Making their stake in the wine industry

Ask Ilya Senchuk about his wine, and his boyish face lights up like a youngster asked about his favourite toy.

His youthful charm belies the years of experience he has gained in the wine industry.

Senchuk and his wife, Nadia both age 35, along with their two boys Yuri age 5 and 2 year-old Ruslan make their home on the Niagara Escarpment just outside of Grimsby.

Four years ago, he and Nadia made the decision to go out on their own with Leaning Post winery.

“If you're going to work that hard for somebody, it may as well be for yourself," said Nadia, as the couple sat side by side in the barn that has been converted for storage and a tasting room.

Arriving from Winnipeg, Senchuk started at Brock University in 1999. He had spent years working in the industry in New Zealand, and in Niagara with Daniel Lenko and then Foreign Affair wineries.

Nadia joined him here in Niagara in 2003.

For the young couple, it’s been a busy decade, but they are seeing the fruits of their labour.

But it nearly didn’t happen.

“We always had that entrepreneurial spirit in us.” said Senchuk. “We had other business ideas before that had nothing to do with wine, but it's something we really loved to do.”

“It's his passion," adds Nadia.

"I can't imagine him doing anything other than this."

Senchuk admits he is lucky to have found his passion when he was still fairly young.

“It wasn't a foregone conclusion, being from Winnipeg, that I'd be a winemaker,” he said with a laugh.

He credits the wineries: “The places I worked were great.”

“The No. 1 thing they taught me was how to make really high-quality wine in Niagara.”

So just over four years ago, Ilya the winemaker and Nadia, whose background was in the banking industry, decided to plant their roots in Niagara.

They had looked at several properties but nothing was the right fit.

“We liked this area, it's a bit of an underappreciated part of Niagara.” said Senchuk.

“The climate is interesting here, you are close to the lake and the escarpment, it's kind of a neat, moderated cooler kind of area just sandwiched between Grimsby and Hamilton.”

Nadia adds: “We had given up the dream. We both decided to put it up on the shelf for a few years.”

Then the very next day, Ilya called Nadia to look at one more property.

With a little TLC, the old house and barn on 11 acres at Hwy. 8 would be a perfect fit.

“I don't know how we didn't see it before, said Nadia.

“Sometimes it takes deciding you're not going to do something for it to happen.”

They bought the property four years ago and started virtually which meant they didn’t have a bricks and mortar winery yet.

“Winemaking is a very capital intensive business. We did it on what would be on winery standards a shoestring, but you're still putting in a ridiculous amount of money,” said Senchuk.

“One of the reasons we started virtually was to be able to at least have some money coming in.”

The wines started gaining popularity, with availability in finer restaurants starting three years ago.

“We didn't have a marketing budget, we just tested the market (restaurants). We put our wine in front of people and started to build the brand before we pushed here.”

When the couple opened the doors to the winery just over a year ago, they were surprised by the interest.

“When we had finished building the bars for the tasting room and we tweeted –'After four years and two kids later, Leaning Post wines will be open this weekend' -— that's it. We thought family and some friends would come.”

“It was a soft launch," said Nadia, "but it’s been constant from there on in."

Ilya said they’ve taken an organic approach to get their name out.

“Our marketing is just talking to people, whether at restaurants or friends.”

Leaning Post still gets 40% of its business from restaurants, but the winery and farmers market have been a great success.

“The Grimsby farmers market was absolutely spectacular for us,” said Nadia.

“We just try to make sure everyone has a great experience, and customers can tell when someone who is pouring for you has the passion”

And the mix of business and winemaker has blended well.

The winery produces 1,300 cases across six or seven wines, with as few as 45 cases for one of their Pinot Noirs.

“It's important that when someone comes into the winery they don't just see expensive wine,” said Nadia. “We don't want them to be intimidated before tasting it.”

Said Ilya: “Our Fifty Chardonnay is $22 and I want it to be a great $22 wine. Or our Syrah, a great $42 bottle of wine.

“We didn't get into this for the ego of having a $150 bottle for ourselves. We actually have to sell it and make the money back. We don't have that choice where we can hold onto it for years.”

They believe that strategy appeals to customers.

“When you come here, I want you to try everything because sometimes people get into a rut. They haven't had a Riesling or a Chardonnay in a long time. We've got seven different wines and we love to showcase all of them,” added Nadia.

“You may not like a style of wine, but you can see the breadth of quality that Ilya is doing.”

While the couple still envision growth, don't expect to see their wine on LCBO shelves yet.

“You need to be a known quantity,” said Ilya. “Our vineyard (here) is coming on-stream. We'll have some grapes on the vines for the first time.

“Almost six acres,” he said. “We want to add that to what we have now, which will push us to 1,800 to 2,000 cases.”

That’s good news for local wine lovers, because there will be more quality wine and it’s not too much that the Senchuks won’t be able to keep a hand on quality.

“We're here because of the wine lovers. That's why we got into this,” said Nadia.

They are part of the new wave, where winemakers are much more involved in the actual ownership.

“At the end of every row of grapes, there is a post that is leaning. It's taking all of the slack, all of the weight that is in the vineyard,” said Nadia.

That’s why their label is a Leaning Post. Like the vines that need support from the post to flourish, they said, they know they couldn’t have done it without the support of family and friends.

Thank you to the St. Catharines Standard for this story. Published May 8th, 2015.