The 2000’s: Challenge and Change
The 2010’s: A Decade of Growth and Consolidation
Vice Chairman 1958/59
Vice Chairman 1951/53
George Stewart, third Board Chairman and the first from Niagara-on-the-Lake, was another former Chairman honoured at the 1982 annual meeting. He’s shown with Jack Forrer, who made the presentation.
Tom Davis, the first Grape King, 1956, is shown with Chateau-Gai executives Allen Marshall, Tom Comery, and David Diston, at Irish Acres, 1974.
In 1956 Ontario had six million grape vines, with 60 per cent being Concords. But the interest in specialty grapes for table wines was gathering momentum. In that year some 730,000 French hybrid and vinifera vines were listed in the official vine census.
The new decade opened with the same old problems, too many grapes chasing limited markets. George Lounsbury, who took over as Chairman when Horace Kilman retired from farming, found many new faces around the boardroom table at the first recorded meeting. There was one item of business: 9,000 tons of unsold grapes. Growers had already been to Ottawa to appeal for a reduction in excise taxes “that would allow growers to end with $40 a ton for grapes sold for brandy.” Brandy prices were at the distress level of $35/ton, but the Ottawa visit provided no relief or results.
St. Catharines M.P. Harry Cavers urged them to return to Ottawa for a meeting with the Minister of Finance, and “press the difficulties facing the grape industry unless some relief be granted.” Again, there was no federal support, even though Howard Craise lined up the backing of the LCBO.
Distillers told growers they had a 14 year inventory on hand, ruling out any hope of increased buying or flexibility on price.
The Board stood firm under pressure from the Ontario Grape Growers’ Co-operative to cut prices for juice grapes “otherwise the Welch Company will not buy” the directors were told. Chateau-Gai failed in a bid to buy wine grapes at the juice price of $55/ton verses $76 for wines.
It was on June 24, 1952, that Australian born Bevis Walters, who was “in the advertising business,” made a presentation to the directors for a Festival “by growers and for growers” with a street parade and supporting attractions. The Board committed $2,500 which was matched by the Canadian Wine Institute and the City of St. Catharines. The Niagara Grape and Wine Festival and Festival Week was off to a flamboyant start and gathered “wide publicity through newsreels being shown in the cinemas.”
In 1953 Keith Matthie was recruited as Secretary for the Ontario Grape Growers’ Marketing Board, the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers’ Marketing Board and the Ontario Asparagus Growers’ Marketing Board. Until this appointment the Board had two part time employees, Mr. WA. Brown was the bookkeeper and also secretary for meetings, while the other secretarial functions and office administration were in the care of Miss Peggy Leake. With Keith Matthie’s arrival, systems were put into place for industry-wide information gathering as the base for research and projections, allowing growers to “operate from a position of strength by being as well informed as the companies who bought their grapes for processing.”
The directors had realized that by being self-reliant, growers could become full equals at bargaining tables, and gain credibility in meetings with governments.
In 1953 George Stewart followed George Lounsbury as Chairman, establishing the second chairman from “east of the canal.”
The report on the 1954 harvest shows exports of 16,500 tons while the total harvest of 46,700 tons brought $3.5 million for growers. Exports continued to take care of surplus years’ production at this time, although prices ranged from less than $50 to a peak of $104 in 1959 when the Board’s negotiated price of $90 was the highest since $95 was reached in the year the Board was founded.
Disturbing signs were surfacing. The tracking of sales patterns indicated the demand had flattened for Ontario’s dessert wines, and growth was in table wines.
Growers reported a “general apathy of the Canadian Government to aid fruit growers and preserve the remaining fruit areas,” and claimed the “United States of America had no regard for the provisions of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and uses escape clauses at every opportunity.”
More wine was being sold in the 52 winery stores than in the Province’s 202 LCBO outlets, and growers called for more store licenses to fight against imports, which now were selling more than a quarter of a million gallons a year in Ontario.
Yet the 1950’s registered many significant and progressive results. Plantings of French hybrids, and then viniferas, were increasing vigorously and research through HRIO was advancing cultural practices to handle these more sensitive “specials”. The LCBO agreed to erect “shelves for wine displays in all stores” the Honourable Charles Daley announced, after “repeated requests from the Marketing Board.”
Rodger Whitty and Keith Wiley proposed a levy of a $1 a ton to “cover crop insurance needs.” Then in August, and despite the support of the LCBO, the Board’s appeal for more wine stores was turned down by Premier Leslie Frost.
The directors agreed to move away from using the same law firm in Toronto as the Canadian Wine Institute, feeling “they did not have much influence with the government.”
Dr. Frank Palmer, head of the Vineland Research Station, along with Ollie Bradt, had met the Growers’ Committee to demonstrate a refractometer for measuring sugars as early as 1951, and this “ability to measure quality should have a great bearing on sales.”
As the decade ended Roy Masterson and Gordon Hunter were delegated to negotiate premium prices for a range of the “special” grapes. A $50/ton premium was agreed for Delaware and President leading the Growers’ Committee to comment that “more information be available on specials.”
1997 Grape King George Lepp, with John Neufeld.
The Grape King represents an over 60-year tradition in Ontario’s grape and wine industry. The title of Grape King, or Grape Grower of the Year, is bestowed upon an Ontario grape grower who exemplifies excellence in the vineyard.
Nominees for Grape King must have a working knowledge of vineyard management and the grape growing industry. Nominated vineyards are judged by industry experts from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph, and are rated on a point system based on the following criteria: Cultivars, Diseases, Insects, Weed Control, Soil Management, Canopy Management, Overall Quality of Vineyard, Outreach, and Miscellaneous.
Each year the Grape King receives a jacket and chains of office to be worn throughout the year while attending industry and government events, such as the Legislative Wine Tasting, Cuvée and Niagara Wine Festivals. The Grape King also represents Ontario grape growers at the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival in British Columbia, a trip sponsored by Farm Credit Canada, the Grape Growers of Ontario and the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival.
The Grape King is an ambassador and an advocate for all grape growers across Ontario as the grape and wine industry continues to move forward.
The Niagara Grape and Wine Festival celebrates the grape harvest and begins in mid to late September, while the grape harvest continues well into October. The festival was founded in 1952 by Canadian Wine Institute, and has taken place annually since (with the exception of 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19). Founding sponsors include the City of St. Catharines and the Grape Growers of Ontario (formerly the Ontario Grape Growers Marketing Board).
Historically, each year a Niagara grape grower was selected to be Grape King to preside over the Festival. This decision is made by the Horticultural Research Institute of Ontario and based on the highest quality vineyard for that year. A Queen was chosen from sponsored candidates of local social and service clubs. A Prince was chosen from the 4-H Grape Club and a contest was held for a Princess under seven years of age.
Some of the festivities these “Royals” preside over include wine tasting, the Grand Parade, wine gardens, dancing, vineyard and winery tours, Canadian Champion Grape Stomp, outdoor arts and crafts shows, among others. All these activities are started once the chosen King is crowned for the year. One of the most popular activities is the tour of a model vineyard and a working vineyard at harvest time.