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New book on women who shaped the Ontario wine industry ‘an inspiring read’

By Ali Oppenlaender

I have been listening to Beyoncé’s, Cowboy Carter on repeat since it was released in March: her voice, the lyrics, the cadence of each song are just so good!

Niagara wine

But what I admire most about Beyoncé’s eighth album is how collaborative it is — she invited many other artists to be a part of this 27-song album. Coincidentally, that same week, a newly released book landed in my mailbox, Sharing a Glass by Jennifer Wilhelm (above), another collaborative piece that shares “inspirational memoirs and memories of the women who shaped Ontario’s grape and wine industry.” Where Cowboy Carter is a genre-bending musical experience that explores and retells country music’s history, and pays homage to its past and musical pioneers, Sharing a Glass highlights the women who have helped build Ontario’s grape and wine industry, and created careers and identities at a time when agriculture was heavily male dominated.

These women helped to elevate and amplify this industry into what it is today — a world-class grape-growing, wine producing industry that focuses on quality production, tourism, education, hospitality, and so much more.

Sharing a Glass opens with Wilhelm’s personal connection to Ontario’s wine and grape industry and provides the reader with background on how this industry positively influenced the author, who in turn, provides the reader with insight into the women that helped shaped this industry.

Most of the women profiled in Sharing a Glass gathered at Niagara College for a proper celebration. From L to R, Linda Bramble, Ann Sperling, Debi Pratt, editor of the book Elena Galey-Pride, auther Jennifer Wilhelm, Donna Lailey, Debbie Zimmerman, Sue-Ann Staff and Nicolette Novak.

The first person that we are introduced to is Debi Pratt, a dynamo of a woman who helped put Inniskillin and Ontario’s wine country on the wine world map. We learn of her marketing and public relations expertise, her personal story, and the importance of connection to both the region and people through this chapter.

From there we learn about Dr. Helen Fisher, and her courage to keep going, no matter what others think. We learn about her influential research, her field work and her contributions that have positively impacted modern day grape growing.

Next, we are introduced to Donna Lailey, a woman who saw so much more potential than just stone fruit farming on her in-law’s property along the Niagara Parkway that she swayed her husband to return to his roots and build a new life on that farm. Her chapter regales the reader with the hardship of both farming and family-raising in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. This chapter is both humorous and heartbreaking, while also adding a new level of admiration to what it means to be a working-farming-business-owning mother.

Raising a glass to Raising a Glass.

Then, we are introduced to the world of wine writing, and learn about Dr. Linda Bramble, her achievements, history, enthusiasm, and dedication to Ontario’s wine and grape scene. This chapter is one of the shortest, but it is a powerful reminder that we all have a responsibility (wine writers, wine marketers, winemakers, wine sellers, etc.) to proudly share this region and all its accomplishments to those we meet.

Next up is Debbie Zimmerman, the political powerhouse behind Ontario’s grape industry. When we think about growing grapes and wine, we rarely think about politics, unless of course it’s at a dinner party and we’re chatting about the latest White House scandal. However, there is a lot (and I mean a lot!) of political work involved in grape and wine, and the fifth chapter in Sharing a Glass, delves a bit more into the political background in the wine and grape industry, and of one of the women who is leading that charge.

Then from politics we enter winemaking with Ann Sperling’s story and her involvement in both Ontario and B.C.’s grape and wine industries. We learn of her passion in crafting wine that expresses the vineyard and region, while pushing the industry forward with her sustainable and biodynamic vineyard and winemaking practices.

Donald Ziraldo and Donna Lailey listen as Jennifer Wilhelm talks about her book at Niagara College.

The book then takes a sombre tone as we are reminded of the kind and influential Barbara Leslie — what a gift to have her words encapsulated and remembered in this book. Like the other women highlighted in previous chapters, we are introduced to Barbara Leslie’s personal life story, how she came to be involved in the wine and grape industry, and her impact on the many students coming out of Niagara College.

We are then brought back to farming and family in Nicolette Novak’s heartfelt chapter. The chapter opens with the sale of Novak’s property — her winery, restaurant, cooking school and vineyard. What follows is her story of hard work, perseverance, and passion in creating a magical spot in wine country for all to enjoy.

Lastly, there is a section dedicated to Madame Andrée Bosc, a woman whose name is mentioned many times throughout the book by the other woman as both a mentor, supporter, and friend.

After each chapter there are tributes to these women from industry peers, friends, and colleagues. It’s a beautiful compilation of memories, kind words, and tokens of gratitude and appreciation to the women that were their bosses, role models and support.

Sharing a Glass is an inspiring read about the women who came before “us,” about the ones who faced obstacles but forged onwards. It’s a passionate reminder to embrace our history while bettering our future. It’s about supporting one another, mentoring each other, and most importantly, it emphasises the power of collaboration. There’s a lyric in the opening song of Cowboy Carter where Beyoncé sings about taking up space, and these women did just that — they unapologetically took up space.

This book is a gift to the women who fill the pages and a gift to the Ontario grape and wine industry. Thank you, Jenn for this gift.

Sharing a Glass is now available for purchase at local wineries, online book retailers, and
directly from the publisher here.

Donations to help launch bursary for
first-year female students at college

At the book launch of Sharing a Glass last week, held at the Wine Visitor Education Centre at Niagara College, it was announced that Elena Galey-Pride, who edited and wrote the forward for author Wilhelm’s book, was donating her professional fees for working on the book to set up a bursary for first-year female students at Niagara College.

As she wrote in the forward of the book: “There is so much here to inspire, to sustain, to inform, and even to caution those of us working in this industry today. And my hope is that it will be especially thought-provoking for women entering the industry now.”

Galey-Pride’s fees will go toward a multi-year bursary for female students at the college. It will alternate between the wine and hospitality programs at the college. A portion of book sales will be added to the bursary as well.

Details of how others can donate to the bursary will added here once Niagara College gets the details posted online.

It should also be noted that the author of this post, Alison Oppenlaender, is donating her freelance fee for writing this article to the new bursary. 

About author Alison Oppenlaender

Alison Oppenlaender, also known as Ali, is a busy mom of two living in Hamilton. Last year, she co-launched Liebling Wines with her sister, Jessica. With a lifelong connection to the Ontario grape and wine industry — from working on her family’s vineyard, to being part of the hospitality and tourism scene, to contributing to the policy and advocacy side — has now recently returned to her roots, joining her family at Huebel Grapes Estates. Her passion is in creating connections through storytelling, which comes as no surprise, as her academic background is in Marketing, and English Literature and Communications. In 2019, Ali organized the first-of-its-kind Women in Wine Mentorship networking event in the Niagara Region and aims to relaunch this event in 2024. A book enthusiast and local wine supporter, Ali is dedicated to fostering relationships and is excited to continue pushing and promoting Ontario VQA wine.