Yearly Archives: 2011

  • NiAGara Farm Heroes and Agvocates: Jens Gemmrich of Frogpond Farm winery

    Jens Gemmrich, proprietor of Frogpond Farm winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

    If Jens Gemmrich could have one do-over, it would be his winery’s namesake.

    The pond behind Gemmrich’s home and Frogpond Farm winery store is a beacon for jumpy amphibians, deer and all kinds of other wildlife.

    But the watery hole that Gemmrich dug after purchasing his Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard in 1996 is a magnet for something else.

    Something that does this grape grower, winemaker and veritable jack of all trades no favours in his sometimes fickle line of work.

    “In the winter, you have all this cold air sitting here. It creates a frost pocket,” Gemmrich lamented. “Those years when it’s cold, we get a lot of damage.

    “It seemed like a good idea — like you can do a lot with heavy equipment — but at the end of the day, you don’t improve anything.”

    The German-born Gemmrich, who once served as winemaker at Stonechurch Vineyards, isn’t about to erect a towering wind machine or two to help his Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Vidal vines cope, either. At $30,000 a pop, it’s an expense this craft winery operator, who does just about everything himself — he’s even a cooper — can’t justify for his 10-acre plot.

    But then, Gemmrich eschews all the trappings of conventional viticulture. As the proprietor of Niagara’s original certified organic winery, Gemmrich refuses to spray, over-mechanize or do anything against the forces of nature for the sake of his livelihood.

    In those cold years when the pond wreaks its havoc, he cuts his losses. In 2003, that meant writing off his entire harvest.

    “There was never any question,” Gemmrich said about going organic. “Living here, you don’t want to expose your children to (chemicals).”

    Gemmrich comes from a farming family in southern Germany. They worked their vineyard there with chemicals, he said, and after reading all the warnings on the product labels, he became convinced there was a better way.

    Being the first to do without those chemical helpers in Niagara, however, meant that it took some convincing for others to get on board with Gemmrich’s early earth-conscious crops.

    “The first crop I grew, there was no interest in bottling a separate organic wine,” he said. “There was a lot of resistance.”

    Some of Frogpond Farm’s vintages. Gemmrich also presses white and red
    non-alcoholic organic grape juice.

    Industry folk doubted Niagara’s climate would be conducive to organic grape growing. The heat and humidity would leave the berries vulnerable to disease and needing to be doused with a chemical remedy.

    Gemmrich never bought that story.

    “There are challenges with everything. It’s not harder than growing conventionally. You have problems and you have to come out with creative solutions for it,” he said.

    His most intensive work comes at the beginning of the growing season, as he sets up his vines to prevent issues from arising later in the crop cycle. He uses compost instead of artificial nitrogen as fertilizer to produce strong, healthy vines. He keeps the canopy of leaves open to keep moulds at bay and let in life-sustaining light and air.

    “Some people catch every cold because they have a weak immune system so they buy every cold medicine but they still get sick,” Gemmrich said. “If you have a problem with fungus, it’s because the plant is weak so nature recycles it. We try to keep it strong so nature doesn’t recycle it.”

    Others didn’t buy in to Gemmrich’s organic vision because they questioned the whole concept, even felt threatened by it because it could give his wines an edge, he recalled.

    Jens Gemmrich in his vineyard. 

    “What are you afraid of? We’re a 10-acre farm,” he said. “We don’t do this for marketing. We do it because we actually think it’s the right way of doing things.”

    Ten years after after Gemmrich’s first vintages were released in 2001, Niagara boasts biodynamic wineries — think of it as hyper-organic farming, combining agriculture and astronomy, in addition to working in harmony with the planet — and others proclaiming the use of organic methods in their tipple production.

    Having been an Opa of the movement locally, Gemmrich is just happy to see such production methods finally taking root here.

    “It makes me proud of myself sometimes,” he said. “It’s like you stepped on a stone, it became loose and it started rolling downhill and you had a movement happening.”

    Since flooding Frogpond — and Niagara — with organic vintages, Gemmrich said he gets customers on his doorstep who embrace organic as a lifestyle for themselves. Others just want good wine.

    When it comes to producing that, Gemmrich is as steadfast about how to do it as he is when it comes to his growing methods.

    “Wines have become boring,” Gemmrich said, standing in his wine shop as his flock of Guinea hens scampered through the yard outside.

    Some wine regions in the world try to make their vintages taste like others, despite different growing conditions and soil, he explained. They grow the same grapes the world over, ferment them with the same yeasts and do little different throughout the entire winemaking process.

    “There’s similarly grown Chardonnay in Australia, California, Canada. We use the same techniques, the same oak barrels and that doesn’t make sense to me,” Gemmrich said. “I think it’s the wrong approach to winemaking. Why do we want to make it the same? We should be able to grow Riesling here and people should be able to recognize it as Ontario Riesling.”

    Growing organically, without artificial interference, helps produce wine true to its Ontario roots, he added. That’s also why he limits his production to just a few varieties that do well in Niagara’s climes.

    “If we try to do French wine… we’re always going to be 1,000 years behind,” he said.

    Given that Frogpond is Gemmrich’s handiwork, from the farming to the winemaking, is there one hat he’d rather wear over another?

    Gemmrich also raises chickens, Guinea hens and sheep on his farm for his
    own consumption. No farm is complete without animals, he said. 

    Some days, he’d take simply being the winemaker. Others, well, it just depends on what task is demanding his attention, he said with a smile.

    “I’d love to be a farmer right now because you are done for the year,” he said, having just finished up several 100-hour work weeks that came with the grape harvest and pressing. “It’s dark early and your day is done.

    “But in the winery, there’s a light you can turn on.”


  • Peach Tree
  • Canning for grades and the greater good

    Some of the jars of pears picked by the Garden of Eating — Niagara and canned by tourism and
    hospitality specialist high skills major students from the Niagara Catholic District School Board.
    The 160 jars will be donated to Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold. 

    There’s a good chance Mike Gretzinger’s students will never look at a pear the same way again.

    After spending a good part of their fall canning 800 pounds of them, there’s an even better chance these tourism and hospitality specialist high skills major protegees have a serious hate-on for the humble fruit.

    And I fear, it’s all my fault, since the pears, and the life lesson in canning they provided, came compliments of The Garden of Eating — Niagara and a team of volunteers who spared these pears from going to waste in the orchard so they could be eaten by people who wanted and needed them.

    “It was exhausting. It was just the same,” lamented Lindsay Nardangeli , a Grade 12 Denis Morris Catholic High School student.

    Their kitchen classroom routine with the bell-shaped fruit consisted of peeling, coring, cutting, poaching.


    For weeks.

    “It’s really messy and sticky,” added classmate Katelyn Trudel. “You’d only do it 15 minutes and it felt like three hours.”

    For much of the fall, the small class of senior students has toiled away in a kitchen at the Holiday Inn and Suites Parkway Convention Centre in St. Catharines, canning a ton of food.

    Think 70 bushels of tomatoes, 15 bushels of peaches, 20 of beans, 10 of Roma beans and hundreds more pounds of beets, onions and hot peppers.

    “I just say yes when a farmer asks if we want them,” Gretzinger said.

    In addition to teaching his students the art of preserving, Gretzinger is giving them a lesson in philanthropy, too.

    Everything the class cans, including the pears for the Garden of Eating — Niagara, is donated to local food banks and other social organizations, including the Salvation Army.

    That made the repetitive, labour intensive classes bearable for Denis Morris student Josh Wallace.

    “Your conscience feels better,” he said.

    “You feel great because you’re helping someone eat,” interjected classmate Shallyne Coelho.

    That’s something they’ll do again next month when the class tackles its next major culinary assignment: preparing a turkey dinner and all the fixings for 800 people at the Salvation Army’s annual Christmas dinner on Dec. 14.

    Still, despite being grateful there’s nothing left to seal in jars this semester, the students did admit their foray into food preserving gave them new perspective on eating well. Some of them said they would even can again for pleasure instead of grades.

    “It tastes cleaner, fresher,” Wallace said.

    The students aren’t the only ones learning, either. A chef by trade, Gretzinger said he hadn’t done much canning until moving to the head of the classroom six years ago. The experience has inspired even more lesson ideas for his students.

    “The last few years, we’ve done more and more,” he said. “Even myself, I’m learning more as we do it. Now I want to get out to a farm and work .. so they can see where (the food) comes from.”


  • Peach Tree
  • Getting to know grape growers: Trevor Falk

    The following post was supplied by the Grape Growers of Ontario, which is doing a series of videos on the men and women growing the grapes that make Ontario’s spectacular wines. To help share the stories, Eating Niagara is donating space on this website.

    Trevor Falk, a Niagara-on-the-Lake grape grower with his son.

    By Grape Growers of Ontario
    “You might say that wine runs in my blood. In the 1930s, my grandfather was one of the first farmers to recognize the Niagara region’s grape-growing potential and in the 1970s, my parents became pioneers in the industry. Even as a boy, I looked forward to the day I’d take over the family operation, and I’ve already got plans for the fourth generation of Falks”.

    Trevor Falk is an Ontario grape grower from Niagara-on-the-Lake, featured in the latest video from the Grape Growers of Ontario. The videos have followed the grape growing season from early spring in Prince Edward County with grower Debra Marshall, through berry formation at the Funk Farms, veraison with Kevin Watson, beginning of harvest with the Mitchell family and now take a look at harvest with Trevor Falk.

    Get to know our Ontario grape growers and see what goes into growing the grapes that produce the Ontario wines you love on Facebook. 

    Click here to vist Getting to know grape growers: Gord Mitchell
    Click here to vist Getting to know grape growers: Kevin Watson
    Click here to visit Getting to know grape growers: The Funk Family


  • Peach Tree
  • More than a fleeting affair: my love letter to a bottle of Sauvignon blanc

    The Foreign Affair Winery’s 2009 Sauvignon blanc.

    I hate Sauvignon blanc.

    Well, as rule, I do. I have a feeling this is an admission that will leave me blackballed or labelled some kind of heathen among the wine wizzes in the world or at least here in Niagara.

    As a mostly beer girl and self-professed Riesling fanatic, it’s not Sauv blanc’s bone-dry, cheek-clenching acidic ways that put me off.

    It’s just that every time I have a glass I’m reminded of my cat Otis. He’s a good cat, who occasionally does bad things. And, quite frankly, I don’t want to be reminded of the big O’s missteps outside his litter box when I’m quaffing vino.

    Wine should be an escape, it’s flavours, aromas and sensations as it moves from glass to tongue to gullet to belly and beyond, taking me elsewhere: a fresh cut lawn, a fruit orchard, a living room warmed by a fire. The last place I want to be transported to with every sip is back to the harsh reality that is Otis’s litter box or occasionally my bath mat, depending on his mood. It’s a smell that seems synonymous with this varietal with roots in France’s Loire Valley and now the poster tipple of New Zealand.

    Yes, there’s Sauvignon blanc’s vegetal characteristics worthy of being lauded but I’m usually too grossed out to really appreciate them or any other pleasantries it may boast.

    Until now.

    Last weekend, I lucked out and got on the guest list for The Foreign Affair Winery’s release of its 2009 vintages.

    Foreign Affair is tucked away behind the government buildings on the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre campus, a backdrop for some spectacular wedding photos and some of the most fascinating agriculture research in the world.

    Foreign Affair is known for its Amarone-style wines, in which some of the grapes go through a partial drying process called appassimento. It concentrates the sugar and flavours in the berries and has its roots in Italy.

    Last weekend, my husband and I made our rounds through this winery with a man cave feel — a classy man cave with a touch of whimsy, thanks to the faux moose head that greeted us at the door — and I had my curiosity, piqued long ago by stories I read about this place, sated.

    And, after tasting five new releases, the handiwork of winemaker Ilya Senchuk complemented by morsels prepared by Chef Jan-Willem Stulp, it was the Sauvignon blanc I loved the most. Not the Riesling, though I did leave with a bottle of that, too. No, it was a bottle of my (usually) most hated varietal that I reached for first before heading to the cash register.

    In my usual bumbling inarticulate way when talking about something I know so little about — c’mon, you hadn’t figured out yet that I’m a little green when it comes to my whites and reds — I managed to spit out how much I liked the Sauvignon blanc to Senchuk.

    “It’s really good,” I struggled to find the poetic adjectives that wine writers always have at the ready.

    And finally, I just said what I meant and meant what I said. “Thank you for making a Sauvignon blanc that I can drink.”

    Turns out, Foreign Affair’s edition, with a quarter of the grapes having gone through the appassimento drying process, has no reminders of Otis. It was its hints of vanilla and minerality that stood out. No cut grass, either. Just goodness, unlike any other Sauv blanc I’ve ever tasted.

    That’s exactly what Senchuk was trying achieve. He was trying to get away from that New Zealand style that seems so pervasive, even here in Niagara, he explained.

    Works for me because for the first time ever, a bottle of Sauvignon blanc now has residency in my wine rack.

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t love Sauvignon blanc now. But it is safe to say, I love Foreign Affair’s.