly World Wine Competition. No price was given, and it was sold in 200- and 350-mL bottles.

Fun Fact: In the same magazine Magnotta announced it was also making the “World’s Only Ice Grappas.”

A little bit about Paul Nemy

I met Paul Nemy seven or eight years ago. He was (still is) a reader of Wines in Niagara, and was a multi-awarding-winning amateur winemaker, an avid wine collector with one of the best collections of older vintage Niagara wines I have ever encountered. He reached out to me after he gave up drinking and I was fortunate to be able to taste many of the older and best bottles of late-vintage Niagara wines ever made. I shared most of the bottles with wine friends, gave some away for others to enjoy, and I am still enjoying them.

Paul moved away from Niagara a few years ago to enjoy retirement, cycle to his heart’s content and travel with his wife. This winter he made a surprise visit back to Niagara and we met for a coffee to chat. He surprised me with 1) a treasure trove of magazines, articles, newsletters and clippings from the early days of the Ontario wine industry (the source of the vignettes above, and 2) to surprise me with a gift — the very last bottle in his rather impressive cellar. It was a 3-litre bottle of Laurent-Perrier Brut L.P. Champagne disgorged in the mid-1980s. I promised him that I would try and find a home for his historic clippings (which I intend to do), and I assured him that mega bottle of Champagne will be opened with friends. Cheers, to you, Paul, this story is dedicated to you.