In the most recent edition of his wine review newsletter, Michael Pinkus just barely avoids sounding like an editorialist from the anti-Chinese era of American yellow journalism (er, sorry) over Chinese money being used to buy up Ontario wineries to concentrate on icewine production for the Chinese market:
Hinterbrook, Joseph’s, Marynissen, Alvento, Lailey – all wineries in Niagara that have seen a major shake-up of ownership over the past few years; in fact it is reported that about 8 or so wineries have seen new ownership, which potentially can be seen as a good thing: a revitalized interest in wineries in Ontario’s largest growing area.
Now before I go any further, I’m sure this topic is going to spark some controversy and some of the comments I’ll make might come off a tad inflammatory, but hear me out over the next few paragraphs.
The majority of these wineries have been purchased by those of Oriental decent, namely Chinese interests, who see exporting Ontario Icewine back to the homeland as a path paved with gold … On the positive side this provides wineries and workers with jobs, another bonus is that Icewine is still being made here at home, instead of being falsified, forged, misappropriated, and wrongly-labelled elsewhere; and some longtime growers and owners are finally cashing-in after a lifetime of tilling the soil, and growing the grapes to make the wines we all know and love … but at what cost to the industry and reputation of Ontario wine?
We have been battling a snake-belly-low reputation for years – one that never lets us forget we put Baby Duck and inferior Baco Noirs (with apologies to Henry of Pelham) into bottle. Now we have some of our most beloved names (namely Lailey and Marynissen) seemingly on the brink of becoming Icewine houses. The fear here is that Ontario will be bought up by foreign interests and our wines moved off-shore, and most, if not all our grapes used for the purpose of making Icewine – for all intents and purposes killing off our quality domestic dry wine production.
These fears were realized once again in July after reports were confirmed that Lailey had been sold. They then closed their doors for “renovations”, subsequently re-opened to sell their remaining inventory, and netted their entire 2015 crop to be used in the production of Icewine … As the French say, “quel domage!” (what a pity) – those beautiful old vines of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, that fantastic Syrah, the Sauvignon Blanc … all the grapes that were lovingly nurtured so that they produced the fruit to make wines full of terroir / character will go into lifeless sweet Icewine. Frustration and dismay were echoed time and time again on Twitter and FaceBook with the hashtag “RIPLailey”.
No matter how we may try to romanticize them, wineries are just businesses. Not only businesses, but farm-related businesses. Farming is a hell of a way to earn a living — ask any farmer — so if someone comes up to your farm gate and offers you enough money to sell up … at least some farmers/grape growers/winery owners are going to take the cash and split. From the list of wineries that Michael lists, I’d had poor experiences at three of them … bad enough that I’ve never been back. If my experiences were typical of other customers, then selling up was a great thing for the former owners. Treat your customers like shit, don’t expect them to come back (but do expect them to mention you to all their friends).
If someone thinks that it’s worth the money to buy up these places and convert them to all-icewine production and concentrate on exporting to China, great. More wineries are opening every month, so the loss of a few under-performing (and customer-abusing) “old names” has more chance to improve the overall wine scene in Ontario.