Page Archive for the ‘Family Stories’ Category

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

For eleven years now, my entire month of March has been spent preparing our new wines for bottling and summertime release.  I always look forward to this task, as it represents the culmination of many years of work and the chance to finally share those wines.

Our annual bottling date with the mobile line has always fallen in the last week of March or first week of April, giving us plenty of time to get the wines VQA approved and labelled before release.  This year, our scheduled date was April 1st (no joke).  A stickler for routine, I dutifully prepared my wines with blinders on until, thankfully, someone wiser than I provided some welcome perspective – I needed to stop and smell the Sauv Blanc.  Although we were technically still allowed to assemble a large enough crew to bottle, it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do, given the uncertainty surrounding viral spread.  Despite my initial hesitation to postpone bottling, doing our small part to keep the virus at bay became a no-brainer.

So, unfortunately, those eager wines did not make it to bottle on the early hours of April Fool’s day, and I am left with the queasy feeling of holding onto inventory longer than anticipated.  There are intertwined concerns of letting people down, wine stability, temperature control, tank space and a looming summer without visitors.

On the flip side, I can’t discount that for some of the wines, this slight delay might actually be a good thing.  Although my ego tells me that I had the wines exactly where I wanted them, perhaps some extended bulk aging could prove beneficial – tannins are still being refined, flavours developing, aromatics building.

I always figured that bottling all of our varietals in one day was risky, but never anticipated a situation like this.  Thankfully, the folks at Hunter Bottling have been more than accommodating, offering us a make-up date in July when things have hopefully settled down.

A wine bottling delay really isn’t anything to complain about in the grand scheme of things, so I’ve trained myself to think of all the great wines I’ve heard tale of through the years that were the result of unplanned “innovation”.  Sometimes it takes extenuating circumstances to get people to think outside the box and try new things.  That said, I’ll probably rack my Sauv Blanc out of barrel sometime soon…just to be safe!

Monday, May 4th, 2020

In a time of tremendous uncertainty and worry, I find myself taking solace in the simple things that I took for granted before…like being able to write a journal entry while sipping a fantastic glass of wine that I didn’t make.

Since I last wrote, there have been a few noteworthy events in our life:  another vintage in the books, a new niece, a move, a renovation, another move, and an Ada.  Oh, Ada….

We welcomed our second daughter (Ada Elizabeth) in the wee hours of January 2nd, 2020.  She arrived with an abundance of spunk and cuteness, but also a few unexpected challenges.  We were suddenly thrust into a situation that I was totally unprepared for emotionally.  Thankfully, she was born long enough before the arrival of COVID-19 to allow her to receive amazing care from the neonatal staff at McMaster Children’s Hospital.  She is not completely out of the woods yet, but her vulnerable little head has healed enough for us all to breathe a little easier.  Seeing her grow and thrive over the last four months has given me a shot of inspiration when I really needed it.

Luckily for Ada, she has a strong mother with great wound care skills, three doting grandparents, a cousin very close in age and one extremely excited sister.  Unluckily for said sister Frances, she’s had to endure much more time with a father ill-prepared for full time child care in a pandemic.  You may find this hard to believe, but she now insists that I pretend to be “Grumpy Bear” or “Grumpy Dwarf” when we play together, while she is always Sunshine Bear and Snow White, of course!

My treasured days in the vineyard have been few and far between of late, as two kids tend to require two parents (should have seen that one coming).  The days I do manage to get out there are, admittedly, a welcome change of pace.  It turns out that growing kids is way harder than growing grapes.

My hope is that Ada will read this one day and wonder what all the fuss was about, but I also worry that the current reality may linger into her world going forward.  We will do our best to adjust to the new normal both as parents and as wine growers, embracing the challenges and endeavoring to craft wines that help everyone else feel a little less Grumpy.

 

 

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

As my two year old daughter continues to grow up faster than I can fathom, I find myself fixated on how much of her current life she will actually retain as memory.  This leads to a wide array thoughts:  what are my own earliest memories?  does she have any idea why people like wine?  is it too early to teach her how to sucker grapes?  (come to think of it, not remembering that job would actually be advantageous)

One thing Frances and I certainly share is a special relationship with our grandparents – and this ties into my earliest memories at the age of three.  I have hazy notions of time spent at the farms of two sets of grandparents and accompanying them on vacations up north.  I’m sure my recollections of those times have been shaped by listening to family stories over the years, but I treasure them nonetheless.  Perhaps my first vivid, individual memory involves my parents bringing my baby sister home from the hospital when I was four, and soon Frances will get to experience that same life-changing moment.

Not surprisingly, most of my other early memories are either farm or tractor related.  I often recall being put to bed with the late summer sun still shining, while my dad was finishing his tractor work within earshot of my bedroom window.  I wished (and probably cried) that I could’ve been out there with him, and to this day I find the sound of a tractor very soothing, almost reassuring.  I guess Frances comes by her own fascination with Grandpa and his tractor very naturally!

To that end, it has become abundantly clear that in her world I am just a conduit to the “real farmers”: Grandma and Grandpa.  Frances doesn’t seem overly impressed that I play a minor role in the farm and winery operation, instead she fancies me as more of a farm chauffeur, ferrying her back and forth to her beloved St. David’s wonderland.  She has a certain way of keeping my ego in check that manages to be both cute and matter of fact, “No Dada, those are Grandpa’s grapes.”  I’ve been forced to learn the hard way that there is perhaps no more fruitless cause than trying to impress a two year old with your knowledge of terroir.

The times we spend together now may or may not form her first memories, but I will derive no greater joy than watching her continue to develop her own special bond with the “real farmers”.

Thursday, December 13th, 2018

It takes special people to inspire the kind of trust that I usually reserve for my own mother when pouring my wines.  James and the staff at Treadwell Cuisine are those kind of people.

Our relationship with the Treadwell family dates back to our initial foray into the wine business some ten years ago.  In fact, it was at a Treadwell supplier dinner in 2008 where we nervously introduced the first Five Rows wines to the public – 12 bottles of 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon in special makeshift labels.  They made us feel so comfortable that we never left, eagerly tagging along from Port Dalhousie to downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake.

They understand that we are grape farmers first and foremost who happen to make a bit of wine, and promote our brand accordingly.  It is the place that has introduced our wines to more people than any other, and I truly consider them to be an extension of the Five Rows tasting room.

With great pleasure we announce the dates of our annual Treadwell Winemaker Dinners.  Please join us on January 26 or March 2nd for some wonderful food pairings that will inevitably make our wines shine their brightest.

As always, I promise to bring Howie and Wilma!

 

 

Friday, April 21st, 2017

As we get ready for another busy spring season of new wines and budding vines, I’m faced with an unforeseen conundrum.  It comes in the form of a nine pound baby girl named Frances, and the seeming lack of hours in a day to do what I used to do.

Those who have read this blog would know me as a hyper-focused creature of habit, eagerly devoting my time to barn and field.  In my defence, the task just draws you in completely – to the point where it consumes much of your thought and attention should you let it…and I do.  I’ve managed to convince myself that this is the only possible way to make good wine and damned be the person or thing (aside from my dogs) that gets in the way of this ultimate pursuit!

Enter the cuddly conundrum.  My wife, Tanya, and I recently decided to start a family and were blessed with a healthy baby girl on March 19th, 2017 – the ultimate reality check.  To say that my priorities have been altered would be an understatement, but not quite in the way that I expected.  At a time when I was fully prepared to be overwhelmed and stretched thin, I somehow feel more capable than ever to summon the effort required to produce the best possible fruit that our land will allow.  Little Frances has no idea that she’s already had a positive impact on the way I approach farming and life.

Perhaps it is a renewed sense of stewardship for future generations or perhaps it is just adrenaline.  Either way, I feel more inspired to work hard and less restrained by previous fears and uncertainties.  This is entirely due to the support of those around me:  Tanya, my parents, retail staff, vineyard crews and our beloved “Five Rows Faithful”.  I know I can count on them to keep the barn humming, even when I’m at home being a Dad.

So no need to worry, the wines will get the same attention they always do – you’ll just have to sit through a few baby pictures to get a taste!

FrancesBarn

 

 

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

Harvest 2016

Am I a writer or am I a winemaker?  Is my time better spent writing a blog post or thinning Syrah?  These are the types of burning, legacy-defining, useless questions that plague my thoughts over the grueling days of harvest.  I believe it to be an innate method of stress deflection to have internal debates about completely nonsensical topics.

The debate continues:

I will be forever grateful to my friends Barry and Leslie for encouraging me to start a blog chronicling some of my family farm stories.  However, none of this would have come to fruition had I not become a winemaker first.

From the earliest days of creative writing in grade four, I had an affinity to tell stories – but hated taking the time required to sit down and type them out.  I do not possess the patience to write a book.

I am definitely a better writer after consuming a few drinks.  Ironically, being a winemaker requires a laser-like, sober focus to achieve best results.

Easy growing seasons in the vineyard make for boring stories and difficult writing (if not boring wines!).  Thankfully, Niagara NEVER has easy growing seasons and 2016 has been a prime example.  If you weren’t lucky enough to have have old, deep-rooted vines or access to irrigation equipment, your winemaking skills were put to a serious challenge.  Everyone loves a wine with a good back story.

Some of my best wine-related writing will never get seen by the masses.  It is confined to my private cellar notes and yearly harvest log, which read like great tragedies.  I tend to be a “pessimistic optimist” whose emotions rise and fall with the daily fluctuations in weather.  Frustration and vulnerability ooze from the wine-stained pages.  Conversely, the winemaker in me strives to never let them see me sweat.

In the end, it becomes obvious that all aspects of my job are dependent on one another for me to achieve success.  I take comfort in this thought, feeling fortunate to have such a fluid job description.

Writer.  Winemaker.  Vineyard Philosopher.

Some of my recent thoughts on the 2016 harvest can be seen in video form here.

 

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

As a general rule, I don’t enjoy being judged.  I’d much rather blend into the background like a chameleon and go about my business unnoticed.  There are exceptions, however, and when we got the letter that our family vineyard had been nominated for the 2016 Cuvée Vineyard of Excellence award, I realized that the time had come to get over this phobia and submit myself to potential criticism.

The specific block in the spotlight was our Clone 169 Cabernet Sauvignon, located just steps outside the barn door.  It was planted in the late 90’s, using “traditional” Lowrey methods:  Dad on the tractor and my Mom and I pulled behind on the planter.  The Lowrey method relied heavily on the ability of the tractor driver to maintain a straight line, and the jury is still out as to whether Howard Jr. inherited his father’s eagle eye and steady hand.  This was before the days of GPS and laser-guided planters – and one look at the hither and yon vine spacing is more than enough evidence of that.  It is also worth pointing out that proper and consistent end-post angles were not yet fashionable in the 90’s.  You have to remember this was the the decade of frosted tips and crooked posts.

So needless to say, I was greatly relieved to find out that the Award of Excellence was not based solely on aesthetics.  An esteemed panel of judges would scout the field at certain points during the season to evaluate vine balance, fruit maturity, disease pressure, crop level, and harvest ripeness parameters.  Being a Cab Sauv block, our biggest challenge in Niagara is getting enough heat to ripen the fruit, so I did my best to thin the block to a level that would give each vine a chance to ripen its crop load.  Thankfully, the late summer and fall of 2015 provided just the conditions we needed.

When it was announced at the Cuvée ceremony last night that we had, in fact, been named recipients of this award, I was struck with many emotions.  To be on the stage with my Dad, being recognized for something that we had done together will be something I never forget.  Looking out on the crowd of people, I realized many of them had been directly responsible for my choice of career and it reminded me how fortunate I’ve been to receive their guidance over the years.  Perhaps there was also some validation for doing things the old fashioned way – a small vineyard, a father and a son (Lowrey methods notwithstanding).

Green Thinning

 

Ripe Cab Sauv

 

 

 

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

battle scars

As yet another memorable harvest draws to a close, I delight in sharing some of the bizarre things that have crept into my exhausted mind over the last couple of months.  It can be a grind at times, so pulling back the curtain a bit to reveal some of the lighter moments keeps me from taking it too seriously.

While conducting a final cull of rotten berries in our original planting of Pinot Noir early in September, I found myself uttering a few choice words at these cursedly tight clusters.  It culminated in a rather aggressive flick attempt with my clippers to remove a rotten berry which, in turn, produced a wild spray of acidic juice directly into my face.  This moment surely sums up the give and take relationship I have with these old vines, a relationship that began to take human form.

In fact, as I wiped the burning juice from my eyes, I surmised that these five rows are like the brother I never had.  We are of similar age (although I am slightly older and wiser) and we have grown up on this farm together.  We compete for my parents’ attention and can get very jealous of one another, yet our individual success is completely reliant upon the other.  There are epic fights, but if anyone else is critical of my Pinot vines – I’ll kick their ass.  We always have each other’s back because our tangled roots run ever deep in this soil.

While pacing around the barn on a weekend that saw a forecasted 15-20mm of rain balloon to a record 86mm, I realized just how tied to the weather my mood becomes during harvest.  A rainy day may as well be the end of the world in my mind.  Everything is planned around them, you can’t do anything during them, and nothing good ever comes as a result of them!  I become consumed with regrets:  Should we have picked earlier? Did I just ruin everything good I’ve done all year by letting them hang through a hail storm?  How long will this field take to dry out?

Conversely, when the sun is shining – so am I.  Strutting around the farm with a wide smile and time enough for everyone, I ooze positivity.  It doesn’t get any better than walking through a block of ripe, clean grapes knowing you could pick them whenever you like.  I taste each berry thoroughly and make a mental note of which vines and rows will make the cut this year.  As you are probably aware, this happens with extreme rarity.

More often I’m faced with a scenario akin to the following:  We finish pressing Pinot Noir and I finally have a chance to get out and take a good look at the Riesling.  I walk over to the block and think to myself, “Ahh, the patience of Riesling…I can leave them to the end every year and they never let me down!”

It only takes few minutes to realize I’ve waited WAY to long to thin out these vines and now I’ve got a tinderbox of Botrytis on my hands.  I flash back to those times during the year when I’d walk by the Riesling and pay them but a fleeting glance before moving on to more pressing concerns.  Perhaps I knew deep down that the day of reckoning would come soon enough.

It is reminiscent of a scene from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure where Pee-Wee is faced with saving all the pets from a burning pet store.  Of course he saves the cute puppies and bunnies first, each time running past the terrarium of snakes with a look of terror that I know all too well.  The scene ends with a hysterical Pee-Wee running out of the store with fistfuls of snakes and collapsing to the ground.

Before I know it I’m covered in a sticky lather of sweat and juice, hurriedly extricating botrytized clusters of Riesling with my bare hands and high-stepping to the end of the row to hurl them into the headlands…

Crazy, you say?

I know you are, but what am I.    (P.W. Herman 1985)

 

 

 

 

Monday, July 7th, 2014

It occurs to me, as I hit a few golf balls into my Cabernet Sauvignon early on this Sunday morning, that we’ve evolved into a rather unconventional winery.  I don’t know what triggered this random thought – perhaps the vision of a Winemaker more intent on grooving a sand wedge than racking barrels…warped priorities indeed.

Admittedly, I’ve morphed into a “rainy day” Winemaker of sorts, as there are just too many jobs to do in the vineyard when the sun is shining and field conditions are ideal.  It is on those rainy days when I employ some techniques that most would consider uncommon (certainly not smart) oenological practice.

I’ve learned the hard way that gravity-siphoning Syrah, on a tipsy ladder into two barrels simultaneously, will most assuredly lead to a violent Syrah volcano that is not discriminate about where it splatters.  This is especially problematic when your winery space is also a retail store lined with finished packages.  Those “specially stained”, collector’s edition bottles are now reserved exclusively for family and friends.

The eccentricities do not end there.  I’m not sure how many Winemakers must arrange daily tasks around their mother’s laundry schedule, but I’m willing to bet there are only a few of us.  You see, water pressure is of the utmost importance in cleaning both tartrate-laden oak barrels and Wilma’s linens.  Despite these limitations, the wines get made and our whites are still bright.

Those visiting our barn on weekdays can attest that it doubles as a very large dog house.  A stickler to routine, my days are planned around letting my dogs out at a quiet time when they won’t bother our guests.  I treasure these few moments of leisure and serenity…

That is until my one-eyed King Charles Cavalier x Chihuahua, named Bella, becomes seemingly possessed by a Tasmanian Devil.  It usually begins with her running really fast in large circles (one-eyed dogs tend to do this) eventually setting out on a wild foray into the vineyard despite my attempts at verbal restraint.  Onlookers sit back and enjoy the spectacle, often marveling, “Look at her go!”  And go she does.  I’d like to say that I play it cool and never get sucked into chasing her…but that would be a lie.  Picture Forrest Gump chasing a weasel.

A more fitting winery mascot would be hard to find.

Bella

 

Monday, December 16th, 2013

As massive black clouds of starlings swirl ominously overhead, contrasting against the pure white snow, I retire to my cosy barn to reflect on the year 2013.  I fear these flocks no more because the barrels and tanks are full, finally put to bed after what seemed like an oddly long growing season.  The apparent quality of these young wines fills me with hope.

I won’t lie – there were certainly moments of doubt, well chronicled (if not over-dramatized) in previous entires of this blog.  It became increasingly frustrating as we waited and waited for the fields to dry out and for eventual flavour concentration in our late-ripening varietals (Riesling, Cab Sauv and Syrah). Thankfully, frustration can sometimes yield immense satisfaction.  This was reflected in the purple toothed grin I saw on my Dad’s face while tasting the freshly squeezed Cabernet Sauvignon directly from the press tray,  “You could bottle this and drink it right now!”, he exclaimed.  Easy now Pops.

Winter allows for the completion of some jobs that I treasure most as a Winemaker.  A recent day spent racking the 2013 whites filled the barn with the most splendid aromas – I was in Sauv Blanc heaven!  Equally excitng were the blending trials featuring the soon to be bottled 2011 reds.  As early blends begin to take shape, I’m becoming more convinced that the 2011 vintage has a chance to be one our strongest across the board.  It rivals 2010 in aromatic intensity and is perhaps more approachable even at this early stage.  Easy now Son.

As we enter the winter months and start to sharpen up the pruners, we’ve decided to close the barn for a couple of months to catch our breath.  This will allow me plenty of time to get the new wines ready to bottle in the spring.  I wish to thank all who have visited over the past year and contributed to our most successful summer to date.  It’s hard to believe our barn has been open for five years now and I look forward to more great visits and more new faces enjoying Five Rows wines in the year to come.

A couple of traditional events that we are planning for the winter are a Winemaker’s Dinner at Treadwell’s and Cuvée 2014.  Details for these events will follow in future posts.  Happy Holidays to all!