In the past, all of our bottling has taken place offsite at other wineries.  There was always a calming sense of security associated with these occasions knowing that we were at a place where this had been done many times before.  On the eve of the first ever bottling day at our own barn, these secure feelings were nowhere to be found.  I’d spent three months preparing and going over every possible problematic scenario in my head, but doubt still lingered.  Would there be enough room to maneuver in our barn? Would the truck fit on our crush pad?  Would my bottle choices pan out and, most disturbingly, would bottling icewine prove to be the  nightmare I had heard tale of?

All these troubling thoughts kept me awake on the eve of April 6th.  I was to be at the barn for 6am sharp the next morning to greet Glenn Hunt and his mobile bottling crew.  As the minutes ticked by, I actually started feeling nauseous and got up to take some Pepto Bismol.  It didn’t help.

I took solace in the fact that Glenn and Randy do this every day, convincing myself that they must have encountered every conceivable problem and were very seasoned at dealing with anxious winemakers.  It was still dark when the truck rolled in and right away Glenn put me at ease when he looked up at the clear sky and confidently stated, “It’s going to be a great day for bottling!”  If he could be excited about today, then why couldn’t I?

My second boost of confidence came at the arrival of my father-in-law and brother-in-law who had graciously offered to lend a hand.  More important than their braun, they offered a good dose of comic relief that kept us all loose despite the fast-paced dynamic.  In times of stress I’ve found that it’s good to surround yourself with hardworking Polish pranksters.

Set-up took far less time than I had anticipated and the first Pinot Gris bottles were rolling off the line by 7:30.  Riesling, Sauv Blanc, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Cab Sauv followed in quick succession.  I figured it must be close to lunch at that point and had to look twice when my watch read 10:30!  We were flying – but the dreaded icewine still loomed.

Bottling into 200ml icewine glass presents a bevy of problems to the line.  The bottles are very tippy, and filling consistently with such a small amount of wine is tricky.  Thankfully, our Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine was fairly cooperative and we were able to wrap up bottling by noon.  I’d endured months of sleepless nights and we had bottled our entire 600 cases in half a day…the sheer stupidity of this is not lost on me.

I would like to thank Glenn, Randy and all my helpers for making the first Five Rows bottling day a huge success.

Every Wine Has a Story


Every vintage and every wine has a story.  Some are thrillers, some are tragedies, some are uplifting romantic dramas and some, like the story of “Howie’s Own” 2008 Vidal, are dark comedies.

Tonight I cracked a bottle of this ’08 Vidal (bottled elegantly in a recycled Creekside Cabernet bottle) and marveled at the irony of how this wine that I cared about the least, neglected the most, and don’t sell to the public, turned out to be so damn good.

It’s an understatement to say that I wanted no part of making this wine in the late fall of 2008.  Those unfortunate enough to be around me at that time would no doubt be able to describe the kind of mood I was in.  Frazzled and crabby only begins to describe my state of being.  Having just completed our first full-scale “Five Rows” vintage, in facilities that rivaled only the most modest of U-Brew joints, I’d actually spent the majority of my time scouting vineyards for other wineries to make ends meet.  I was officially burnt out.

With evey sip of Vidal the stroy gets clearer.

My father, and I give him credit for mustering up the courage to do this, meekly suggested that we make a small tank of Vidal from the little bit of leftover fruit that falls onto the ground after mechanical harvesting, just for the fun of it. The fun of it?  “You’ve got to be kidding me!”  I thought or perhaps yelled aloud along with some interesting adverbs.   I’d been slugging away for three months straight and making Vidal for fun was not high on my To Do list.  I didn’t have the tank space, the yeast or the patience for this venture and made my feelings perfectly clear to a bewildered Howie.

“No problem.” he calmly stated, “I’ll make it myself.”  Now this was funny.  He didn’t have the foggiest notion about the practice of whole bunch pressing, the use of pectic enzymes, the protective benefits of potassium metabisulphate or how to properly monitor a fermentation.  “Good luck with that!” I rudely exclaimed.

I arrived early the next morning to see him diligently stooping to pick up the fallen bunches of Vidal.  I went on to tend to my other wines and after a while he pulled up to the crush pad with his wagon load of roadkill.  Then, in a fateful moment of weakness, I decided to can the attitude and help my old man press some grapes.  I suggested we press them “whole bunch” in an effort to be gentler on fruit.   I’d done this before with Chardonnay in Nova Scotia and really felt that the end product was more complex.  It also meant skipping the destemmer-crusher, which I didn’t feel like cleaning anyway.

We loaded the press quickly, I was probably still giving him the bum’s rush, and soon the sweet free-run juice began to flow.  Normally, pressing is done slowly with gradual increases of pressure and a periodic break-up of the press cake.  Sadly, this was not our protocol.  I cranked the pressure input valve, quickly achieving one bar of pressure when, mysteriously, the free-run juice stopped flowing.   Judging by the high-pitched squeal emanating from behind the wooden slats, I guessed we had an air pocket somewhere within our small basket press.  Stupidly, instead of dismantling the press and breaking up the cake, I increased the pressure and leaned in for a closer look.  All of a sudden, in one almighty instant, a tsunami of angry Vidal riding two bars of pressure streamed violently between a crack in the press screen, directly into my eyes and clear onto the roof of our barn!

Now if I say that I hit the ground and rolled around like I thought I was blind for life…it wouldn’t be a lie.  I tend to be a bit of a drama queen at times, but I swear that this situation warranted my blasphemous screams.  When I think back now, I truly believe that I’m lucky I wasn’t seriously injured.  A seed or stem hitting an eye at that velocity could have done some serious damage, but the juice just stung.   When I regained my vision enough to see blurry images, I quickly felt around and opened the pressure release valve to stop the geyser.

There are still a few Vidal skins adorning our barn roof to this day.  When my dad and I recovered from the shock of the situation, we had a good and much needed laugh.  I think we agreed not to tell my mother how bad it really was, but she will know now.  Sharing that experience was priceless.  I will never forget the look on his face when my vision finally returned.  It was a weird amalgam of shock and stifled laughter that he’d be hard pressed to ever duplicate.  Winemaking has since seemed less complicated and my attitude at vintage time has lightened tremendously.  Taking time to enjoy the experience is my new motto.

In the end, we were able to scrape together some yeast and cold-fermented the Vidal in a small stainless steel tank.  Last summer we bottled (more or less siphoned) 23 cases of Vidal, unfiltered, into sterilized, recycled bottles.  We’ve been enjoying it ever since.  The aromatics and presence of this wine are captivating.  Our supplies are getting low, however, so maybe we’ll make some again this year…just for fun.

The Next Challenge


At 8:03 AM on January 2nd, a new era began at Lowrey Vineyards.  As the sun peeked over the escarpment we welcomed the dawn of our very own “Ice Age”.   After an evening of perfect freezing conditions (-12 degrees Celsius) it was decided to harvest five rows of Cabernet Sauvignon, our first foray into the world of Icewine.  A beautiful morning unfolded before us, with a light snow gently filtering the weak rays of winter sun.  It soon became clear that picking the fruit and braving the cold are the easy part, and actually quite enjoyable.

To understand the travails of pressing frozen grapes to yield minute amounts of juice, I want you to imagine trying to squeeze a tray of ice cubes in an effort to produce water.  It takes equal amounts of pressure and patience I assure you!  Too much of the former and not enough of the latter can lead to problems…big problems.  Less than a minute into the second press load I cranked up the pressure and was horrified to hear the sickening hiss of a slow leak in the press bladder.  Luckily we had a back-up bladder on hand, but the subsequent dismantling of the press load and bladder re-assembly really set us back.  In the end, patience prevailed and the luscious Cab juice began to flow.  It was thick, sweet and full of super-concentrated flavours of ripe strawberry and raspberry.

At this stage the plan is to make a traditional Icewine, but I could be persuaded to ferment it a little longer for those seeking more of a drier, “late harvest” style.  Initial feedback tells me that Icewine is often perceived as being “too sweet” for some palates (including mine at times), but I challenge those people to try Cabernet  Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc Icewine with dark chocolate or strong cheeses.  Simply delectable!


Vinification Notes


When you get to a point where the line between work and life is so blurry that the majority of your day seems like filler between fixes of caffeine, and what little sleep you do get is haunted by images of Multi-coloured Asian Lady Beetles and under-ripe Cabernet Franc…it’s best to step back, focus, and re-consider exactly why you do what you do.

Thankfully, success breeds perseverance.  The following are two reasons why I still choose life as a winemaker:

2005 Cabernet Sauvignon

A severe winter led to an average of 50% bud damage in the Lowrey Vineyard.  This Cabernet Sauvignon was sourced from vines that were shouldering a much lighter load than they were used to, hence a greater opportunity for ripening was in the cards.  Thankfully, the growing season weather co-operated and the resultant fruit was as good as has ever been produced on our farm.  The St. David’s Bench microclimate really strutted its stuff, with even the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon reaching optimal sugar and TA levels.  Like our first “Five Rows” vintage in 2004, we took equal portions of Young and Old Cab Blocks to maximize clonal complexity.  Following traditional small batch punch downs, the wine was aged in a 50-50 blend of American and French Oak with an average age of 1.7 years per barrel.  A comparative barrel tasting took place on July 5, 2007 and as with previous years, the highest rated wines were housed in two-year old wood (a 2003 Barrel Associates & 2003 Berthomieu).  These two superior bottles were bottled on July 18, 2008.  This wine showcases the potential of minimally-cropped Cabernet Sauvignon from warm vintages in the Lowrey Vineyard.  Aromatic highlights include wild blueberry, ripe cherry and vanilla.  Very ripe and jammy on the palate with soft, mature tannins and excellent length.  Although hard to resist its youthful charm, this Cab is only entering its prime.

Barrels: 2       Cases: 45        Alcohol: 13.4%         Price: $50/Bottle

2008 Pinot Gris

In an effort to instill confidence, I tell my wines that it is never fair to compare themselves to their predecessors.   For that reason we won’t speak further of the effusive praise garnered by the 2007 Five Rows Pinot Gris.  Some shoes are just too big to fill.

Harvested on September 19, 2008, this Pinot Gris began its life fermenting slowly in stainless steel and older French Oak.  The oak component was added in an effort to further enhance mouthfeel and increase aromatic complexity.  A nice cool ferment, dotted with periodic lees stirring, was complete by mid-October.  The finished wine was blended, then fined with bentonite for protein stability.

Early tasting sessions showed strong notes of McIntosh apple and anise, while one panelist was sure he could smell “catbox” (depending, of course, on the type of litter you prefer).  The French Oak and lees stirring helped create rounder texture and seemed to lend tropical nuances such as star fruit.  The wine was left with just enough residual sugar to balance the acidity.  Lemon-lime citrus flavours are predominant.  Bottled September 14th, 2009.

Cases: 57             Alcohol: 13.3%       Price: $25/Bottle

Both wines are now available for purchase!

Bottling Quandry


One large hurdle that a small winery must overcome is figuring out the best way to bottle their wine.  The simple act of getting the wine into the bottle can frustrate even the most seasoned of winemakers.  Larger wineries can usually  justify purchasing a bottling line based on their projected cash flow and volume of wine produced.  For us, however, this is a bit of a grey area that thankfully presents a few options.

In the midst of this busy vineyard season, bottling wine is about the last thing I want think about.  My initial plan was to bottle our 2008 whites late in the summer, but due to the popularity of our 2007 Pinot Gris (only 12 cases left) we are mulling over the “good” problem of having to move that date up a bit.  In the past, our bottling runs were done by the seat of our pants in conjunction with the good folks at Creekside.  Once my wines were ready I was able to white-knuckle them over the QEW in the back of our truck to the “trusty” old Creekside bottling line.  Held together with enough duct tape to make even Red Green jealous, that line bore witness to its fair share of tears, shonks and damn good wine before being retired last year.

Another option we are looking into is the mobile bottling line, essentially everything you need in the back of a semi-trailer.  Hook up your hose to one end of the trailer and packaged wine magically appears from the other end.  Convenience aside, I’m still not convinced that this is the most cost effective method for small runs like ours (50-100 cases). It would be ideal if all our wines, white and red, were ready at the same time and I could hire the mobile line to bottle them in one day, but that will likely never be the case.

Due to the success of our unfiltered 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, I plan to experiment with more unfiltered products in future releases.  It’s risky, but I think a few unfiltered cases of each wine is doable.  As long as our customers bear with us, I’m willing to give it a shot.  Given this, I suppose it’s possible to manually bottle small amounts of wine the old fashion way.  Wouldn’t that be fun?  No one says you have to bottle your wine all at once.  You could call in your order in the morning and I would bottle it fresh from the barrel that afternoon.  The next day you wake up and it’s on your front step,  just like the milk man!  Perhaps a little pie in the sky but you never know…

An undeniable (and at times dangerous) passion


My vineyard and wine philosophies will become clear over the course of these entries, but I stress that at my core I have a passion for what I do.  This passion is anchored in the same sense of place that I hope to share in my wines.

For those interested in a similar path, I caution that at different times this passion has led to:  tears, vinegar, “tractor ear” or selective hearing, the love of diesel fumes, a strange desire to talk to grapevines, the ability to hum the Weather Network theme, and occasional doubts of sanity.  Most disturbingly, however, growing up on a grape farm has left me scarred for life with a chronic case of separation anxiety.  My first failed attempt to leave the vineyard was four blurry years at the University of Guelph spent grinding out an honours degree in Microbiology.  Over that time I became enamoured with yeast and fermentation dynamics, skills that would later come in handy as I ended up back home (surprise) completing a Masters degree in Viticulture at Brock University.

A second attempt at leaving home brought me to the “sunny” shores of Wolfville, Nova Scotia to run a small winery called Blomidon Estate.  It was an amazing experience that thrust me into the challenging world of marketing and selling wine, while at the same time allowing me to hone my fledgling winemaking skills.  After three rewarding vintages, I knew the time was right to return home to good old St. Davids and get to work on my new wine vision.

I relish the opportunity to finally craft wines from our own fruit.  The goal is to let these wines give you a sense of place by showcasing our unique St. David’s Bench terroir.   Individual varietals will be the focus:  Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.  That way I can really capture the subtle characters of each variety, and provide those interested with an appellation education in every bottle.