Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

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Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh & Muskoka Lakes Winery


February 11, 2015
By Treena Hein

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 Management at Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh & Muskoka Lakes Winery asked themselves the question: What could they do with the farm’s white and light coloured cranberries? Photos courtesy of Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh & Muskoka Lakes Winery.

Innovation often comes out of a question. In the case of the Johnston’s, the question was: What could we do with our white and light-coloured cranberries? The bright red ones had always sold like hotcakes, snapped up fresh or frozen at the farm gate by the public or shipped to many processors and wholesalers. They’d been making and selling value-added red cranberry products for decades as well. In addition, by 2000, the Johnston’s were also making wine with their bright red berry gems. But could there be a value-added and unique product made from the perfectly good 20,000 pounds of white and pink cranberries that were harvested along with the bright red ones each year, the ones that were unmarketable only because customers perceive that white cranberries aren’t ripe?

Murray Johnston and his wife Wendy Hogarth are present day owners of Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh & Muskoka Lakes Winery. Murray is the son of Orville and June Johnston, who started the farm in 1950. Orville and June had purchased the land near Bala, Ont., in Muskoka, with plans to grow food, raise a family and make products with the fruit they grew. And all those plans became reality. They experimented with products over the years, and the farm now offers cranberry chutney, sauce, jam, chocolates, mincemeat, honey, tea, mulled spice mix, candles and more. Orville had a dream of establishing Muskoka – and Ontario – as a place where cranberry cultivation could boom, and that dream has come true. The nearby town of Bala is the “Cranberry Capital of Ontario” and has a huge cranberry festival each fall.

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As he reached adulthood, Murray remained keen to continue cranberry cultivation, so he studied agriculture at university. He also had a burning desire to see if his family’s cranberries could be made into wine, and to expand the agri-tourism potential of the farm. He met the perfect partner in Wendy, who had studied recreation and tourism at university and was a certified sommelier with a distillery business as part of her family heritage. As the years passed, they found ways to share the farm’s beauty – 27 acres of heritage cranberry varieties surrounded by 300 acres of protected wetland and forest – by attracting visitors to a gift shop. And all the while, they both studied wine. Murray built on hours spent talking with a friend who was working to get the fledgling Iniskillin Winery up and running. Wendy and Murray spent a lot of time visiting the Niagara region and watching the exciting growth of the Ontario wine culture. It was in 2000 that they decided to join in, committed to discovering if they could produce an outstanding wine from locally grown cranberries and blueberries. They’ve never looked back.

The initial release of their 2000 vintage Cranberry Wine sold out in 16 days. The following release (2000 vintage Cranberry Blueberry Wine) sold out in just four days. They introduced many more over time, such as a Wild Blueberry Wine and a Red Maple Dessert Wine, made with cranberries and maple syrup. Their wines have won awards both internationally and at every major Canadian wine competition. But at the beginning, none of this was certain.

“We were nervous opening the winery,” Wendy admits with a smile. “We didn’t know what the response would be to cranberry wine, but we were committed to working with the terroir of Muskoka, which means using fruit that actually grew here. At first, the LCBO was only interested in our wines as limited vintages offerings, but the local LCBO stores were interested in carrying our wines more consistently.”

The Johnston’s began direct-delivering to these local stores and, after a while, they’d built the number of stores that carried their wine to a large enough number that the LCBO sent them a request to move their Cranberry and Cranberry Blueberry wines to its general list.

“Despite being shelved at the back of the store on the bottom shelf, we’ve exceed our sales targets each year,” Wendy says. “The LCBO has become very supportive and moved our category (Ontario Quality Certified fruit wines) to the front of the store this year. We also direct-deliver some of our other wines to local LCBO stores on a limited basis. Our wines are also available in China, and sold online and at the farm.”

The Johnstons decided to see if a great wine could be made from white and light-coloured berries that couldn’t be marketed each year. After a lot of experimentation, their creativity and hard work paid off and in 2002 they released the first-ever Canadian White Cranberry Wine.

Learning how to produce the wine was a very interesting journey for Wendy and Murray.

“In general, cranberries ferment much more slowly and require a bit more nurturing than grapes to become wine,”
Wendy explains. “For the White Cranberry Wine, we use a different pressing method than we use for our regular Cranberry Wine, and we have to coddle the white cranberries a bit more. Learning how each fruit reacts to fermentation, and discovering the best expression of that fruit as wine have been our biggest challenges – and triumphs.”

So, the 20,000 pounds of former compost are now transformed every year into 6,000 litres of White Cranberry Wine. It has won five awards to date, including one at the international level. Because the Johnstons can harvest a limited quantity of white and pink cranberries every year, the White Cranberry Wine is only available at the winery or through online ordering.

“The reception has been overwhelmingly positive,” Wendy says. “I describe it as slightly sweeter and less acidic than our Cranberry Wine. Because it can vary dramatically in colour from year to year, each vintage is unique. The current vintage is a beautiful apricot colour with a slightly floral cranberry nose. On the palate, the soft sweetness is followed
by a lingering cranberry finish. It’s a nicely balanced wine that is ready to drink now as an aperitif or with soft cheeses, poached fish, or lightly-seasoned chicken.”

In addition to all of this, the Johnstons also offer the Bog to Bottle Discovery Tour, which attracts 5,000 to 10,000
participants each year, and has been designated a Canadian Signature Experience. Visitors can also shop in the boutique gift store, enjoy nature trails, sample wine and cheese on the patio, and try seasonal experiences like snowshoeing and GPS treasure hunting.

Any business has challenges at any given point, and Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh & Muskoka Lakes Winery is no exception.

“Currently, the price of cranberries is at an all-time low,” Wendy says. “That means we have to work even harder to add value for our customers. We’re working on introducing our wines to new markets, creating new wines and expanding our tourism offerings.”

The Johnstons were delighted to win the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation for the second time for their White Cranberry Wine creation. (They first won in 2012 for exporting cranberry vines to Latvia to help establish cranberry cultivation there.)

“It’s affirming,” Wendy says. “I think the award acknowledges the importance of Ontario agriculture and that innovation is the only way for it to survive and thrive.”