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Ravine winery to be showcased as tourist destination in St. Davids

A tourist destination in St. Davids

January 23, 2009  By Jim Meyers

Organic wines, a celebrity TV pastry chef known as “Sugar,” a
peripatetic old house, and a family farm that’s played a significant
role in Niagara’s agricultural history are the basic marketing
ingredients in the business plan for a new winery in Niagara.

Norma Jane and Blair Harber behind the plank counter in the temporary tasting room that was the summer kitchen of the Woodruff House. The walls are panelled with wide pine boards that at one time were on the ceiling. The winery’s rolling vineyards can be seen through the window and a picture of the vineyard is over Blair Harber’s shoulder.


Organic wines, a celebrity TV pastry chef known as “Sugar,” a peripatetic old house, and a family farm that’s played a significant role in Niagara’s agricultural history are the basic marketing ingredients in the business plan for a new winery in Niagara.

The Ravine Vineyard Estates Winery/Olson Foods at Ravine café bakery enterprise opened quietly last November while restoration was ongoing on the house that will be the focal point of the winery. It will have its official opening this spring with a lot more fanfare.

Indeed, the well-travelled house has a story to tell that’s equally as
compelling as the food and wine partnership forged between winery
owners, Blair and Norma Jane Harber, plus Anna Olson, host of a TV
cooking show on The Food Network, and her husband Michael Olson,
co-ordinator of the culinary program at Niagara College.

For years, the Woodruff House was a rundown landmark in the village of
St. Davids in Niagara-on-the-Lake where the winery is located. It was
carefully dismantled in 1969 and, for the next 35 years, travelled
about Ontario, stopping in three communities before coming back to its

The restored Woodruff House and reconstructed farm packing shed that houses the Olson Foods bakery café. There are five fireplaces (one wood burning) in the house, which also has a large tasting room and lounge on the ground level and a second tasting room and offices above.


Like police on a cold case file, the Harbers used the Internet to follow a trail that saw the house moved in pieces first to the Caledon Hills and then to Bond Head, north of Toronto, then east of Toronto to Port Hope. In each case, new owners of the architecturally significant clapboard house constructed in the Loyalist Georgian style wanted to put the house back together to use as a home for themselves. But it never happened. 

Built in 1802, the house was torched by American invaders who set fire to St. Davids in the War of 1812, destroying all but the tavern and the home of Maj. David Secord, whom the village is named after.

Rebuilt in 1827, the house included the original kitchen and, for years, it was the family seat of the Woodruff family that put down deep roots in the farm community of 600 located at the junction of two Indian trails below the Niagara Escarpment in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The house was turned into an apartment house around 1910 and for almost 60 years was lovingly called the “House of Nations” because of the numerous new Canadians who lived there before moving elsewhere, says Blair Harber, who is originally from Fort Erie and shares his wife’s love of local history.

“Anyone who ever stayed in the house, or knows anyone who has, is invited to the opening this spring,” he said.

Norma Jane, 62, who grew up in St, Davids, made it her mission to repatriate the house to serve as a perfect historical showpiece for the winery that’s located on the 34-acre Lowery Farm. The farm has been in her family for four generations. She also has a family connection by marriage to the Woodruff family through her ancestors, “as do many people in the village,” her husband Blair, 61, joked

The goal: a tourist destination
The Harbers had hoped to incorporate the Lowery Farm packing shed, built in 1920, into their building plans and had carefully moved it onto a new foundation next to the house that was still in pieces. Torched by a local arsonist in 2007, the shed was totally reconstructed and serves as a delicatessen, bakery, and food emporium run for the Olsons, who have a similar operation in the Port Dalhousie tourist area of St. Catharines. 

“Everything they stood for, we stood for,” Blair Harber said, describing the Olsons. They were introduced to the couple through winery start-up consultant Peter Gamble, who is now Ravine’s chief winemaker.

What started as a restaurant consulting role for the Olsons turned into a long-term, opened-ended business relationship that should make both stronger and still be compatible with a high-end restaurant that’s planned for the winery, said Michael Olson.

“We thought Niagara needed something added to the winery experience that wasn’t a ‘white table cloth,’ three-hour lunch,” he said.
“As the industry and tourist area matures, I find things tend to get simpler, not more complicated, and we’re trying to deliver all the virtues of that high-end experience, but in a different fashion,”
he added.

It’s hoped the joint enterprise will encourage other tourist-related businesses to come to St. Davids and make it a tourist destination, much like Cave Springs Winery and the Inn on the Twenty did for the village of Jordan, which is located further along the bench growing area west of St. Catharines.

It’s hard to imagine you’re viewing a winery, looking at the low profile of the two buildings on the rolling bench below the Niagara Escarpment. Underneath is the heart of the combined operation – a cellar for barrel aging the wine and a full-service kitchen for the Olsons’ catering business.

The winery sits in the middle of vineyards and back from houses that are owned by a number of Lowery family members on the street.

“It’s a family farm, a place where you can relax and learn about the history and feel comfortable in the surroundings,” said Blair Harber. 

The farm could easily have been sold for housing, as it’s entirely within St. Davids and is surrounded by unique farmland that cannot be developed. But the Harbers wanted to keep it intact and preserve a piece of their own and local history. After Norma Jane’s father Howard Lowery died seven years ago, the couple bought out her siblings, who also thought the same way.

“It’s worth more money that way,” Blair said.

Commercial value aside, historically it’s the first farm in Niagara to have a commercial 500-vine vineyard that was planted in 1869, and the first commercial peach orchard. Also, the Lowery family started the Lowery Brothers canning factory that had a 110-year history in the village before it closed last June. It became Canadian Canners and, in quick succession, was owned by Nestle Foods, then Kraft Foods, and finally by two private investment firms in the U.S. that operated it as CanGro.  

The winery is named after Ravine Sand and Gravel, a family business that was run by Norma Jane’s father and uncle. The land is in a gorge that was once the outlet for water flowing from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario before it changed course at the Niagara Whirlpool to follow its present course, the Niagara River. As a result, there’s a great variety of soil ranging from sand, clay, to almost gravel and rich garden soil, which is where the Merlot was planted.

Seeking organic certification
“And exceptional air drainage,” Blair Harber hastened to add about the microclimate on the bench that drains down the gorge from Niagara Falls. “We grow Merlot – our largest planting – because we can.”
For that reason, it’s hoped the winery won’t need the wind machines that some growers are relying on to move air if it gets too cold.  

The winery is moving toward becoming an organic farm when the vines are certified later this year (2009). Estate bottled wines are currently available, made from Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes grown on the farm, and Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Rose grapes from other growers.
Going organic was advice given to them by their winemaker, Peter Gamble.

“We are in a residential area and wanted to be good neighbours,” said Gamble.

The operation has reduced the use of pesticides and herbicides and uses superior netting, rather than bird bangers, to scare off the ravenous flocks of birds at harvest time.

The land had been fallow for a number of years, which is the first step toward getting organic certification, Gamble added.

Two of the Harbers three sons are on a career path to work in the new family business. The couple’s youngest son, Alex, 22, is studying viticulture at the Cool Climate Oenology & Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) at Brock University. Another son, Paul, 28, is in Europe studying to become a chef. Their oldest son, Andrew, 31, is the general manager of Harber Industries in Fort Erie, a family-owned sheet metal and air filtration company. ❦

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