Since he was old enough to contribute, Bill George, Jr. has worked the vineyards of George Family Farm Vineyards, an 80-acre farm that has been family owned and operated since 1796. Following his graduation from the University of Guelph, where he completed his BSc., Agriculture, in 1988, George took over the farm. In 2001 he was chosen Grape King. Now in his fifth year as GGO Chair, he previously served four years as Vice-Chair and another seven years as a director.
We caught up with him following the Annual General Meeting to get his views on grape growing.
Q. How does your family help with the business?
A. The whole family is involved. Dad (Bill George, Sr.) was involved helping out right up to his 81stbirthday. He never really retired. I learned a lot from him about farming. Mom helped out until her older years as well. Today, my wife (Lesliann) takes care of all the book keeping. My son (Will) is 16 and he helps out when he can, doing odd jobs. My daughter (Katelyn) likes to help out as well, particularly with tying young vines to the vine stakes.
Q. Is your son showing any interest in taking over some day?
A. My son is showing an interest but I keep trying to push him to figure out what he wants to take in university or college first. I want him to have a degree or trade in something other than farming. If he wants to come back to farming then, that will be his choice. That’s what my father did with me.
Q. How often do your responsibilities as Board Chair keep you away from the farm?
A. My nephews have been a great help while I’ve been on the Board. I put in a minimum of one day a week. Other times it can be three days a week at the board office. In addition, I am also on the phone often addressing member concerns or talking to government representatives.
Q. What are the unique qualities of your vineyards?
A. Our vineyards are located right along the shores of Lake Ontario. The lake helps to moderate the temperature so it doesn’t get as cold in winter. We have a later start to the growing season because of the moderating affect of the lake. But we also have a longer season because we don’t have the early fall frost. It also means we can plant more sensitive varieties that grow better in this type of climate like Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.
Q. What changes over the past few years have made the most impact on your grape production?
A. With technology we have pruning machines and mechanical leaf removers. All of this used to have to be done by hand. Wherever growers in our industry can use technology to save costs, it helps. Grape harvesters came on the scene in the late 1970s and there’s been a steady increase in technology since. In my father’s day, it was a lot of hard work and it took a lot of effort. It’s night and day compared to how it was done in the late 1960s for sure.
Q. What do you see as challenges for the future?
A. We’re in a global market and have to compete with wine coming in from all over the world. We need to get the LCBO promoting local wines more. Currently we have a 44% market share. That’s not cutting it for us. We need to see that eclipse 60% of the market share like other wine-producing countries. Every other country has 50% or more of the local market place. In order to do this, the LCBO needs to step up.
Q. If you were to give one piece of advice to a new grower, what would it be?
A. That one piece of advice would be to research your site selection. Know the local climate and choose the grapes that will grow well in that area. We learned the hard way. Talk to growers in your area to find out what works. They can be a wealth of information. As Chair of GGO, I see it all the time. Obviously, there is competition out there, but I also know we want to see our neighbours do well. We all stick together and that’s important.
Q. What are some of the most common misconceptions about growing grapes for wine?
A. The most common misconception is that it’s all romance. Enthusiastic people from the city and elsewhere see the pictures in magazines and think it’s a purely romantic business. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful having the vineyards all around me, with the great aromas, but it’s a difficult business that requires a lot of hard work. We need to get our story out, of how challenging it can be, tending to the vines year long, and all that is involved in that process before the grape is ever ready for wine making.
Q. What are some of your favourite pairings of Ontario wines and homemade recipes?
A. I don’t have any homemade recipes but I like a nicely marinated steak and a red wine from one of our local wineries. On a summer afternoon, I enjoy a hamburger and crisp dry Riesling. I’m easy to please. Good food and a nice glass of wine will keep me happy.