John Ardiel has been growing apples for 40 years, so when his wife suggested branching out to a hobby, she never imagined a vineyard and winery. What was he thinking to plant 18 acres of grapes, adding Marechal Foch grapes to his vocabulary of McIntosh apples?
“A stranger drove into my yard and asked if I had ever considered a trial block of grapes,” recalls Ardiel. A marketer and promoter of wines in New Zealand and Canada, Robert Ketchin, was so convincing of the possibilities of the Georgian Bay area, that Ardiel became a partner. What appears to be a wild gamble dating back to 2010 is now well along in its business plan.
“It’s uncanny but we’re just $200 off our target this year,” says Ardiel. “We plan to break even in 2018.”
A few agronomic facts make this area worthy of an experiment in grape growing. First, the Grey Roots Museum has archives chronicling the successful harvest of tomatoes and tender fruit from a century ago. Secondly, longtime apple farmers are well acquainted with the microclimate that moderates temperatures throughout the year. And most importantly, the famed Niagara escarpment runs through the valley, its limestone soil providing a good base for grapes. These facts intersect with a new reality of year-round tourism that’s flowed from the Blue Mountain Resort.
The table was set for the venture which has evolved with the wine-making expertise of a Niagara grape grower, Murray Puddicombe. Until this year, he was a grape and wine partner who provided expertise on planting, pruning and harvesting while his daughter Lindsay Puddicombe continues as head winemaker.
“For us, the biggest challenge has been adopting the horticultural practices of grapes,” says Ardiel. “One of the oddities is understanding the difference between apples and grapes. Apples set their buds in the summer before harvest, whereas grapes are pruned back to a skeleton in the spring and it’s the new shoots that produce flowers and the fruit.”
He also points out that managing crop load in wine grapes to achieve proper sugar levels is totally different from apples. Adjusting to the weather patterns each year is challenge enough with apples, but it’s a different mindset to manage grapes in the daily schedule.
Sons Greg and Liam are very involved in the day-to-day management. “The biggest challenges would be time in an already busy schedule,” says Greg Ardiel, “but these challenges are outweighed by the opportunity of growth in our vineyards and winery.”
If the Ardiel family didn’t have 300 acres of high-density and conventional apple orchards as their mainstay, the grape enterprise would be on shaky ground.
“It’s very expensive to grow grapes here, but it’s the proximity to a year-round tourism area that allows us to do this,” says Ardiel. “We have a captive audience as one of three wineries in the area. We’re able to buy grapes from two other local growers to supplement our harvest. That said, we have found that wine purchasers are very knowledgeable and we can’t dupe them. Good grapes go into making good wine.”
Ketchin’s marketing expertise has been invaluable in making inroads with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) which retails Georgian Hills wines in area stores as well as three downtown Toronto locations. Local restaurants also support the brand, linking locally-grown produce with locally-vinted wines.
Some comparisons with Ontario’s Prince Edward County are obvious such as the limestone terroir. Whereas growers in Prince Edward County face Lake Ontario and hill their vines in winter, the Ardiel family counts on using the four feet of snow blowing off Georgian Bay to protect their vines.
“We don’t bury the vines in earth like Prince Edward County growers do,” says Ardiel.
These vagaries in vineyard practices are background to the winemaking and marketing. The charms of a local vineyard and tasting room aren’t lost on Philly Markowitz, economic development officer (local food) for Grey County. She has a mandate to promote Georgian Hills wine as part of its Saints & Sinners Trail, a map that identifies 17 beer, wine and cider producers across three counties.
“We are marketing all of these assets – vineyards, apple cider producers and several breweries – under one initiative,” says Markowitz. “In 2016, we added a Growler Passport program by which tourists could buy a 1.89 litre jug and have it filled with beer or cider at each of 12 participating stops.”
The season’s statistics haven’t been tabulated yet, but anecdotal response from the trail’s participants signal an increase in traffic compared to a year ago. The cluster of stops is a lure for tourists exploring the farmland outside of the nearby towns of Collingwood and Thornbury.
Markowitz points out that local farmland is under development pressure, with many properties sold for weekend homes. For farmers, the dilemma is to earn enough income to maintain and expand current farms. Value-added enterprises, such as Georgian Hills vineyard, demonstrate how the balance can be achieved between commodity apples and branded spirits.
As the 2016 harvest of grapes is crushed, the marketing plans are already baked for 2017. Local cideries are taking off and Georgian Hills will be part of that growth with a new canned product: Big John hop cider. The Baked Apple Frozen to the Core product is just one more example in their inventive lineup.
“Cider will be a big push for next year,” says Ardiel. “Six years ago, cider was not a big thing but our own business plan has fortunately been parallel to the craft movement which is growing exponentially.”
In their own circular way, Georgian Hills’ new products are paying respect towards the area’s apple history dating back to 1846. Hard cider? Old-fashioned is on trend.