An Interview with Gordon Robert of Stoney Ridge Estate Winery in Vineland, Ontario

By Donna Marrin

Tell us a bit about the history of Stoney Ridge Estate Winery. Stoney Ridge was founded in 1985, at a time when the Ontario wine industry was just in its infancy. In fact, Stoney Ridge was only the 18th winery to be licensed in Ontario. The  winery was founded by winemaker, Jim Warren, who was committed to “making small amounts of the very best wine possible from Ontario grapes.” Innovative products such as Canada’s first unoaked Chardonnay and Cranberry Fruit wine captured the attention of the public, while award-winning classic varietals such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Cabernet Franc boosted the winery’s industry status. Jim’s efforts were officially recognized when he was awarded Winemaker of the Year in 1997. By 1999, Jim was ready to retire and the winemaking was turned over to Liubomir Popovici, the former chief winemaker for Romania’s largest wine and spirits producer. For the next decade, the winery continued to grow and make wines which honored the viticultural excellence and winemaking expertise begun by Jim. In 2009, with expanding competition in the Niagara region, Stoney Ridge decided it wanted to strengthen and revitalize its brand. That’s where I came in. I brought a fresh approach to the winemaking that comes from my experiences making wine all over the world. Today, Stoney Ridge is one of Canada’s most award-winning wineries, offering a wide array of VQA red and white wines, including our Warren Classic series (dedicated to our founder Jim Warren) and the new Excellence series, which I debuted last year to reflect the “best of the best” wines.

Tell us about a learning curve you’ve encountered in running a winery? Frankly, the learning curve has been pretty intense. The first thing I had to do when I came on board was a full assessment of the current inventory. I needed to get a clear idea of what wines we had bulk and in bottle and do a sensory and analytical assessment to understand the quality and character of each wine. Then the challenge was to find a balance between the style of wine that marketing wanted and my own wine style. For example, I like to make new world style wines with a splash of the old world and we had to find a way to make that balance with what the public will love and buy. I also encountered some challenges in getting familiar with the equipment and the production team. It took some time to make sure that we had the equipment and the team to run the business most efficiently. But in the end, I think we got it all right. We have a great team that puts out award-winning wines that the critics and the everyday wine drinker love!

Which wines are your personal favourites? I like ALL wines but my favorites are constantly changing. Essentially, depending on the wine region in the world where I am making wines, they really pick themselves. For example, when I was working in Provence, France, my favorite red was Syrah and my favorite white, Vermentino. Now that I am in the cooler climate of Niagara, my favorite whites are Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and my favorite reds are Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.

Describe a day in the life… There is no “typical” day in my world. The time of year really dictates what I spend my time doing. Crush time is especially fun and, if it could always be crush, I would love it because that’s really when I get to make the wines. Most days, I start around 6 a.m. by doing a quick sensory analysis of all the wines. Then my production team shows up at about 7 a.m., and are given their morning work orders. As much as you try to plan out your day, sometimes the fermentation of the wine can take a completely different direction than you plan, so you’re constantly adjusting your daily plan. I try to sneak in a meeting with my assistant to make sure we’re on the same page for what‘s important. Then we de-stem, crush, and press about 30 tons of grapes. In between all this, we’re trying to fit in bottling, doing chemical analysis on the wines, writing tasting notes, looking at the barrel program to determine what is going into and out of barrels, and meeting with grape growers. Depending on equipment failures, we can be doing this right through until 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning. Let’s just say, the sleeping bag in my office gets some pretty good use during crush season!

How do you find balance between your business life and your home life? My dad always said, “Work hard so you can play hard!” That’s the plan I try to follow. The biggest part of finding balance is leaving the work behind when you go home. Sometimes you’re only home for a few hours each night and if you don’t leave it behind at the end of the day, you don’t have any energy left for your personal life. Even during the busiest times, I always make sure I leave the business behind at the end of the day. I have a wonderful six-year-old daughter, Ella, so I have to find balance. I only have a few more years before she no longer wants to hang out with “daddy.”

What’s the best part of running a winery? What’s your least favourite task? The best part of running a winery? Well, who are we kidding? It’s a great social environment with the perks of having lots of great wine. What’s not to love?? I often have the pleasure of interacting with our customers during wine tours. Most people know very little about how wine is made or how to drink it. There’s a certain snobbery to the wine business. All the glass swirling and sniffing makes the average person uncomfortable. But I like to dispel with the snobbery when we do tours and make sure they have fun while at the same time learning how to really appreciate what they’re drinking. I love watching them go from just wine drinkers to wine enthusiasts! As for my least favorite task... well, let’s just say email is not my friend.

Can you recommend a business tool or resource that you find helpful? I think the best business tool in any industry is your peers. For me, my best resource is other winemakers. There’s a really good “brotherhood” of winemakers in Niagara. We rely on each other for finding out what’s new in the industry and even for sourcing things like grapes, yeasts and bottles. We’re also a highly competitive bunch, so we’re constantly challenging each other to make better wines.

What is the key to the success of Stoney Ridge Estate Winery? The key to our success comes from the passion and our sense of “family.” Everybody at the winery shares the same passion for wine, winemaking and the Ontario wine industry. And just like any family, we all have to pull together and work hard to make the winery a success. It all translates into a great experience for our customers. When they come to visit our winery, they really feel that family environment and passion come through. We’re having fun, so they have fun. We are passionate about our wines, so they get excited to try them. That’s what makes us successful!

Are there any upcoming events or tours available? We offer tours and tasting all year long at Stoney Ridge. It’s a really great way enjoy a day in Niagara! In addition, we are continuously updating our Events Calendar with new, exciting events. In July, we will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the winery and the success of our new Excellence series wines with my Annual Winemakers Dinner. This is a chance for our customers to spend an evening enjoying some of the great cheeses from our artisanal cheese boutique, as well as an extraordinary dinner, perfectly paired with each of our Excellence wines and icewines. We’re also planning some exciting experiences for crush time in September, when customers will get to work along side me and the production team to pick grapes, press them and try their hand at winemaking. There’s no shortage of fun reasons to come visit us!

 

About Gordon Robert For as long as he can remember, Gordon has had a love of viticulture. He began making wine at a young age with his uncle and has been hooked ever since. After discovering this passion, Gordon pursued his interests across the globe. He has had the opportunity to work with many world-renowned winemakers and experienced both new and old world winemaking techniques. His first crush was at De Bortoli Winery in the Yarra Valley, Australia, which was only the beginning, as he then worked in New Zealand as well as the Provence, Burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France. After a world of experience, Gordon chose to attend Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute to widen his opportunities within the field and receive formal instruction in winemaking. While at Brock, Gordon worked with world-renowned researcher, Dr. Andrew Reynolds on grape vine irrigation and icewine research. He then carried on to do his thesis with Dr. Gary Pickering on the influence of lactic acid bacteria on the oral sensations and mouth feel of red wine, which was published in the Journal of Sensory Studies in 2006. In the last few years, Gordon brought his interests back to the Niagara Region where he has worked with some of the most well known wineries such as Le Clos Jordanne, Inniskillin, Jackson Triggs, Fielding Estates and Peller Estates. He has been involved in winemaking as well as vineyard management and both have contributed to his expertise and his ability to produce exceptional wines. Gordon has a long list of accomplishments. In 2006 he received the Ontario Hostilery Award, which named him the most promising winemaker in Ontario. And since then, he has certainly made good on his promise. His wines have also won numerous awards including the 2004 Gold Medal for Syrah at the Paris Wine Show and the award for the Best Chardonnay in the in the World while working at Le Clos Jordanne. Most recently, Stoney Ridge wines received the most awards for one winery in the history of the All Canadian Wine Championship. Gordon looks forward to the year ahead and is committed to continuing the tradition of excellence at Stoney Ridge as it plans for its 25th Anniversary. Stoney Ridge Estate Winery is located at: 3201 King St., Vineland, ON, L0R 2C0 Tel: (905) 562-1324  Toll-Free: 1-866-778-6639  Fax: (905) 562-7777. For tour reservations or event information, please call Karen Gill,  Director of Retail & Events at  905-562-1324 Ext. 22. To visit us online or to order one of our fine wines: www.stoneyridge.com

By Adam

July 15, 2011