Chance brought South African winemaker Marlize Beyers to Niagara. She immigrated with her husband when an Ontario engineering firm recruited him. The former assistant winemaker at Flagstone Winery in Somerset, South Africa worked one summer and harvest at Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate before signing on with Flat Rock Cellars.“I started at Flat Rock in 2005 and was the only person in the winery. There was no one to show me any piece of equipment and I had to take ownership over someone else’s wines,” Beyers explains. “As a result, I feel like it is a part of me now.
“I am very passionate about the vineyard — you get to know a vineyard so well. Every year you learn more about them,” she continues. “Winemaking is always a challenge — it’s never static. There’s always a new thing on the horizon that you can explore.”
Prior to settling in Niagara, Beyers worked on vintages in Bordeaux and Germany as well as her native South Africa. At home, she worked closely with celebrated winemaker Bruce Jack, whose free-spirited approach saw him produce wines from regions all across South Africa.
That experience has led Beyers to develop a number of new labels at Flat Rock. Perhaps her strongest influence has been on the extension of the winery’s popular Twisted label, an aromatic white blend, to include Red Twisted and Seriously Twisted, a barrel-fermented white wine that includes a percentage of Pinot Noir pressed to be clear juice in the blend.
She has also introduced a new reserve tier to the winery’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production, starting with the 2006 Reserve Chardonnay and the 2007 Reserve Pinot. “You could make one Chardonnay and one Pinot and be happy with that, I guess,” Beyers says. “But there’s the potential to do so much more.
“At some point, Jillian, our marketing manager, stopped us from doing anything else,” she continues. “But that’s the culture I learned working at Flagstone. We were making wines there that were winemaker’s wines. Every single new wine we came up with, Bruce (Jack) said ‘go ahead’ and there was a new bottle and a new label developed for it.”
Beyers’ enthusiasm for Ontario wine extends beyond Flat Rock’s estate in Jordan. “It’s fantastic to be part of such a young, dynamic industry,” she says. One of the things that makes Niagara unique is the absolute openness there is amongst winemakers.… There is a great camaraderie here. It makes you feel welcome and it makes you want to stay.”Richie Roberts benefited from working at some high-profile Niagara wineries prior to taking over winemaking operations at Fielding Estate Winery in Beamsville. He spent a summer at Le Clos Jordanne and worked a crush at Hillebrand Winery while attending the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, Brock University.
“I got into the (oenology and viticulture) program because I was looking for a career that was science-based and held my interest,” says Roberts, who was born and raised in St. Catharines. “I found wine really interesting and I’m glad I picked this profession because I love going to work every day. I think everybody should do something that they really, really like to do.”
After graduation in 2004, Roberts was selected by celebrated winemaker J.L. Groux to be assistant winemaker at Stratus Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake. At Stratus he became well-versed in premium wine production techniques and the systematic rigour of how to blend different batches of wine together to create something cohesive and complex.
“At Stratus, we were focusing primarily on making blended or assemblage wines,” he says. “We focused on making a red and a white that were expressions of each vintage. The best wines from each year went into that wine.”
Roberts sees blending as a great tool for winemakers. “It’s a particular part of winemaking that I really enjoy,” he says. That passion certainly comes through when he talks about Fielding’s new blended red wine, the 2006 Red Conception. The complex and enjoyable $18 wine is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Aglianico, an Italian variety that was planted by an independent grower.
Coming from a cooler year, the 2006 red shows a lot of spicy character. Roberts expects the 2007 Red Conception, which has yet to be blended, will offer consumers a different flavour profile and personality because of the dry, warm weather conditions.
“In Niagara we get a ton of vintage variation — one year can be remarkably different from the next, which I think is a little bit different from other wine growing regions in the world,” he says. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is a challenge, but we’re up to the challenge. We’re going to do our best.
“I haven’t been around the industry for a long time, but I’m told 2007 is the greatest vintage in the history of Niagara. You certainly see that in the quality of the wines — there are some great wines out there, mostly white wines at this time. We’ll see the reds down the road.”Stacie Domio grew up on a farm in Niagara and was interested in the wine industry before she was old enough to legally consume alcohol. She worked at a winery for her high school co-op placement before graduating from Niagara College’s winery and viticulture technician program.
“I was exposed to wine and winemaking from a very young age, From drinking Grandpa’s homemade Italian wine, to helping my parents craft fruit wines and unique blends from our own homegrown fruit,” recalls Domio, whose family’s farm is just around the corner from Rockway Glen.
She says it was supreme good fortune that Niagara College started its five-term, two-year diploma program just as she was graduating high school. “I had made the decision to have a career in the wine industry, but I wasn’t sure what aspect I wished to focus on.”
The college’s program immerses students in every area of the wine industry, from grape growing and viticulture, winemaking and fermentation chemistry and biology, to the end marketing and sales, she says. A co-op term sees them working in vineyard, winery and retail environments. “(It) seemed to be a custom fit for me.”
Upon graduation in 2003, Domio looked to expand her experience level so she could decide which aspect of the industry she wanted to focus on. She worked at Cave Spring Cellars, learning the ropes working under winemaker Angelo Pavan and assistant winemaker Ilia Suter.
“In the spring I worked in the vineyards, tending to the vines all season and through to harvest. As the harvest took off I then followed the grapes to the winery and took part in the crushing and pressing and entire winemaking process.”
In 2006, winemaker Jeff Innes recruited her to come to Rockway Glen Estate Winery as his assistant. Innes was dividing his time between the Niagara winery and The Grange of Prince Edward County Estate Winery in Prince Edward County. She was named head winemaker in the winter of 2007.
Rockway Glen farms 40 acres of vineyards, including parcels of Baco Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The project includes a winery, a championship golf course and banquet facility, with the winemaking facility located inside the clubhouse. The attractions also include a small wine museum featuring a collection of French antiques.
“The most important lesson I have learned is that wine can only be as great as the grapes it’s made from,” says Domio.Lydia Tomek says she followed her nose into the wine industry. The Welland, Ontario native started at the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), Brock University right after high school because she was drawn to the way wine was an attractive combination of creativity, chemistry, marketing and viticulture.
“I loved science and chemistry but I also loved the social side of life, history and tradition,” says the 27-year-old winemaker. “This was one industry where you could combine all of that.
“Originally I thought I was going to make perfume and work at Jabot (the fictitious cosmetics company from The Young and the Restless),” she says, lightheartedly recalling a childhood dream. “From a very young age, my nose was extremely sensitive. I was always sniffing things and making concoctions.”
Tomek, who graduated from Brock in 2004, credits her education and work placements at Thirteenth Street Wine Corp., Hillebrand Winery and Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate and the Vineland Research Station with giving her a broad range of experience.
She took the helm of the two St. Catharines wineries in August 2006 when she was 25 years old. “I made the wines and I made them clean,” she recalls, referring to keying in on making wines without any flaws or faults. “I was in survival mode.”
With that vintage as under her belt, Tomek began to embrace a more intuitive approach to winemaking to make wines with more character and complexity.
“I think CCOVI was perfect because it gave me the tools to troubleshoot, but there’s also a part where you want to let things go on their own,” she says. “I’m taking a more holistic approach to things.”
As a result Tomek encourages natural fermentation in her wines and spends a lot of time “listening” to learn how best to coax them into bottle.
“This building has this energy and this luck,” she says, referring to the Hernder winery facility. “I’d chill the tanks down to -2º and add sulphur (to prevent fermentation from starting) and despite those efforts it would just go (start fermenting). So, I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do, go grey? Or, listen to the wine and be creative.’”
Tomek shows her creativity in other ways. She has designed labels for her wines and went as far as rearranging the retail shop to better showcase the portfolio. “We’re taking baby steps,” she says. “Everyone in the end just wants the best for this place.”