Jamie Quai is very much a hands-on guy and the blue-purple stains around the cuticles of his fingernails can attest to that.
Just the day before being installed as Ontario’s 61st Grape King, he’d been cleaning up after pressing Concord grapes at the family winery where he is co-proprietor, vigneron (French for grape grower) and winemaker. And while he was scrubbed up and wearing his new Grape King blazer for the event, it’s almost impossible to remove the telltale stain of the grape variety that’s better known as a juice grape than for making wine.
That was at the end of September. In mid-month, he had been named Grape King at a luncheon in St. Catharines, Ont. to launch the Niagara Wine Festival. A second crowning ceremony was held at his 22-acre vineyard, Quai du Vin Estate Winery (roughly translated as “dock” or “port” of wine) near the north shore of Lake Erie, some 30 kilometres south of London Ont.
Winters can be long and cold and that means the soil stays colder longer – some seven to 10 days longer than in Niagara, Jamie said. That puts blossom time outside the dangerous frost period, a question he fielded when asked by a panel of three academic judges why he didn’t have wind machines, like growers in other areas, to ward off a late spring frost.
“The heavy clay soil presents it’s own challenges.”
While growers in other areas may have no cover crop between the rows of grapes, or only between alternate rows, Jamie has a permanent grass cover crop that competes for nutrients with the grapes.
“Excessive (leaf) growth is as bad as too little,” he said.
Another thing the judges had to consider is his donation of trial plots for Ontario ministry of agriculture and food research.
“The doors are always open. We’re the benefactors of someone else’s (research) contribution to the industry and like to move that forward.”
From the front window of the winery, he points across the road to a large neighbouring cornfield.
“My grandfather waited to buy this land and made growing grapes and making wine his retirement project,” he said. “He knew grapes could only be grown on the ridge we are on, and that it was suitable for more than gravel pits.”
The top line of that ridge can barely be seen from the back of the winery – which fittingly is on Fruit Ridge Line – past rows of blue Concord and white Niagara grapes and other varieties associated with making sparking wines (Aurore, New York Muscat). There’s also hardy red wine Baco Noir and Marechal Foch which are French hybrid varieties, and red Merlot, as well as harder to grow Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris white vinifera varieties. As well, he grows Ehrenfelser, a German white grape variety that’s a cross between Riesling and Silvaner. It’s not grown extensively in Ontario, but is widely grown in the Okanagan winegrowing region of B.C.
Redi Quai and wife, Louisa, came to Canada in the early 1950s and for 15 years he worked as a subcontractor pouring cement basements for new homes and buying and selling houses on the real estate market.
“He was flipping houses before it became a TV show,” Jamie said.
Redi began growing grapes in 1972, and before he died in 2011, saw his dream of a family winery take root.
In 1990, Jamie’s parents – Roberto and Lisa – opened the winery and it’s being passed on to Jamie, 34, and wife, Kim – a school teacher – and quite possibly their two sons, Gavin, 4, and Nicklaas, eight months.
The Quai family name (pronounced Kwai, like the movie Bridge on the River Kwai) is of French derivation. His great-uncle believed retreating soldiers, or deserters in Napoleon’s army, may have settled in the area of northeast Italy where Redi came from. It’s at the geographic crossroads of France, Germany and Italy, “but shaded more into Germany,” Jamie said.
“More sauerkraut and bratwurst than croissants or pizza,” he quipped.
Jamie studied wine making at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) in St. Catharines, Ont., and gained hands-on experience working in large and small wineries in Niagara over three harvest years. At CCOVI, he taught the engineering side of winery operations as the instructor for the OEVI 3PP21 course from 2007 to 2016. In layman’s terms, the course code means learning how to use pumps, cooling systems, stainless steel tanks, equipment for crushing, de-stemming, and wastewater drainage and storage.
”It’s where the scientific meets the practical (application),” he said.
The Grape King is selected from a handful of growers who are nominated each year by some 500 fellow growers. Except for Jamie Quai and Sal D’Angelo (1999) from Essex County, the king or queen has always been from Niagara. So much so that it’s become an informal competition between growers in Niagara-on-the-Lake and growers in St. Catharines (and Louth), the towns of Lincoln, West Lincoln, Hamilton, and Wellington County.
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