Food & Drink - Wine - Spring Awakening
New life stirring in the County
By Chris Waters
“It is finally time to test myself and find out if I can call the shots. It is time to see what kind of wines I will make.” Jay Johnston, Keint-He Winery and Vineyards
Having cut his teeth as an assistant at high-profile Niagara wineries, such as Le Clos Jordanne and Hidden Bench Vineyard & Winery, Jay Johnston is settling into the rhythms of Prince Edward County winegrowing with the same zeal for making small batch wines with a sense of place. He is three months into his new position at Keint-He Winery and Vineyards, where the talented winemaker is quick to name both the positives and negatives of working in the region.
“There is serious potential to make terroir wines in the County,” says Johnston, who graduated from Niagara College’s winery and viticulture technician program as a mature student in 2004. “When you taste through a range of the region’s wines, of varying quality levels, you can sense there is a consistent character. The question is how do you capture it affordably and make top-quality wines.”
There are unique challenges of farming in Prince Edward County compared to the Niagara vineyards where he is more familiar, he explains.
At Keint-He, Johnston assumes control of four distinct vineyard plots that are home to some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in the area. These sites also rank as some of the highest density plantings — meaning that vines are tightly spaced to compete with one another to encourage fruit quality by restricting yields.
He says he is looking forward to growing to know and better understand the estate properties, namely Foxtail, Big Lake, Little Creek Benway and Little Creek Closson, adding that he believes vineyards, like people, each have their own personality: “both the positive and the more difficult sides,” he comments.
To keep a better handle on the sites, Johnston is looking for ways to harness technology by seeking out equipment that can be employed in the rugged terrain in order to maximize the potential of the vineyards.
“As winemaker, my job is to bring a quality-focused technical vision to the project,” says Johnston, who is quick to add that he firmly believes that technology and terroir can co-exist. “Technology can provide the 500 thread-count sheets that keeps the terroir cosy and comfortable.”
That’s not to say that machines will rule the roost at Keint-He; they will simply help the vineyard team give the vineyards as much time and attention as possible during the short growing season.
“These are still pioneering days,” Johnston says of the County’s emerging industry. “There is so much to learn on the vineyard and winemaking side. When I go back to Niagara I now see it as a mature industry, which is funny because when I was working there, I considered it this young street-fighting punk compared to the established wine regions of the world.
“But here in the County? This is the brave new world.”
It is also the place where he has set his sights on starting the next chapter of his career. After paying his dues working at Le Clos, Hidden Bench and at Andrew Peller Ltd., where he worked on wines produced at Hillebrand Winery and Thirty Bench Wine Makers, he jumped at the opportunity to assume the reins at Keint-He.
The size of the winery and its strong Pinot Noir focus (the famously temperamental grape accounts for 85 per cent of the vineyard plantings, with 10 per cent Chardonnay and smaller amounts of three other varieties compromising the rest) proved to be attractive. But it was the passion and dedication of winery owners Ron Rogers and his son Bryan that sealed the deal.
“Very few opportunities come up that meet your winegrowing philosophy, that have the necessary commitment on both the financial and emotional side in order to produce wines worthy of discussion,” he says.
While working at Hidden Bench, Johnston says he came to appreciate the commitment of owner Harald Thiel, who would walk the vineyard whenever possible and monitor its progress. Thiel’s passion was infectious and created the proper workplace conditions to make premium wine.
“I remember asking Harald, even with the dismal success rate of restaurants, if it wouldn’t be easier for him just to open one with a great wine list instead of making the investment in the winery,” Johnston says, with a smile.
It was also at Hidden Bench where Johnston learned what could prove to be his most valuable lesson for making the leap to the County. After founding winemaker J-M Bouchard left to make wine in the Okanagan Valley, Johnston watched as South African vintner Marlize Beyers assumed control and set about changing cellar practices and winemaking styles in order to suit her vision and skill set.
He says he took mental notes as Beyers took over production, knowing this insight would be valuable down the road.
He was right, even if he misjudged how far down the road he would need to travel to find the right fit at the right time to start his career.
“I have been diligent about my professional development,” he says. “It is finally time to test myself and find out if I can call the shots. It is time to see what kind of wines I will make.”
Chris Waters is the editor of Vines magazine.