George and Mary Jane Smith have been operating Smith & Wilson Estate Wines in Blenheim, just south of Chatham on Lake Erie’s north shore, for the last six years. A third generation farmer, George started growing grapes on his 100-acre farm in 1982. We talked to George to learn about his experience as a grape grower.
Question: Why did you decide to grow grapes?
Answer: This has always been a fruit growing area. My grandfather grew cherries, pears and peaches. Then my father planted potatoes and tobacco too. I looked to see what alternative crops would grow on this land that would be profitable. With only 100 acres, whatever we grow has to have a pretty big return. I started growing in 1982 for Charal Winery. We had Seyval Blanc in the beginning. That started the ball rolling.
Question: Is your family involved with the business?
Answer : It’s basically my wife and me. Our daughter is a nurse, one son is an electrician and our second son is in college. We don’t see them taking over the farm at this point. Like planting grapes, our winery was not a romantic pursuit. It was a business decision. It provides a sales outlet for our grapes. Our first vintage was 2004 with our first year of sales in 2005.
We opened the winery retail store in our home to test the waters. The winery seemed to be popular so we invested in renovating the old packing house across the laneway. We’re now in our second full season there. We’re right on #3 Highway
(Talbot Trail) so we see a lot of tourist traffic at our site. It’s easy to get to for travelers. We host a variety of corporate and social functions in the Old Warehouse. We went from farming to winemaking to agritourism. The event space brings new faces to our winery. The increased wine sales have kept our grapes in the ground.
Along with 2 key staff members, Mary Jane and I share all of the work at Smith & Wilson. In summer, we employ 4 Mexican workers through the F.A.R.M.S. program.
Question : What are the unique qualities of your vineyards?
Answer : Our vineyards are planted in sandy loam soil on a granite and limestone gravel base. That gives us great soil drainage. The farm slopes toward the lake. That gives us natural air drainage. I don’t have wind machines. They don’t work if there’s a breeze, which we always seem to have. If need be, I can irrigate from an old onsite quarry using my underground irrigation system. That hasn’t happened too often in the 30 years I’ve been growing grapes. I have 43 acres of vinifera, French hybrid and experimental grapes under cultivation.
Question : What do you see as challenges for the industry?
Answer : One big challenge is our identity. We can’t be afraid to create an Ontario wine profile instead of mimicking other regions. We need to plant what grows well here and leave other varieties to grow where they are best suited. Also, current regulations are a challenge for the industry. Making sure there’s a market for Ontario grapes is big. Making sure there’s a winery out there that wants your grapes. The LCBO can’t be the only point of sale. We have to get the bottle to the consumer. The public is looking for it.
Question : Are your wines available through the LCBO?
Answer : No, not at the moment. Before going there, we have a number of things to consider. We have about 25 vintages on our shelf – both grape and fruit wines. With current regulations, it’s not profitable to sell fruit wine to the LCBO. The taxation structure is different than that for grape wine that is VQA approved. How do we decide what to send to the LCBO? Will those one or two vintages tell the tale we need to drive more people to our onsite store? We also have to consider delivery logistics. Since we are small, we would look to some of the LCBO’s alternate programs which means we would have to deliver to the stores ourselves. There’s little profit left after driving one single case of wine to a store that’s 2 hours away and this is something that could happen.
Question : What advice would you give a new grower?
Answer : Know where the grapes will go, before you plant them. What varieties are in demand? Can your site produce them? Who will buy them? Are you willing to work with the wineries to tweak your practices to fit their needs? If wineries don’t sell their wine, they don’t need to buy more grapes. Wine sales are the key to a grape grower’s success. Supporting Ontario’s wine industry supports Ontario’s grape growers. Improved market access for Ontario wines is the thing.