It’s early spring in Niagara. The first buds of the season have yet to emerge in the midday sun, while the last little mounds of dirty snow remain, clinging stubbornly to the roadside, caked with unpleasant bits of stony asphalt and sand.
But in the vineyard, the winemakers begin to plan. What will nature and the cosmos bring this year? And even more importantly, what glorious nectar can they create from it?
Wine is a product driven more by passion than simple commerce. Like art, music or poetry, it takes a special individual with the fortitude to know when to prune during the frosty winter months, pick fruit in the high heat of summer or spend weeks in the windowless rooms of a damp cellar to finally create the perfect ambrosia. A masterpiece of time, patience and love that, although pleasing to everyone else, will never, ever be perfect enough for them.
Do wine drinkers care if the wine they are drinking is made by a man or a women? It’s doubtful. But what if they knew that women have a keener sense of smell then their male counterparts (especially during their childbearing years), and are therefore better at discerning all of the subtle nuances of taste? Or that more women than men could be classified as supertasters? Who wouldn’t want to enjoy a pour that was created by a person with these extraordinary gifts?
According to the University of Madrid, Rutgers and Yale Universities in the USA, there are simple differences in the way men and women perceive smells, tastes and the deep variable essences of a product as complex as wine, and like all things, women are taking the lead, securing a place of significance on the international wine stage.
In and around the various regions of Niagara women are stepping up to the plate as winemakers and proprietors, creating award-winning products, not only for a Canadian audience but worldwide, in Europe, Asia, and the USA.
Each maker has a unique story which is as distinctive as the wine they create. All of them agree that women have earned a special place in the industry, beyond marketing and administration. Here are four of the top women winemakers in the Niagara Region.
Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery sue-annstaff.com
“I believe that wine is an expression of place. The land it grows on, the combination of soil and minerals gives it an identity, and each place, even within this region is slightly different, producing grapes that have their own personality.”
Rambling over 104 acres in Jordon, the Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery sits on the brow of the Niagara Escarpment. The property’s clay soils over a bedrock of limestone create a base for wines that are rich in intensity, minerality, and longevity. But the winemaker, herself is the key to success here. Sue-Ann is the great, great, great granddaughter of Robert Staff who settled this property in the late 1700s. The fine art of winemaking is part of her heritage and something that resides deeply in her psyche. As such, her wines are a combination of heritage, intuition, and feelings. It’s artistic, sensitive and detail driven.
Ontario is a cool climate wine region and the finished products always reflect that.
“I’ll sometimes wait until mid-November to harvest the grapes. I know they’re perfect when I taste them off the vine. It’s risky to wait that long, but if it makes a better wine, then I’ll do it. I keep my eyes focused on the weather reports, predictions and signals, everything from high tech methods to the Farmers Almanac.”
But science, climate, and soil conditions can only go so far, in the end, you have to trust your instincts.
Sue-Ann studied winemaking in Australia before coming home to develop her own sublime products. She absorbed every aspect of the process, experiencing wine production from first to end.
“My wines are like my babies.” She says. The early stages in the barrel are preschool; its when the wine needs the most nurturing, and so I coddle them. Like a child, my wine goes through various growth periods until it reaches the bottle. It’s only then I can say; It’s time for you to leave me. Go out like a college student, leave the nest and make your way in the world.”
Sue-Ann Staff offers a family of premium wines including Rieslings, Cabernets, Baco Noir, an elegant sparkler and a seductive Icewine. (She’s been named the Ice Wine Queen of the region). She also produces a collection of everyday sippers under her Fancy Farm Girl label.
“In my opinion, there’s a fancy farm girl in all of us,” she says, and she smiles.
Amelie Boury – Chateau des Charmes fromtheboscfamily.com/chateau-des-charmes
“I was born in Paris.” Amelie Boury is the VP of Winemaking and Operations at Chateau des Charmes winery in St. David’s, a tiny area tucked between the busy tourist districts of Niagara Falls and the old town of Niagara-on- the-lake.
Amelie is celebrating her 9th harvest at the winery. She’s been winemaker here since 2011.
“Wine is a product that cannot be made without passion,” she says, tipping her head sideways thoughtfully. “Whether you’re a man or a woman you need passion and dedication to create a beautiful wine. Without that, it’s like everything else.”
Amelie learned about wine at a tender age. “Children are encouraged to understand and even taste wine in France. Its part of the dining experience,” she says. “unlike North America where there are so many restrictions. The concept of wine is accepted as a civilized way to live; it’s part of our heritage.” Then she frowns and shakes her head. “People in France don’t overindulge in the same way when it comes to wine and spirits. It’s always around, so there is no need.”
Amelie makes wine that is reminiscent of those she loves in France. “Gamay is my favorite. I prefer a wine that is refined and delicately balanced. I work with the terroir, the grape, and the climate, also what I learned all my life growing up in France and in school. In my opinion, there is no need to add ingredients like extra oak to the wine to change its character. The stroke of hand from the winemaker should be the element which brings out the personality of the product that ends up in the bottle. I nurture it all of it, from the tender fruit on the vine to the fermentation stage in the barrels”, (Amelie prefers using old French barrels because they impart less oak flavoring to her wines,) “and then to the final bottling stage, all the way from start to finish it’s a holistic approach.
“In France, the children have a game,” she begins, and she smiles. “We are taught to go outside and identify the scents of nature, flowers, the woods, even the air after a rainfall. It trains you to examine everything differently. At first, I wanted to be a French perfumer because I loved all the elements that went into making a beautiful fragrance, but then I tried wine as a fourteen-year-old girl and said, I like this. There’s something special here. After that, I began my love affair with the world of wine and winemaking.
“You can feel it when a woman makes a wine,” she says. It can be intense, but rounder and smooth, balanced. I think you can enjoy wine best when it’s refined, long lasting but also modern. I love the idea that people will open a bottle of something I’ve created and feel happy. It gives me so much pleasure.”
Emma Garner – Thirty-Bench thirtybench.com
“I love the concept of blending art and science together to create a product as complex as wine.”
Emma Garner is the winemaker at the Thirty Bench Winery on the Beamsville Bench.
I was fascinated by two distinct fields of study when I attended Brock University. One was forensic science, and the other was oenology and viticulture. I think I made the right choice.
Thirty Bench is a tiny estate producing small lots of elegant white, red and rose’ wines. Emma was thrilled to have the opportunity to be named winemaker at this specialty estate producing limited quantities of cool climate wines.
“We produce small lots of wine which are numbered. This means that the wines are snatched up quickly by people who come back again and again because they appreciate the wines and develop a taste for their favorites.”
But how small is small? Each bottle from this estate has a number on the label listing the total quantity of cases produced in a single vintage. It’s one of the things that makes the wine so special. Exclusive. Desirable.
Emma is responsible for all grape varietals and finished product, from fuller bodied cab franc to delicate gewürztraminer.
“But I especially love the Riesling wines we produce here at Thirty Bench. Years ago, I began experimenting with low fermentation temperatures and found that the result was a wine which became a better product, more intense and with greater complexity.”
In 2015 Emma was awarded Winemaker of the year at the Ontario Wine Awards. In the same year, Thirty Bench was recognized by WineAlign as Canada’s best small winery.
“I like to approach winemaking from several distinct areas. The first is the voice of the vineyard. I prefer vineyards to express themselves, year after year with minimal intervention from me.
Then the harvesting and early stage fermentation process. This is where I study the product, using my training in the science of winemaking to expose the best and most enjoyable product.
The third is strictly artform. Exceptional wine can move a person the way science cannot. And as much as I love the science of it, I recognize that instinct and gut feeling go along way to creating a product as a living thing, constantly evolving, changing as time goes on.”
The job of the Winemaker is a demanding one. During harvest season Winemakers work grueling twelve-hour days. “If I wasn’t dedicated to the craft, I couldn’t work these long hours, but then it’s one of the loves of my life along with my children, so I’m willing to invest myself.”
Winemaking has been good to Emma in other ways as well. It’s allowed her to visit France, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia to learn about technique in these countries.
“I’m lucky,” says Emma and she smiles. “I get to create products that make people happy, and there’s nothing better than that.”
Dianne Smith – Greenlane Estate Winery greenlanewinery.com
“Take a moment to just step back and enjoy it all. The place you’re in right now.”
Dianne Smith is a woman of great passion and resolve. For her, winemaking is a lifestyle, not simply a job.
Dianne is Winemaker at the tiny gem of an estate in Vineland named Greenlane Estate Winery. The collection of wines she creates are made in extremely limited quantities, sometimes only a few cases of each, but designed with such devotion that all are rare works of art.
“I was lucky.” She begins, and she smiles, “I had the opportunity to travel all over the world with my family when I was a child. It allowed me to understand how people lived and what they loved. Most people I know haven’t had that chance.”
Her father was a geologist, and in her days at school in the USA Dianne worked as a waitress at a restaurant with a vast and creative wine list. “It was an interesting place to work because there were so many excellent wines to savor. I was intrigued by the concept of wine and food pairings, something I hadn’t seen before. After that, I became fascinated by the world of wine.”
Dianne, like her father, became a geologist working for a time in the Alberta oil industry. “It was interesting to be the only woman working in a business with a group of men,” she says, laughing and with a twinkle in her eye. “It teaches you patience. I think the men I worked with might have learned something by working with me as well.”
She was born in a tiny town in Wales. Most of her family still lives over there, so she is the adventurer, choosing Ontario as her new home, creating her luscious cool climate wines for a discerning crowd.
“I could have worked in any part of the world,” she says thoughtfully, “But I liked Ontario because the industry is young and presents so many wonderful opportunities for self-expression, especially for women. Traditionally the industry is male-dominated, Ontario is so much more current. Accepting.
I love the idea that one can creatively express oneself this way without too much overbearing tradition and heritage standing in the way. We can do what we want here. Create modern products for modern people.
Her background as a geologist has been valuable in her career as a winemaker. “I understand the soil and how to cultivate the varietals, what can flourish, or not. It’s one of the best parts of my job, but then,” she adds, glancing out the window to the vineyard, “the job of making the wine, nurturing it during fermentation, watching and tasting as it evolves, coaxing it into the best it can be is the artform. It’s personal at that moment. Inspirational. For me and in so many ways, it’s the best part of my creative journey.”