Winemaker Tanya Mitchell, president of the Southwestern Ontario Vintners Association, says her job is to get the word out that the wines produced on the north shore of Lake Erie are award-winners that deserve more attention. In terms of production by volume, the Shores of Erie district is second only to Niagara, though Prince Edward County, in third place, is better known. 'Awareness is the big thing we need,' says Mitchell, shown here at the family-owned Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery in Harrow.

Wine festivals offer perfect opportunity to discover waterfront
- and little-known facts about Ontario's grape-growing history

News Archive BY GARY MAY
While Canada is far down the list of the top winemaking countries by volume, its best vintners more than make up for the small production with the praise their wines have received on the international stage in recent years.   

From our iconic ice wine, to reislings the Europeans rave about, to bold chardonnays and mid-bodied reds, the oenophiles have been liberal in their praise for many of the wines produced recently in this country.  

In Ontario, much of the world’s attention has been directed to the wines of three distinct regions, all of which lie along the shores of the Great Lakes. That’s no coincidence, since the moderating influence of the waters of Lakes Ontario and Erie help to create the ideal conditions for grape-growing and winemaking.  

No wonder waterfront living and wine go together like barbecued steak and a baked potato!  

Of the three regions, Niagara is the biggest and best established. To the west, Shores of Erie and nearby Pelee Island in Essex County have the longest history of commercial winemaking. Farther east, Prince Edward County is the newest, the smallest and the most brash.  

Not far from where Canada’s commercial wine industry began in 1866, Tanya Mitchell represents the exciting new generation of winemakers that intends to bring the Canadian industry to the next level.  

Having studied as a chemical engineer, Mitchell tells she decided to come back to her family business on the north shore of Lake Erie to help chart a course for the Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery. And this year, she is president of the Southwestern Ontario Vintners Association, leading the charge in a campaign to increase recognition for the region.  

It’s a campaign Mitchell finds both exhilarating and exasperating. She’s excited about plans to help make the north shore of Lake Erie Canada’s next big winery-based tourist region, but exasperated that it’s taking so long.  
After all, this is where Canada’s first commercial winery was established in 1866 — on Pelee Island, which, on a clear day, Mitchell can see from the Sprucewood Shores winery she runs with her three siblings and parents. It is a tradition that has not helped the Erie Shores region establish itself in the public’s consciousness, however.  

A long history of winemaking on Shores of Erie

Mitchell sings the praises of the soil and climatic conditions that are helping to make Shores of Erie wines a success. But the region remains overshadowed by the smaller Prince Edward County industry, which benefits from its proximity to the giant Toronto market. While Prince Edward is an easy day trip away for Torontonians, Erie requires the commitment of an overnight stay.  

That’s why the Lake Erie-area wineries are fighting hard for recognition. In recent years, they’ve established the Shores of Erie International Wine Festival, which will be held Sept. 9-12 on the shores of the Detroit River at Amherstburg’s Fort Malden.  

The festival will celebrate local wines and cuisine, with entertainment that includes Sloan, Steven Page, Pavlo with Rik Emmett and Oscar Lopez, Michou and blues favourite Thornetta Davis. The highlight will be a sumptuous five-course Winemakers Dinner, complete with VQA wine pairings by candlelight in a luxuriously decorated tent on the grounds of War of 1812-era Fort Malden. There’ll also be food demonstrations, an antique show and fireworks.  

This year’s Shores of Erie festival will feature the wines of a dozen wineries and food from 23 restaurants.

The festival seeks to provide visitors with a greater appreciation and understanding for Lake Erie North Shore wines and winemakers. There will be seminars and light-hearted entertaining to knock the stuffing out of the myth that knowing about, and appreciating good wine is hard work.  

Guests will talk about choosing the best wine glass, why some of the most interesting wines can’t be found at the LCBO and what that VQA symbol is all about.  

Tickets can be purchased by calling 519-730-1001 or online at  

“The Erie region is likely at the point where Prince Edward County found itself five years ago,” says Mitchell, “but it’s catching up fast,” with new bed and breakfast operations, spas and inns opening, plus loads of roadside stands that feature local fruit and vegetables. While some wineries plan to remain strictly in the winemaking business, others, she says, are branching out into destinations with on-site restaurants and — eventually — luxury accommodation. View Pointe Winery, for example, boasts a waterfront dining patio.  

Mitchell’s father, Gord, founder of Sprucewood Shores, where visitors can purchase a gourmet picnic lunch to enjoy on the beachfront or on a patio overlooking the vineyard, likes to make the point that the wines of Erie are distinct and unique. “I’m not saying I’m producing a Burgundian pinot,” he tells “I’m not. I’m producing an Essex County pinot.”  

The senior Mitchell believes the fact the grapes can be picked earlier, while the weather is still warm, benefits the finished product. “They ripen differently here, and they’re slightly lighter in style.” He would like to see the area recognized for its own unique style. European visitors are astounded with Ontario’s reislings. “We’re different from Niagara’s chardonnays, we get more fruit and acid here.”  

Today, there are 13 wineries strung out along the shores of Lake Erie and the country roads that lead out from it. Their total production of 3.016 million litres of wine places this region second, behind Niagara, among Ontario’s wine-producing regions by volume.  

It all began on Pelee Island in 1866

This is also the place where it all began. It was in 1866 that the subsistence farming that had marked the region’s early years began to be transformed with the creation of the Vin Villa Winery on Pelee Island. Created by three gentlemen farmers from Kentucky, the winery became known for its rare Catawba wines, for which it won awards from as far away as Europe. The Catawba grape, a native of North America, is closely associated with the Ohio River valley of the United States.  

After Vin Villa set the standard, six more wineries were built and the island became a centre of early winemaking in Canada. By 1890, there were 41 wineries in Canada, 23 strung out between Windsor and Pelee Island.  

Farther east, on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, is where the re-emergence of the Canadian winemaking industry began. Here, in the 1970s, Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser ushered in the new era when they convinced the Liquor Control Board of Ontario to license them to produce and sell wine in Niagara-on-the-Lake under the Inniskillen Wines label. Theirs became the model for boutique producers in Ontario and British Columbia.  

In the late 1970s, pioneer Niagara producers such as Paul Bosc (Château des Charmes) and Len Pennachetti (Cave Spring Cellars) went against prevailing opinion and planted the more fragile Vinifera grapes. The results were impressive.  

The industry began to establish its credentials and credibility in the 1980s, through the creation of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). Further adding to the professionalism of the business was the establishment at Brock University in St. Catharines of a research institute to study grape growing and winemaking in a cool climate.  

Today, there are 73 wineries in Niagara that produce more than three-quarters of Ontario’s wines, about 12.735 million litres a year.  

The Niagara Wine Festival runs over two weekends, Sept. 17-19 and Sept. 24-26. There will be more than 100 events, including winery tours and tastings, concerts, local cuisine, seminars and one of the country’s largest street parades when the 59th Niagara Wine Festival kicks off. This is the country’s largest wine festival. Opening night begins at Montebello Park in St. Catharines and the parade takes place the next day through that city’s downtown streets.  

The harvest celebration showcases Niagara’s best wine and food, as well as entertainment. More than 30 local wineries take part. You can buy tokens from the festival office at 8 Church St. in St. Catharines. More information is available by calling 905-688-0212 or online at  

Entertainment includes Great Lake Swimmers, Scott Normandy, Shea D. Bunch and Nik and the Nice Guys.  
Prince Edward County is a place where urban transplants mingle with the farm crowd. Lady and gentleman farmers, newcomer vintners, artists and artisans have changed the face of what was once a poor rural region. Many have opened wineries and shops.  

Wine and food the stars in Prince Edward County

Spas, fine dining and luxury accommodations, cookery schools, art galleries and antique shops are sprouting up alongside roadside fruit and vegetable stands and economy motels throughout the county that has been dubbed Canada’s “burgundy” region. But the solid, century-old farmhouses, the green fields and farm villages remain.  

Newcomers and natives come together to celebrate the fall harvest and wine production on Sept. 25 for Taste! day. Many of the events are held at Picton’s famous Crystal Palace. (You can read about the Crystal Palace and the Picton-Prince Edward region in our community profiles section.) There’ll be a workshop on home canning and celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy will discuss wine and food pairings. A wine barrel maker will be on hand to explain his trade.  

For more information, call 1-866-845-6644 or 613-393-2796, or visit online at  

While Shores of Erie and Niagara boast some large producers, Prince Edward County’s winemaking industry is comprised entirely of boutique-sized vintners and is the smallest of Ontario’s three wine regions. Its 17 wineries make 670,000 litres, about four per cent of the Ontario total.  

The region has done a remarkable job of promoting itself through the marriage of wine, food, charming accommodation, cute villages, beautiful beaches and artisans. It is a formula the Shores of Erie producers would love to learn from.  

“Awareness is the big thing we need,” says Mitchell. “We’ve got the product, the trained staff. We need more food in our wineries but there are plenty of restaurants nearby. We need to improve our signage, too.”  

She says the first part of the campaign has been to make local residents aware of what’s available, a campaign that’s still under way. Attracting visiting friends and family is all part of the plan — they’ll go away and spread the word. Festivals, she says, have been a great help in promotion. — July 2010