Disappointment and possibility in Canada's Niagara wine region
When my wife and I visited Ontario, Canada, last year—first Toronto, then Niagara Falls—we thought we should check out the area’s wine industry. It’s a region that’s long been famous for its ice wine—sweet wines made from grapes frozen on the vine—but lately, it’s been producing an increasing number of “regular” wines.
We started with dinner at a winery restaurant, at which the food and wine unfortunately paired well because both were overpriced and mediocre. For the next morning, we’d booked a small tour and found that we were the only people under 60 on the tour, save a young woman accompanying her mother. Were all the young people joyriding around wine country in their private cars? Or were they not going at all? The introductions and the guide’s ongoing remarks were hokey stuff. The sort of G-rated raunch—“I was married, once—and I’m never doing it again!”—that kept reminding me I was among the very few people under 60.
The tour was fun. And it looked like wine country. But I’m not sure it tasted like wine country. The trappings were there: vineyards, barrels, well-appointed rustic tasting rooms, full slates of red and white, bottles draped in medals which, somehow, find their way into nearly every tasting room I’ve ever seen.
But the wines themselves were underwhelming. I didn’t want them to be; I wanted to be impressed. I tried to put the best gloss on them. Wine glass half-full, if you will. But it was difficult. The whites were fine, as in, okay: simple, thin, lacking the texture, complexity, layers that set apart great wine. I had high hopes for the oaked chardonnay, which had spent something like two years in the barrel. It was more like they were gilding the wilted lily; it tasted like oaky, boozy water.
The reds, as is the case in most American wine regions outside of California and the Pacific Northwest, were rough. Similarly thin, but in addition, sour, tannic without fruit, astringent, underripe. One fellow Italian-American New Jerseyite poured her tasting glass out on the ground, and she wasn’t the only one. “Can anybody just make a decent merlot?” she asked in amused frustration. I wasn’t amused.
The climate, despite what all of the winemakers will tell you, is rough—valley or mountain air or microclimate or not. It’s so cold that many properties have special fans mounted out in the vineyards to force warmer air down toward the grapes. That’s the only way to ensure the grapes can yield even passable wine by the time harvest rolls around.
It’s no surprise that a type of wine which demands the cold—that famous ice wine—is the region’s specialty and original claim to fame. At almost every winery, we had to ask to taste them, probably because they’re pricey, but the tasting rooms did oblige. And it was a good thing they did, because ice wine was the one thing we took home.
While my visit to Ontario’s wine country left me less than gushing, I do believe there is some hope for the area’s winemaking prospects. At least, the experience of several U.S. states suggests that it’s possible.
Deregulation and Sip
Virginia and Maryland, two of the states in which I have lived and sampled a lot of locally produced wine, are non-negligible wine producers. In 2023, Virginia had the eighth-highest number of wineries among all U.S. states, and Maryland came in 15th.
Maryland wine is, in my experience, middling: in the same basket as the wine from Pennsylvania or New Jersey, or any number of other states with difficult climates or unsophisticated wine industries. The offerings consist largely of simple, sweet wines or mediocre attempts at bold California-style wines. Virginia was basically in that same basket not too long ago, too. (And it’s worth noting that in the 1960s, even California wine was widely considered inferior to that from the Old World.)
But a funny thing happened. Around the same time that interest in winemaking picked up, Virginia simplified its winery regulations, with a 1980 law regulating wineries as farms. A ban on direct shipment to consumers was lifted in 2003, and in 2007, after a few steps back, another farm winery act was passed, simplifying taxation and allowing farm wineries to make fuller use of their properties, especially for events, by preempting local zoning restrictions on such uses.
Maryland, with a not terribly different climate, has a tougher regulatory environment. Direct shipping of wine was only permitted in 2011. One writer related the general regulatory situation as of a few years ago: “Wineries were permitted to have tasting rooms in 2000 (subsequently improved with the Maryland Winery Modernization Act in 2010), to ship directly to consumers in 2011, and to sell at farmers markets in 2013.”
These are fairly recent changes which leave Maryland somewhere around 10-15 years “behind” Virginia. If you sampled Virginia wine 10 or 15 years ago, it would definitely resemble today’s Maryland wine more than it does now. California, once considered inferior itself, is decades ahead.
It can be tricky to differentiate true deregulation from rule changes which give the wine industry in particular more room to move and experiment. Both no doubt played a part in the United States’ most successful wine regions. The same is true of Ontario. Wine faces an unusually high tax there, for example, often cited as holding back growth. Only in late 2023 was a major reform of alcohol retailing announced—and then only to take effect by 2025—which ends province-owned store monopolies on wine and a brewery-consortium chain’s monopoly on beer. But because this may benefit larger producers, there are also promises to promote locally produced wine (and beer/cider) such as through shelf-space guarantees.
It’s definitely a chicken-and-egg story, but as Virginia’s wine industry grew, became freer and grew more, it attracted more talent, including consultants from California. At least a handful of Virginia’s wineries are now capable of producing top-tier wine. Octagon, the finest bottle offered by Barboursville Vineyards near Monticello, was served at the D.C. British embassy’s celebration of William and Kate’s royal wedding in 2011, and has a price to match: around $50 at the cheapest retailers and only up from there.
Winemaking as Manufacturing
A Virginia winemaker at a winery to whose wine club we belong told me that Maryland—and for that matter, Ontario—is just no good for wine. But he sounds a lot like the Niagara winemakers we spoke with, and like the Maryland winemakers who rep their wine regions. Is the proof of the vino in the drinking? Or is time of the essence?
None of this is to suggest that the agricultural considerations don’t matter. One of the keys, for example, is identifying and developing grapes and styles that work with the local climate, rather than trying to force the terroir to be California, or otherwise default to alcoholic grape juice. Virginia has a number of highly suitable grapes for its climate which have been refined over the years, by trial and error. This is a process of learning by doing which is impossible to shortcut. But it’s made much more possible by laws that encourage entrepreneurship.
Virginia, whose output could once have been dismissed as swill, is nearly there. Maryland is not there, nor is Niagara. But over time, perhaps experience will reveal that what appears to be an unsuitable or inhospitable climate is an artifact of not using the terroir properly, which in turn is a consequence of artificially dampening the industry’s ability to mature.
If this sounds a little bit like manufacturing, that’s because, in a lot of ways, the same principles are in operation. An industry is a body of accumulated knowledge. There is a reason the first electronics out of South Korea, or even Japan, were junky, while today a “made in Korea” or “made in Japan” stamp is a mark of high quality. Ditto “Napa Valley.” Maybe one day, “Niagara” or “Maryland” will be, too.
Friendly laws, raw talent and accumulated experience can together produce something almost like magic. You can almost begin to transcend circumstances and conditions; you can almost squeeze water from a rock. Or maybe catch lightning in a wine bottle.
Knowledge doesn’t conquer all. What is possible diverges from what is profitable or scalable. On X, I recently had an interesting exchange with someone from Missouri, over whether his state could ever make good wine. He said no; I wondered whether they were just behind on that learning-by-doing curve. He countered that the state’s wine industry is over 100 years old. So maybe not.
But when we think we’re looking at a failure, we may well be looking at an infant industry at the beginning of a long, seemingly improbable climb.