Ontario Wine Culture

Owner Andrew Brooks greeting guests in Back 10’s tasting bungalow. Michael Di Caro photo

Ontario wineries are foregoing the tasting bar & transforming our wine country visits

The charm of vines swaying in sweet summer breezes under blue skies and golden rays framed by the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario helped kickstart my love affair with Ontario wine ten years ago.

The less pleasant side was summer Saturdays fighting elbow-to-elbow through rows of people just as eager to get a taste of crisp Riesling and a few precious moments with the busy staff behind the tasting bar whose hospitality kept me coming back—the quality of juice in my glass helped too.

Good wine, charming people but lacklustre execution was the old Niagara. Today Ontario wineries have revamped and rethought the tasting experience to go beyond the bar.

No one welcomes more wine lovers to Niagara than Andrew Peller Ltd., the Canadian wine company with a market cap of over a half billion dollars and owners of Peller Estates, Thirty Bench and Trius. When they opened their newest winery Wayne Gretzky a couple years ago they drew on their collective experiences and considerable dollars to rethink how visitors enjoy a winery’s space. Instead of ignoring the chilly realities of Ontario winter climes, Gretzky embraced them. The outdoor rink, flanked by a heated bar, is the winery’s focal point and come summer it transforms into a patio with a water feature. The attention to detail continues inside.

The rink at Wayne Gretzky’s is a focal point of the winery that encourages visitors to embrace our cold winters. Andrew Peller Ltd. photo.

The wheeled tasting bar expands easily for summer crowds, has a seated fireside lounge area and houses a glass room for private tastings that overlooks vines in summer and the rink in winter. They’ve refined the VIP lounge, borrowed from Trius, offering seated private tastings with a view outside or TVs playing the game and the barrel cellar hosts dinners like Peller, except they’re wine vs. whisky. But Gretzky’s biggest innovation is putting a distillery and winery on a single property. Now wine-first and whisky-first members of your party can start their visit in their own lane, but end it opening their palates and perspectives to the other side. This no compromise approach is an emerging trend now that Tawse winery added a still and Niagara College added a teaching distillery to its winery and brewery programs last autumn.

Come summer time the rink at Wayne Gretzky’s transforms into a water feature so wine lovers can enjoy the summer sun. Andrew Peller Ltd. photo.

 

Wineries looking to connect with visitors and turn them into life-long wine lovers have embraced the tasting-as-experience philosophy. Take Vineland Estates who learned over 35 years of vintages that wine lovers have diverse interests beyond the bottle and wine should be the hub to complement and cultivate those interests. They’ve partnered with local artists and businesses outside the wine world to expand what you can take away from a visit to wine country. Already this year they’ve hosted painting with wine lessons, tea and wine tastings as well as music and wine pairing classes.

But even without the benefit of hundreds of millions dollars and multiple decades of experience some Ontario wineries are using fresh perspectives and limited budgets to transform the tasting experience.

When Andrew and Christina Brooks opened Back 10 Cellars it was the product of over a decade of “blood, sweat and years,” which just happens to be the name of their Pinot Noir. They’ve been ingenious in bringing their dream to life doing what they could themselves and operating a wine tour company to fund it. When it came time to build a tasting room they made the most of what they had converting the property’s farmhouse from a B&B into what they’ve dubbed “the tasting bungalow.” The space looks more like a bistro than a tasting room with banquet seating by the fireplace, a kitchen around the corner and a welcome by the owner as you walk in. Each seat in the tasting bungalow is set with four glasses and the current lineup of wines printed on a small placemat so even if the winery ends up busy you have information about each wine.

The Brookses quickly nixed the idea of a traditional tasting bar because they felt it would be more welcoming to invite visitors to pull up a seat and able to sit down and have a conversation over a glass. If you visit now that’s what you’ll experience, but it wasn’t without its hitches. When they opened visitors “didn’t really seem to get it—people would walk in the door and look around for the tasting bar,” says Andrew Brooks. That rarely happens now.

This new customer-focused personalised approach to tasting is having a ripple effect. In the past couple years Tawse and Malivoire have remodelled their tasting rooms to better accommodate visitors, Rosewood just underwent renovations in the spring and Vineland is planning a future overhaul. So let’s look back in a few years because if the trend continues maybe Ontario wineries will move the bar so high the tasting bar will be banished for something that serves us better.


Five Ontario Wineries Making Tastings Better 

Kew 

There’s no tasting bar to be found in the beautifully restored 19th century farm house that serves as Kew’s tasting room. Instead the m.o. is personalised tastings at high-top tables in the kitchen with French doors showing the way to a garden patio with a vineyard view where you can enjoy a glass of bubbles and live your best Martha Stewart life. 

Big Head

This family-run Niagara-on-the-Lake spot embraces that it’s a working winery. Relegating the tasting bar to the corner in favour of tables for personalised tastings where family hospitality can compensate for the industrial decor of winemaking equipment. Ask about the Raw line of wines made in the red polyhedron concrete fermentors. 

Peller

Hidden under a conventional tasting room in the barrel cellar lies the 10 Below lounge. Constructed from 30,000 lbs of crystal clear ice blocks and kept at -10, the temperature that transforms grapes into the vinous nectar that is Icewine. Don’t worry a parka is supplied so only the wine stays chilled. 

Sue-Ann Staff

Embodying the all-good-parties-end-up-in-the-kitchen credo, the tasting room is actually Staff’s sleek modern kitchen. Tastings are held around a large kitchen island with Staff to tell the stories behind her bottles, answer any questions and share some conversation along with the wine. 

Karlo Estates

Making clever use of its surroundings and space, this winery embraces the rustic pastoral charm of the County. Its barn is divided into multiple tasting rooms allowing visitors to taste in the way they want. There’s a conventional tasting bar in the front, but the real action happens out back in the restaurant-like wine lounge where guests enjoy personalised tastings. The patio is perfect for enjoying a glass in the summer sun while the loft hosts big groups and is where owner Sherry Karlo displays her paintings and has held art classes. 

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