Prince Edward County’s Oldest Winery Celebrates a Birthday
by Konrad Ejbich
Ed Neuser and Rita Kaimins sat in the back garden of the farmhouse they had bought in 1983 on the shore of Prince Edward Bay near the Waupoos marina. Ed owned a profitable machine shop and Rita was the head buyer for a fashionable clothing chain.
Weekends here were peaceful, quiet and calming. They loved to garden all day and usually took a break at 6 p.m. to share a bottle or two of their favourite wine, Reif Estate Vidal.
As they sat and sipped, looking over the vacant field behind the house, they pondered what to do with it. At one point, Kaimins laughed and blurted out, “What about planting grapes, Ed? We could make our own wine.”
It was 1992. No one grew grapes in Prince Edward County. No one knew that was about to change.
Neuser contacted Klaus Reif for advice the following day. Klaus asked, “What have you got to lose?”
That’s all it took. The couple decided to plant a half-acre test patch to see if vines could survive the winter. It was a big surprise to Neuser and Kaimins, the 500 Vidal plants did manage the cold… marvelously.
As soon as spring came, Neuser recruited a 17-year-old neighbour, Kyle Baldwin, to help with the planting of an additional 500 Geisenheim-318 vines next to the Vidal, plus 250 Baco Noir plants nearby. The following year, they hired him full time to care for their grapes. (Today, Baldwin runs the entire operation: 23 acres of vineyards, the winery, Gazebo restaurant, Cläfeld Orchard across the road, an animal farm, a market garden, and an independent cidery.)
By year four, the experimental vines began to yield abundantly, but by year five, Neuser and Kaimins were making more wine than they could drink on their own. It was time to think about selling some of it.
“It’s not like we had a vision,” Kaimins says now. “It was an adventure. We just took it all one day at a time.”
The couple applied for a government winery licence. A manufacturer’s permit was issued the following year but they had to wait longer for the all-important retail licence. On June 15, 2001, it came through and Waupoos Estate Winery sold their first bottle of wine made from Prince Edward County grapes.
“It was the most memorable day of my life.” Kaimins recalls. Federal and provincial ministers came out for handshakes, photo ops and speeches predicting new life for an old agricultural area.
Today, there are 42 licensed wineries in Prince Edward County, several applications pending, and numerous vineyards already planted with dreams of future vintages. PEC bottles have garnered awards in New York, London and, most recently, at The Judgment of Kingston. And since the day Waupoos Estate Winery opened its cellar door to the public, land values have skyrocketed.
That’s not to say that everything went down smoothly along the way. Right from day one, the couple faced unexpected challenges, some greater than others. Kaimins recalls buying a pair of spades to dig the holes for the first vines, then discovering that it was impossible to pierce the thick, impenetrable marl (caked clay and limestone.) They laughed it off and called in a guy with a power auger to bore the 500 holes they needed to plant their first vines.
Once those vines settled in, they had to deal with worms eating all the leaves off the vines as well as powdery mildew ruining part of the crop nearest the humid waterfront. And as soon as grapes began to ripen, hungry birds and pesky raccoons competed for the precious fruit. One year, Kyle had to call in police after discovering that some marijuana growers had moved in on a back field.
After the winery opened, there were always many different wines to sell to the public from the tiny retail shop, but no single product was made in sufficient volume to supply the province’s 600+ LCBO outlets.
On the positive side, being the first winery in the County, they scored a lot of publicity in the early days as well as numerous enquiries from wannabe winemakers—doctors, lawyers and speculators—all of whom hoped to start their own profitable ventures.
“The whole area went berserk,” Kaimins says, recalling the flurry of activity that occurred in the first few years after opening.
Those initial successes were followed by a decade of growth, expansion and improvements. Then Neuser’s health began to deteriorate. Maintaining the business became increasingly difficult. In 2012, the couple sold the winery to Joseph Pulla, head of family-owned Johnvince Foods Ltd. Later that year, Ed Neuser passed away.
As a special tribute to its founders, this year Waupoos Estate will produce a new line of premium wines called Pioneer. And to celebrate the 15th anniversary in business, the winery plans to release its 2016 portfolio with a special emblem on the labels.
Waupoos Estate Winery is already planning another little celebration for next year, this time to mark 25 years of grape growing. Perhaps the whole count(r)y should join in.