Location: Whitby, Ontario, Canada

Born in Malta but in Canada since age 5. Has written three books and presently does several columns about wine and food for various magazines.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Grapevine Magazine Article for Autumn Season: "To Own A Vineyard----Perchance to Dream-----!"

 It seems a universal trait to dream of walking through one’s vineyard on that special clear, cloudless day as the Sun radiates its light upon the rows of vines that stretch far into the horizon. A gentle breeze brushes the face to the tune of the many melodic yellow finches skirting among the growth. The earthy smell with its many floral scents envelopes one’s senses and confesses to last night’s rain. One feels at peace and content.  

Tony Auciello looks out of his farmhouse window and looks at the wide expanse of his TerraCello vineyard and sees his rendition of Tuscany.  

At his Del-Gatto Estates, Patrick Del-Gatto starts his day checking equipment and prepares for the long day of seasonal vineyard preparation.   

Caroline Granger inspects the budding grapes of what seems to be a great season at her Grange of Prince Edward County. 

For each of these winemakers/owners the experience is both similar and yet different. However, they share the same dream; the same love; the same passion and-------much of the same challenges.      

Originally from Anzano di Puglia (Apulia Region), Italy. Tony Auciello’s trip back home to visit his traditional wine making family turned into an obsession to bring back the family wine making traditions-----in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada.  

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 parts of “The County”.   

The 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 in which his great grandfather was wine maker. The title was passed to his grandfather and then to his father. Patrick was privy to the tradition decided it was time to realize his dream.  

He and his father purchased a 74-acre plot of land in North Marysburgh Township which had a superb microclimate 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. He 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 60-acre vineyard. Caroline and daughter Maggie built on the dream that started along 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 challenges they bring with them. Like in any relationship, one cannot live on love alone. So, it goes with the love between a person and his/her land. 

Challenges to vineyard ownership begin at the onset. As many business men often say to 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 over the weeks trodden in mud. --- --- it’s damn hard. The work sends grown men home broken and in tears.”    

Tony also mentioned inclement weather that 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 innovative Patrick named the wine “Hailstorm Red”!   

Not all inclement weather ends like this though. Auciello has had his share of hail problems.  

“Hail storms can open up berries attracting bees and ruin half your crop in one night.” But---not only hail is an enemy! Auciello described further!

 “An early spring frost has decimated 80 percent of the total crop before the season even began. … … Birds are a huge County problem. We are the top migration area… …! Entire acres of grapes can be devoured by thousands of birds. … … They once 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!” He went on to say: 

 It was Dec 3rd 1983. Karl (Kaiser) came back 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 a 1/2 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 “pins and needles” 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 within the grape. A vineyard may be having a superb year until massive storm clouds appear and destroy.  

Then of course there is the 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 of having 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 any chance to be anywhere, 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 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 without question excellent but if people cannot get the chance to buy the product, then what is the reason. 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 little.  

“On a $20 bottle of wine, the producer may net between $5 and $7 and that is from this that we pay our expenses.”     

Caroline Granger also has warned government about the “fragile state of the Ontario Wine Industry”. That its “less than 10 percent market share” has not changed.  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 and the other wineries also touched on the fact that they cannot compete with the many non-domestic wines available via the LCBO. Many have support from their own wine regions.  

In order to survive Ontario’s wineries have successfully resorted to offering other items 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 pizza Neapolitan style! 

Tony is regarded as a Pizzaiolo or a trained Pizza Specialist Chef and makes his pizza “lo Schiaffo” traditionally by hand with a slap. Using special dark Carbone dough, he makes the familiar Neapolitan airy thin crust pizza with thick airy edges. It is said to be good for digestion. 

Tony is noted about his pizza so much so that a number of wineries have mentioned his pizza sales.  The Grange of PEC doesn’t make pizzas but does have special events such as: Wedding packages, Corporate Retreats and Private Dining. All come with special items upon request. Del-Gatto Estates provides music entertainment on its patio while guests have a sip of wine. 

In addition, a mobile bar will be joining Grange guests seven days per week (12 – 5 PM) serving cocktails, popsicles beer, and wine plus a gourmet sausage menu.  

Most other wineries in all Ontario locations will offer events to foster business.  

Jackson Triggs has its magnificent Amphitheatre which entertains guests to various musical events. Inniskillin has its Grill. Norman Hardy has his outdoor patio with tasty treats and so on. Agrotourism is not an extra these days, it is a necessity.     

As Auciello says, “We have to improvise and initiate 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 aptly, 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.”  

She goes on to say, “I have seen all the systemic inequities including the unfair tax burden and the woefully inadequate access to market creates 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--- An amount that represented between 35 and 40% 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 of 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 forward 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 and grocery/private retail...” 

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 goes back to the United Empire Loyalists and beyond. Just on that fact, they are living history which deserves to have a better “shake” by 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 not available! 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 winemakers all over Ontario, struggling to make a living out of the soil, will agree!  


*Post Script 

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.  

So very 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!