The Story of Building Windrush Estate Winery in Canada

Written by Jan Benda, April 2020

It was Saturday afternoon of a beautiful spring day – time to celebrate the last wine season and get ready for a new one. My wife and I were sitting on the patio of Windrush Estate Winery with owners, Marilyn and John. Besides cheese and snacks, there was an open bottle of red wine on the table with four glasses. We talked a little about the vineyard and how plants were challenged to survive the cold Canadian winter.

Why did you get into the wine business?” I asked after a while. “It must be quite hard to grow grapes in Hockley Valley, a region that is not widely recognized for winemaking”.

            “Actually, it’s much harder than it looks”, said John. “But I like the challenge. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity. If life is organized around its purpose, then our life story can turn into something bigger, something that matters. Winemaking is a very old occupation and I see, with today’s technology, a potential for innovation and improvements”.

            There is no record that would mark the point in time when or how winemaking on Earth actually started. According to some myths, wine is the God’s greatest gift to man. Indeed, archeologists tell us that there was always some God in charge of wine production and its quality control. In Egyptian times, it was Osiris; in ancient Greece, this important office was held by Dionysus, son of Zeus. He was a real celebrity and his parties were legendary. At that time, wine was associated with all the good things life has to offer. Dionysus’ duties included not just drinking wine, setting schedules for wine fairs and festivals, organizing entertainment for the exclusive club of the Gods and other things, but also rewarding those winemakers who were doing a good job and punishing careless ones.

            Wine production has always been an important business. Over the centuries, winemaking has improved dramatically but, despite great technological advancements, the actual process is still full of secrets and magical alchemy similar to those in Dionysus’ times. We have no way of knowing how in those days the wine actually tasted, whether or not was as good as today’s standards.

            Not always does price reflect the quality; but the wine taste is always in relation to the reason for opening the bottle. Some people drink wine because they are thirsty, some others drink to forget, and some want to mark an occasion – to remember a special moment and celebrate life.

            There are many variables that affect the wine taste: from geography and soil composition to climate, seasonal weather, harvest, fermentation process, science, timing, the winemaker’s expertise and artistry etc. These all are important aspects; but what makes the actual difference in winemaking is a very special relationship between the human and the grape. As someone put it “…making good wine requires a set of unique skills but making a fine wine is an art”.   On top of it all, the taste is a subjective matter and everyone has their own personal preferences.

            Just because there is land available doesn’t mean it’s suitable for growing grapes. Hockley Valley, which is just about 100 km away from the Niagara region, is one of the most northern areas in North America where grapes are being grown for winemaking. 

            “This is an emerging wine region”, said John before sipping from his glass. Holding it up to eye level, he looks at the wine colour against the sun and then sniffs its aroma.  

            “The soil is just right here, and with our local climate seeming to be warming, I believe this is becoming a great place for certain types of grapes such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Franc. Hockley will nicely complement the Niagara region and, in a few years’ time, they will be famous together, you will see…..” said Marilyn. “Windrush is a boutique winery with the capabilities to control the whole process in detail from beginning to the end. John and I believe in quality over quantity. The idea is to start small, mastering each blend. We are not trying to do too much at once, especially when we are new to winemaking. It would be a mistake to skip the learning curve.  What is most important is that we have the best, experienced people, notably Jim Warren and Jonathan Boyle, working with us.”

            “We have to remember,” said John, “it takes at least seven years before the vineyard will mature. We have better years ahead of us”.

            “You might be right”, said my wife. “Time, as climate changes, might play in your favour”.

            Windrush Estate Winery was established a few years back and it’s already claiming its own place not just among Canadian winemakers but, more importantly, among those who appreciate good times with great wine. For John Pennie and Marilyn Field, the founders of Windrush Estate Winery, wine is not just a product to make and sell. For them, wine is a passion, their legacy. They are considering the existence of their winery long after they are gone.  This attitude is changing everything. The secret behind the winery’s success is not just deep knowledge and understanding of the four key elements of winemaking but keeping all of them in balance: not getting lost in details and keeping the winery and life of those continuing on in perspective.

            “Our vision”, said John, “is not the wishful dream or a roadmap to wealth.  It’s the compass navigating us through our life. Times are changing and we don’t want to be just bystanders. Climate is changing, the economy is changing, people are changing how they communicate.  There are so many issues that need action.  Our contribution to the world is to cultivate this piece of land and leave something behind for future generations”.

            “Besides”, said Marilyn, “whenever I’m free of winery duties, I like to dedicate my time to marginalized kids who are doing their best to make their life and their community better.”

            “Over the decades, you have done so much for thousands of kids”, said my wife, “I have a great respect for that. Do you have enough energy for all of that?”

            “We are too often absorbed in urgent decisions of the moment and we don’t always clearly see where our actions are leading us. We recognize and appreciate many of them only in retrospect. Sometimes that’s too late”, said Marilyn.

            Marilyn and John have built the winery from scratch. They started with a dream, an idea. Then came soil tests, research of the microclimate, experienced winemaker advice, writing a business plan, bringing investors on board, assembling the team of experts, establishing a vineyard, growing the grapevines, building production facilities, getting permits and certificates, putting together promotion material, etc.  It’s easy to see that great ingredients and exceptional preparation result in a great outcome. But it’s also necessary to get support from nature, from guys like Dionysus. The God of wine should not be infuriated. His gift should be taken with humility and gratefulness.

            The sun is going down, glasses are empty, the day is done.

            “It’s a pretty delicious wine”, said my wife.

            “Do you want to buy a bottle?” asked Marilyn. “We have some more in our wine cellar”.

– Jan Benda,  April 2020

Make a Donation

100% of your donation goes to help underprivileged children LEAD.