‘Graze the Bench’ is a passport event taking place one early June weekend and this year it will do so for the 6th, straight year. Unlike other passport festivities, ‘Graze the Bench’ is unique in the sense that 8 neighboring wineries go out of their way and setup their wineries to create a laid back setting, filled with mellow live music, where patrons can peacefully enjoy their wines paired with freshly prepared food. Ticket grants an entry to the VIP area at each winery, a crystal Zweisel glass, and drink and food tickets – one each. For $7, additional food and wine can be purchased for further enjoyment. The 7 wineries again partaking (alphabetically) in the event are Angel’s Gate Winery, Fielding Estates Winery, Hidden Bench Winery, Organized Crime Winery, Peninsula Ridge Winery, Rosewood Estate Winery, Thirty Bench Winemakers; and this year, Mike Weir Winery finally opened its doors to visitors and joined the excitement for the first time.
The turbulent, not so distant, European past displaced many people – many of which found a new home on the North American continent. The Kocsis family, parents Andy and Klara with two sons Andre and young Steve, emigrated from Hungary in 1956 and having been farmers in the old country, they settled in the farmlands of Beamsville. In 1958, they purchased a 40 acre mixed fruit farm, whose fertile land was already planted with concord grapes, pears (both still present today), peaches, apricots and cherries, whose sale for direct consumption allowed the family to derive their living.
In 1983, Steve Kocsis, who worked these lands since the age of nine, took over the proprietorship and established The Mountain Road Wine Company. He remembered that in the old Europe, many vineyards grew on slopes overlooking bodies of water, whether being lakes or the sea. To transcend this image through a name and coincident with the name of the local road, he named his new venture the Mountain Road Wine Company.
Though planting the first Vitis vinifera in 1981, Mountain Road Wine Company sold grapes to nearby wineries (mainly Thirty Bench Wine Makers) for eighteen years. It wasn’t until 1999, when the first vintage of Vidal Icewine was produced, but it would take another three years until a permit to sell wine would be obtained.
Organized Crime Winery – what’s in the name? Right away, one may automatically think of ‘mafia’ or ‘black market’, while more in-depth thinking may allude to a ‘stab’ at the LCBO monopoly. Nonetheless, whatever one thinks, the name draws attention and curiosity.
The origin of the name, in fact, is a combination between history and art. As it goes: In the 1900’s, in a nearby town named Jordan Station, there were two Mennonite congregations of which one brought a pipe organ into their church and played it during mass. The members of the other congregation thought that music in the church is unholy, so one night they broke into the church, took the pipe organ and dumped it onto an embankment of the nearby Four-Mile Creek; thus committing a crime of stealing an organ = Organized Crime. (Story was provided to the winery by Jordan Historical Museum)
The mention of ‘Cottage Country’ brings forth images of tranquility, warmth, canoeing at foggy dawns; or watching sunsets from the cottage porch while overlooking a lake and listening to distant loon calls. For a city dweller, it may be hard to imagine why anyone would think of doing anything outside of the ‘Cottage Country’ realm, not to mention leaving it and moving elsewhere. On the other hand, the beauty of farmlands, orchards and vineyards is equally as enchanting, but in a different, more organized, way.
Tucked away at the end of a seldom travelled road, in the shadows of the escarpment’s treeline, one will find the entrance to an enchanting winery. Illuminated with a lantern, lit night and day, by natural gas escaping from long-gone creatures; one might feel though entering a fairy-tale realm and glimpsing a distant unicorn. The perception is not far off, once realizing the wines housed within are just as unique as a unicorn would be.
Starting second weekend in January and going right through February, Thirty Bench offers “Snowshoeing in the vineyard” tours. In a nutshell, it entails a hike through the property’s three vineyards, while sipping wine and listening to the guide’s interesting anecdotes and trivia about the vineyard, winery and the wine; and finalizing with an exquisite pairing of oaked Chardonnay and seafood chowder (described here in full detail) before heading the boutique to purchase some of the tasted wines or to continue-on visiting other wineries.
In 1980, a physician at McMaster by the name Thomas Muckle, bought an orchard in the Beamsville Bench and slowly converted it into what back then was known as Heritage Vineyards. Needing both physical and financial help, Dr. Muckle joined forces with Yorgos Papageorgiou and Frank Zeritsch, expanded the vineyard and all three men started experimenting with winemaking in small batches. For years, most of the harvested grapes were sold to nearby wineries, but that ended in 1994 when a first boutique winery within the Beamsville Bench region, the Thirty Bench Wine Makers, was established. The name combines geographical information (30 miles from the Niagara River) and the fact that three wine makers crafted ultra premium wines according to their individual styles.
In 2005, Thirty Bench was purchased by Andrew Peller Ltd. with Natalie Reynolds as the head winemaker, untill her assistant Emma Garner took her role 2009. Though the ownership changed hands, both winemakers ensured that the winemaking methods follow in the footsteps of the original wine makers, which is to produce high quality wines that have originally earned the winery its reputation.
The Hidden Bench Winery, an artisanal winery located in the Beamsville Bench sub-appellation of the Niagara Peninsula, is owned and operated by Harald Thiel and his family. Since his young age, Harald wished to one day have his own winery and after selling his audio-visual business in 2003, he realized this dream and purchased the property that is now the Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery. Today, the winery employes 6 full-time employees and 10 people as a seasonal staff, who ensure that every detail, whether related to winemaking or to the look of the winery, is craftily met.
Upon entering the boutique, the feeling of warmth and coziness bestows oneself as the room’s design provides peace and tranquility, whether accomplished by the fireplace, the bookshelf full of wines, the guest book corner with captivating painting by Kevin Sonmor, or the friendly staff pouring ultra premium wines. Everywhere you look, a lot of attention has been paid to the smallest of details – trully Artisanal winery.
The Rosewood Estates Winery came to its beginning in the year 2000, when Eugene (a first generation Canadian with roots from Ukraine) and Renata Roman purchased a land in the Beamsville Bench area and in 2003 planted their first Merlot vines that was soon followed by others. Three years later, they harvested and produced their first vintage and early in 2008, their retail store first opened its doors.
Daniel Lenko Estate Winery is owned and operated by Daniel Lenko, a first generation Canadian whose roots extend all the way to Ukraine. In 1947, his grandparents and his father William arrived in Ontario and settled in Beamsville, where they bought a fruit farm. Over time, they began growing vines, eventually converting the farm into a vineyard. Growing up on a farm/vineyard, Daniel developed passion for agriculture and viticulture, so when he opened up the Daniel Lenko Estates Winery in 1999 together with his father William, it was a natural transition that was in works for decades. Daniel already had all the skills necessary to manage a vineyard, but to make great wines, he consulted with winemaker Thomas Laszlo. Today, Daniel oversees the entire operation – looking after the vineyard and its maintenance, harvest assessment, winemaking, production and marketing. The winery also employes one full-time, one part-time and seasonal staff.
Château des Charmes – literally translated to ‘House of Charms’ or loosely into ‘Charming House’, is a winery owned and operated by the Bosc family. It was originally established by Paul Bosc, who had the foresight of planting vines solely belonging to the Vitis Vinifera family (European vines) as opposed to the endemic Vitis labrusca or Vitis riparia, thought to have a peculiar taste. By doing so, in 1978 he established the first commercial Canadian winery growing 100% Vitis Vinifera and can thus be considered the forefather of today’s booming Canadian wine industry. For this, he was awarded the prestigious Order of Canada, by which coincidently becoming the 1st winemaker to receive such an award.