It seems a universal trait to dream of strolling through one’s vineyard on that special clear, cloudless day as the sun radiates upon rows of vines stretching to the horizon. A gentle breeze brushes the face whilst yellow finches hover among the undergrowth chirping melodically. Floral scents envelope one’s senses and an earthy aroma recalls last night’s rain. One feels peace and contentment.
Tony Auciello looks out of his farmhouse window at the wide expanse of his TerraCello vineyard and sees his rendition of Tuscany.
At Del-Gatto Estates, Patrick Del-Gatto readies himself for the long day of seasonal vineyard preparation, checking his equipment.
Caroline Granger inspects the budding grapes of what seems to be a great season at her Grange of Prince Edward County winery.
For each of these winemakers the experience is both similar and yet different. However, they share the same dream; the same love; the same passion and many of the same challenges.
Originally from Anzano di Puglia (Apulia Region), Italy, Tony Auciello’s trip back home to visit his well respected wine making family turned into an obsession to bring to Prince Edward County, his family wine making tradition.
Tony was aware of the sacrifices that needed to be made and, setting his dream in motion, he purchased land in the third highest and driest part of “The County”.
This former High School English teacher worked tirelessly day and night for five years building his dream, several times catching pneumonia. In 2013, TerraCello Winery opened for business.
Pasquale (Patrick) Del-Gatto also had “the dream”. Like Tony, his background stems from a tiny town in Italy. Santa Croce del Sannio is located just north-east of Naples, where his great grandfather was a wine maker. The title passed to his grandfather and then to his father. Patrick, privy to the tradition, decided it was time to realize his dream. He and his father purchased a seventy four-acre plot of land in North Marysburgh Township which had a superb micro-climate that made it ideal for the vine.
Patrick decided to leave his job as a supermarket manager, move to Prince Edward County and build his winery, which opened for business in 2009.
Caroline Granger planted her first vines at The Grange of Prince Edward County in 2001. The pride of The County features a historic barn turned tasting room that looks out on a panoramic view of the sixty acre vineyard. Caroline and daughter Maggie built on the dream that started with her father, Robert.
In a previous interview with “The National Post (September, 2011)”, she describes: “I had no idea how exciting it would be, or how triumphant I would feel being able to do something like that, the incredible feeling of accomplishment…!” The winery opened in 2004.
Dreams are part of everyone’s life. But, one must be prepared for the accompanying challenges. As in any relationship, one cannot live on love alone. And so it is with the love between a person and their land. Challenges to vineyard ownership begin right at the start. Many business men often say of businesses that do not succeed, “They have dreams but no plan!”
Tony at TerraCello talked about the “dream busters!” He mentioned winter preparation. “The biggest impediment is our winter insurance policy of sorts, whereby we tie the viable fruiting canes to the lowest wire in the fall. You’re bent double for weeks treading in mud, “It’s damn hard. The work sends grown men home broken and in tears. Inclement weather can surprise the winery owner. “Hail can destroy a crop so very quickly.”
Patrick Del-Gatto mention one fateful day when his St. Croix grape crop was threatened by hail. The grapes were harvested during the hailstorm. The picking was successful and ever innovative, Patrick named the wine “Hailstorm Red”!
Not all inclement weather ends like this though. Auciello has had his own share of hail problems. “Hail storms can open up berries attracting bees which can ruin half your crop in one night.” But, hail is not the only enemy, he continues “An early spring frost can ruin eighty percent of the crop before the season has even begun! Birds are a huge County problem. We are the top migration area. Entire acres of grapes can be devoured by thousands of birds...once they ate half my crop in a day. I cried. I remember what winery owner/vintner Donald Ziraldo once told me regarding birds and his icewine grapes at his Niagara Inniskillin Vineyard.
“Our very first crop was entirely eaten by them! It was Dec 3rd 1983. Karl Kaiser returned from a wine symposium in the States and he came into the winery. He said " I told you not to pick those grapes", I said, "I did not, I thought you did."
"We had half a meter of snow the night before and by the time we got to the office the birds had eaten all the 13 rows of Vidal.
Then he called his buddies back in Austria and they told him he needed to net the vines...lesson learned.”
Winery owners probably live on tenterhooks when it comes to the weather. Too much of anything is not good.
If it rains too much, disease and rot may set in. If there is not enough, dry grapes may suck up the water when it does rain and dilute the concentration of flavours within the grape. A vineyard may be having a superb year until destructive storm clouds appear.
Then of course there’s vermin, which not only includes birds, but also rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits and any animal that eats grapes, including humans, all of which can destroy a crop. The problem with a good crop is keeping it!
In spite of the pitfalls, winery owners keep moving forward!
A few years ago, I remember Donald Triggs then CEO and President of VinCor International (Now Arterra) answering the question of--- given the chance to be anywhere, where would he be? He answered, “Anywhere I can kick dirt!” Kicking dirt in this case was farming and vineyards. That is what feeds the passion.
Auciello said it another way, “My passion is watching my grapes develop and grow. I then take them and use my sense of art to make a traditional wine with no filtration and natural settling.”
The wine so made can be excellent but requires much personal effort both physically and, just as important, financially.
People who buy the wine may not be as passionate about what goes on, other than the fact that they like the wine, and are willing to pay the price. It is great to be able to make a fine wine that is unquestionably excellent but if people cannot get the chance to buy the product, then what is the point? Wine cannot live on passion alone!
Some Ontario wines are available via the LCBO, however as a general rule, just as many wineries sell their wine direct or on line. The financial return is not great! Heidi Del-Gatto mentions that with the cost of glass products, packaging, licensing fees, staffing, seasonal staff, administration costs and out of pocket expenses, the return on a bottle of wine is very little. “On a $20 bottle of wine, the producer may net between $5 and $7 and from that we pay our expenses.”
Caroline Granger also has warned government about the “fragile state of the Ontario Wine Industry”. That its “less than ten percent market share” has not changed over the years. She has attended “countless meetings” with government officials to remedy the state of wineries in Ontario but so far has had little success with what many of Ontario’s VQA wineries consider an “unfair taxation system” coupled with “limited access to their home market!” Caroline, Pat and Tony also touched on the fact that they cannot compete with imported wines available at the LCBO, many of which have regional support.
In order to survive, Ontario’s wineries have had to resort to other inducements to supplement their incomes. Auciello knew that he made great wine (Boca Nera $75, available at the winery only) but that alone was not going to sustain his finances. Being of Italian heritage and also a good cook, he decided to build a traditional pizza oven and make genuine pizza, Neapolitan style! Tony is regarded as a Pizzaiolo or a trained Pizza Specialist Chef and makes his pizza “lo Schiaffo” traditionally by a special hand technique. Using the approved dark Carbone dough, he makes Neapolitan thin crust pizza, with thicker edges which are said to be good for digestion. Tony has acquired a well deserved reputation for his pizza. Accept no imitations.
The Grange of PEC hosts special events such as: weddings, corporate retreats and private dining. A mobile bar will be available to guests seven days per week from12 – 5 PM, serving cocktails, popsicles beer, and wine with a gourmet sausage menu. Del-Gatto Estates provides musical entertainment on the patio while guests have a sip of wine. Agri-tourism is not an extra these days, it is a necessity.
As Auciello says, “We have to improvise and initiate new ways to increase cash flow!”
It truly is amazing the lengths that wineries need to go to stay alive and then, when things seem tough enough------SURPRISE! The pandemic hits and the Government reacts as expected. Stop everything and the hospitality industry which includes wineries is “boarded up!”
Granger puts it very succintly, “The pandemic has been an awakening for me. A little bit like jumping out of an airplane and realizing you do not have a parachute. I have seen all the systemic inequities including the unfair tax burden and the woefully inadequate access to market creating a crisis within a crisis. While worrying about the safety of the people who work with me on the farm, I have had to contend with the complete loss of both my restaurant sales as well as all of my events, which amounts to thirty and forty percent of my total revenue target for 2020! This is farming country! What happens now has implications for years to come!”
Dan Sullivan of Rosehall Run in Prince Edward County, comments on the hardships facing wineries and puts much of the blame on an archaic and unfair tax system.
“…this business is hard. But there are some parts that could be made easier, starting with eliminating punitive taxation. These are holdovers from nearly a century of neo-prohibitionist government policy. It is nearly impossible to plan your next steps without a clear vote of confidence from our legislators and a willingness to put us on equal footing with international counterparts in their home markets. Stop taxing us like we are a foreign product in the biggest channel that matters, the LCBO, grocery stores and private retailers”
If wineries (many of which are for sale and only conglomerates can afford) are to survive, something has to give. Auciello would like to see a reduction in taxes and also a reduction in charges for the use of geographic terms. Caroline Granger says that investment in the region has slowed due to the difficulties of both taxation and pandemic: “Government after Government has been told that this could be remedied at least in part!”
Del-Gatto wants the wineries to be given a fair chance!
Ontario wineries have a historic legacy that go beyond just wine. Richard Johnston’s “By Chadsey’s Cairns”, Henry of Pelham and The Grange all have historic reference that hark back to the United Empire Loyalists and beyond. On that note, they are living history which deserves to have a better “shake” from those who govern them.
Yet in spite of it all the challenges, they stay! Tony Auciello who had his winery for sale decided to stay. “I have given blood, sweat and tears and am passionate about my art. I can’t give it up!” Patrick Del-Gatto could have called it quits years ago when hail almost destroyed his crop, illness hit the family and funds were low. However, blame it on personal faith or fate itself but one day when all seemed lost, he was working on the tractor in the middle of the vineyard when his tractor stopped dead.
“OMG! What now?” He said to himself almost in tears. At that moment, out of what seemed like “thin air”, thousands of dragon flies surrounded the machine. He remembered that his father loved these insects. He named the resulting wine “Dragon Fly”!
Caroline Granger sums it up neatly!
“The difficulty in making a living from a winery has slowed investment in the region in the last few years but I still believe in the terroir, the beautiful soils that give rise to interesting vintages year after year letting my daughter and I capture each season in a bottle. There are oceans of wine but on my farm at The Grange we have a small drop that is unique.”
Regardless of all the challenge, inconvenience, problems, the passion survives!
“I want to work wherever I can kick dirt!” I think that Tony Auciello, Patrick Del-Gatto, Caroline Granger and the many other winemakers all over Ontario, struggling to make a living out of the soil, will agree!
When I was in Brazil’s wine country, I tasted some magnificent wines made with pride and artistic flair. Yet, many Brazilians looked down on those wines due to the mere fact that they were...Brazilian.
Many in Ontario have that same attitude. Local is not taken seriously. This is quite wrong, when time and again Ontario and Canada have proven not to be only good, but to have bested some of the best the World has to offer. Support local. By supporting your wineries and their wine we can help our wineries excel and prosper.
Go to your wine regions and try the superb Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Francs, Chardonnays, Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs that are made at your doorstep. The Grange of PEC produces some fine Pinot Noir (Diane’s Block my favourite); Del-Gatto Estates Pinotage (Amazing!), Rosehall Run’s Ceremony Sparkling, (superb) and Ziraldo Estate Icewine (Magnificent wine from the man who started the Boutique Winery movement in Canada). It’s okay to enjoy non domestic wine but give Ontario a fair shake also!