Focus on the Grower: Donna Lailey

Donna Lailey has seen many changes during her time in the industry, but she’s as positive about the future as she was when she and her husband David left their teaching jobs in Owen Sound to take over Lailey’s tender fruit farm in 1970. “When I look back on my life, I think some of my best memories have been working in the vineyard with my friends…and the vines don’t tell stories.”

Over the years Donna has been actively involved in the industry and has served on several government bodies including the Niagara Parks Commission, Grape Growers Marketing Board, the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario (“that was an interesting experience,” she says, “because you dealt with all commodities”), was a founding member of VQA and was involved with the creation of the Greenbelt Act. In 1991, she was the first female Grape King in recognition of the vineyard she and David had grown. Although she’s stepped back from these bodies because she realized that “sometimes you can make more of an impact outside,” she’ll be bringing a busload of delegates to the International Greenbelt Conference in Toronto down to Niagara in March to show them this special part of the province. “Change takes forever, but I haven’t given up on the industry.”

The vineyard the Lailey’s created on their 23 acres across from McFarland House on the Niagara Parkway in Niagara-on-the-Lake started with some French hybrids her father-in-law had planted on the old fruit farm and has grown to include a winery in 2000 that principally produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Riesling. Along the way, Lailey Vineyards has won various international awards for their wines including a Silver Medal (2008 Chardonnay, Brickyard Vineyards) and three Bronze Medals (2008 Chardonnay, Old Vines; 2008 Pinot Noir, Canadian Oak; 2008 Syrah) at the InterVin International Wine Awards in November 2010.

But Donna is the first to acknowledge there were some growing pains along the way. Their first year on the tender fruit farm “was a disaster,” she says. In 1971-72, she took a wine course and realized that if they we were going to have an industry here, they had to get involved. Their first year operating as a vineyard, they planted Chardonnay and Pinot but they all died. Today they have some of the oldest Chardonnay and Pinot in Niagara. She believes Chardonnay will likely be the flagship grape for Ontario.

They’ve learned a lot, primarily through trial and error, continuous reading and travels to other countries. “I learn so much when I travel to New Zealand, Australia. Farmers have to do that—travel,” she says. One of the things she was surprised to hear during her travels was that we’re lucky to have so much acid in our wines. The things we see as a problem are viewed as positives in other countries, she says.

There are still some challenges to face in the industry, she admits. “I hope we start to think of our industry in a positive way.” But she fears grape growers are going to be paid to take out their grapes and plant French hybrids. “There’s no future for the industry with French hybrids,” she states. “We have potential here, but if we take out vinifera and plant French hybrids, that’s the wrong way to go.”

At Lailey Vineyards, they educate consumers on the particular character and flavour of each wine and how the wine pairs well with food. Donna says she’d like to see money put into educating consumers on these things. “The more we do that, the more success we’ll have,” she says. People want wines with lower alcohol and something to enhance the flavours of the food they’re eating, she adds.

Breaking down the province trade barriers would also be a great thing for the industry, she says. “Its easier to sell across the border than in your own country. That’s ridiculous.” Whatever the challenge, she says, “You just can’t give up on these issues.”