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Growing grapes was in the cards

was in the cards for new GGO chairman

March 7, 2008  By Jim Meyers

It was predestined that
39-year-old Bill George Jr., current chairman of the Grape Growers of
Ontario, would take over the family grape farm in Niagara.

Bill George Jr. is the longest serving director on the current Grape Growers of Ontario marketing board and is its new chairman. “I’ve seen it and I understand it,” he says about his new role.

It was predestined that 39-year-old Bill George Jr., current chairman of the Grape Growers of Ontario, would take over the family grape farm in Niagara. After all, he’s the only son in a family that traces its ancestral roots in Niagara back seven generations to an original United Empire Loyalist land grant. It was always expected he would take over the operation from his now 80-year-old father, whom he is named after.

That decision was made at a crucial time in the late 1980s when Bill Jr. was in his early 20s. The Ontario grape and wine industry was in transition and its future uncertain. There were surpluses of wine grapes, European countries were attacking Canadian tariffs that protected the domestic industry, and the free trade agreement signed between Canada and the U.S. in 1987 threatened to flood Canada with inexpensive California wine. The future of Canada’s grape and wine industry hung in the balance with free trade its potential death knell.

“I wanted to cover my bases,” Bill Jr. says, referring to a decision he made to return to university and take a business course after earning a degree in agriculture from the University of Guelph. “Why not? Grapes were being ripped out and replanted and there was nothing to do for three years.”

That’s how much time it would take to get back into production through a government-funded removal and replanting program that growers negotiated after the free trade agreement in order to jump start the modern Ontario grape and wine industry.

He regrets not completing the third year of his business administration degree course at Brock University in St. Catharines, but has no regrets about answering his father’s call to come back to the family farm, located on the shore of Lake Ontario in the town on Lincoln, west of St. Catharines. For years, it had been a tender fruit and apple farm that at one time shipped apples to England in wooden barrels. Grapes, some planted by his grandfather, were part of the crop mix and became the main crop when a decision was made to invest in an uncertain, but potentially lucrative, future.

Before the pullout and replanting program, a handful of growers – including Bill’s dad – had been experimenting with the fickle, higher quality European vinifera varieties. But as long as consumers continued to buy sparkling wines made from lower quality lubrusca juice grapes, there was no real incentive to change.

Transition to grape growing
Tastes changed and so did the industry. The George farm, comprised of almost 100-acres of clay loam soil, is largely planted in high-quality, mostly white, vinifera Chardonnay grapes that are sold under contract to Jackson-Triggs and some Riesling grapes to Cave Springs Winery. And while the George vineyard isn’t singled out on any Jackson-Triggs label, it’s one of the vineyards mentioned in the literature on the gold label reserve wines.

The Georges were one of the first in Niagara to plant hard-to-grow Sauvignon Blanc some 15 years ago. The variety is now part of a mix that includes Chardonnay and Riesling, plus some Vidal (for icewine) and red Merlot and Bordeaux varieties.

“It’s a tough variety for our winters, but we do better here on the lake,” Bill Jr. says, describing his farm’s Sauvignon Blanc planting. Prevailing westerly winds off Lake Ontario keep the temperature warmer in winter than in other parts of Niagara and for that reason he has not invested in costly wind machines as many other growers have done. 

“We’ve had winter injury but not a total crop loss. We’ve been fortunate.”

Long rows of grapes stretch almost one kilometre from Lake Ontario to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) on the farm that’s one of a dwindling number of
original land grants in Niagara, presented by the Crown to families loyal to Britain following the American War of Independence in 1776. Originally, it was in the Culb name, now written as Culp, a surname that is widespread in the area. The framed deed hangs on the living room wall of his father’s house. The name change came when his paternal grandfather, a Barnardo orphan who came to Canada from Great Britain after the First World War, married into the Culp family that had already been farming the land for four generations.

“I’d better not be the one to screw up,” he says.

Bill, who is married to Leslieann, hopes the lineage will continue through their young children, his son, Will, 12, and daughter Kate, eight. He also has two sisters who continue to have an interest in the farm through their children.

Stepping up to chairman  
This year, Bill Jr. handed the day-to-day operation to his nephew Sean Bartlett, 24 (another deep-rooted family name in Niagara) and two other nephews, 22-year-old twins Chris and Corey Barrett, so he can devote the time needed to carry out his new responsibilities as chairman of the GGO. It’s a step-up from his role as vice-chair that he’s held for the past four years, and has meant an upgrade from a simple cell phone to a BlackBerry, the new office he wears on his hip.

Bill Jr.’s been a director for 12 years, which makes him the longest serving member on the current board of directors. Past chairman, Ray Duc, announced at the spring annual meeting that he wouldn’t seek re-election to the eight-member marketing board. Instead, he asked growers to support Bill Jr. in his election bid.

Over the four years that Ray Duc was chairman -– and Bill Jr. was vice-chairman – the two further developed a close friendship that originally began when they were elected junior board directors in the early 1990s.

“He brought me up to speed quickly,” Ray Duc said, referring to the help he received from Bill Jr. when elected chairman in 2003, following a six-year hiatus from the GGO. “He was always helpful and supported me in what I wanted to do. We shared the same interest to help the industry.”

As for his own vision, Bill Jr. wants the sale of VQA (Vintner’s Quality Alliance) wine sales to grow so the benefits can trickle down to growers, especially since the wines are 100 per cent made from Ontario grapes.

“I want to see that market share grow through more market access for VQA wineries and the LCBO pulling more VQA product through its (store) system,” he says.

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