A Vineyard Grows in Hockley
How Mario Adamo’s Italian roots – and love of fine wine – spurred his family’s next big adventure.
As last summer settled into fall, a visit to the new Adamo Estate Winery made it easy to grasp how founder Mario Adamo had evolved his highly romantic – some would even say risky – vision of creating this region’s first full-fledged vineyard and winery in Hockley Valley.
Rows of lush green grapevines still lined the hillsides, hugging their curves and criss-crossing out of sight on the edge of the 77-acre property on Mono’s 3rd Line. Lose your bearings for a moment and you’d swear you were in one of Europe’s stunning wine regions.
The hunch that this area’s rolling landscape and hot summers just might produce wines as well as his native Italy lies at the heart of Mario’s bold experiment. The recent evolution of the fertile countryside at the eastern end of Lake Ontario into a hip vineyard destination only fortified the resolve of a man who, professionally and personally, is all about good food and wine.
“For years I looked up there and thought of Prince Edward County and what they’d done there,” the elegant, soft-spoken Mario says in an interview about the land he and his wife Nancy Adamo bought adjoining their Hockley Valley Resort in 2000. “If they can grow grapes there, I can grow them here.”
He’s done just that: about 18,000 vines so far, with another 5,000 to be planted this spring, all grown using organic and biodynamic techniques, mirroring the resort’s successful kitchen garden. And although the Adamos have been making and selling wines made from their own grapes as well as grapes from other vineyards for two years now, 2016 is poised to be a vintage year. A lot of hard work and love has gone into crafting this spot and, quite possibly, putting down roots for Ontario’s next wine region.
The family is putting the finishing touches on a modern-rustic 20,000-square-foot headquarters housing winemaking operations, a tasting bar and retail space, a café, an event room – all perched to maximize the view of those undulating hills. Visitors will be able to stop in, tour the tanks and barrels, and sample the wines. They can linger over a charcuterie plate with a full glass at earthy tables made locally by Deep Water Wood in Rosemont, or head down the road to try more pairings at one of the resort’s chic restaurants.
“It’s a passion for us,” says Julie Adamo Cass, Mario’s daughter, who now runs the resort and vineyard with her brother John Paul Adamo.
“It’s a separate business but it’s a great addition to the resort – wine tasting is another experience for visitors.”
The wine adventure started in 2011 when Mario and his late friend and fellow wine lover Frank Ianni spent long days planting Pinot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Vidal grapes, by hand.
“He came as a volunteer, every day,” Mario says wistfully of his mate, who died in 2013.
A dream realized
After connecting with Prince Edward County winemaker Jonas Newman of the Hinterland Wine Company, Mario asked him to test the vines to see if they’d survived their first winter. On a sleeting March day in 2012, Jonas pronounced the vines alive and kicking. Mario’s side project was about to bloom into the next chapter in the Adamo family business.
“It became clear this was much more than a hobby,” says John Paul during a February interview with the family, who gathered at a table in the resort’s stylish Cabin restaurant, accompanied by vineyard and winery manager Shauna White.
“The quality has to be there, the relentless pursuit of excellence,” says John Paul. “We want to be one of the best. We know about tasting.”
Mario chimes in, “I know about tasting.”
Indeed, the Adamo family also knows a thing or two about creating new things. After building a successful catering operation, Nancy and Mario bought the 300-acre-plus resort property – then a run-down 28-room inn and ski hill with only T-bar and tow ropes – in 1985. While developing Hockley Valley Resort into a successful 104-room luxury hotel, ski hill and golf course over the last quarter century, they’ve racked up accolades, such as Nancy’s repeat inclusion in the first 25 of Profit magazine’s prestigious list of top 100 Canadian women entrepreneurs. Now, the next generation has serious plans for the vineyard.
While Mario’s original dream was to transform a barn on the property to house the winemaking, the future is looking a little more posh. The space is being built by longtime Hockley partners, Toronto firm BLT Construction. It lists hip contemporary country sites like the Drake Devonshire Inn in Prince Edward County among its high-end clients, which also include Holt Renfrew and Sher Club in the Air Canada Centre, rapper Drake’s collaboration with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
It was also time to hire a vineyard manager. Up and coming winemaker Shauna White left an Okanagan winery to come on board in 2014, after proving to Mario that she was just as tough as he.
“My first question was will she get her hands dirty?” he says, smiling at Shauna across the table. Shauna holds up her hands. They’re not as grape-stained and rough as they were during grape-picking season, but, with no offence meant, she’s certainly a candidate for a manicure in the resort’s famed spa.
Their first Adamo-grown wine to be bottled was the bright, juicy 2014 Vidal, bottled in 2015 and now sold out on their online shop. Others currently on the menu at the resort, available online and in some Toronto restaurants, are made with grapes trucked from other vineyards. These include such Niagara region offerings as Chardonnay from Willms Vineyard, Gamay Noir from St. David’s Bench Vineyard and Riesling from Wismer Vineyards – all proudly announced on the Adamo bottle labels.
This mixed portfolio isn’t just a stop-gap measure until more Adamo vines reach maturity; it’s a founding tenet of their business. The idea is to keep producing an array of wines both homegrown and sourced from other growers to showcase Ontario’s differing terroirs and winemaking techniques. “There are so many decisions that go into making wine. We’re showcasing the skill involved, showcasing the grape,” Julie says. They don’t plan to blend home and away grapes either, so each grape succeeds or fails on its own merits.
John Paul says customer demand will also steer the ship. For instance, he has deduced that Adamo needs an unoaked Chardonnay in addition to one aged in oak barrels. “People love the Riesling, but they’re also asking for a clean, crisp white,” says John Paul, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and served for a time as the resort’s executive chef.
Behind the curtain
As their wine list expands and shifts each year, the team is in exploratory mode. What will the rocky fields of this end of the Niagara Escarpment hold in store for the grapes grown here? What will the sand, loam, clay and limestone bring to the tasting table?
“I think it’s giving us an aromatic tree-fruit character,” says Shauna of her early impressions. “Our whites have got pear and plum flavours.”
Wine nerds and newbies alike can follow along on the Adamo wine blog, learning about the intricacies of grape growing, residual sugars, alcohol content and PH levels.
There’s plenty of fodder – the winemaking process is a daily affair. Vines are sourced from a Niagara vine seller called VineTech, which propagates both Canadian and foreign vines. The Adamos and Shauna have used both. Come late fall, to meet the challenge of our (usually) cold winters, the vines must be mounded with soil for winter protection.
During the fall pressing season, Shauna co-ordinates the production schedule, ensuring incoming grapes – trucked the same day they’re picked – and her own ripening ones hit the presses at the optimal moment.
Mario was a quiet, constant presence last season, zipping through the vines on his Gator or sitting in a chair in the unfinished space, waiting for grapes to arrive at the end of the day from Niagara. (He’s so single-minded, staff members gently check in with him to make sure he’s had lunch.)
Whole clusters of grapes and stems are juiced using a “bladder” style of press. “It’s a less stressful approach,” says Shauna. The juice is pumped into stainless steel tanks to “cold settle,” allowing the heavy sediment to fall to the bottom. Then the clear juice is pumped out into tanks and barrels to begin its journey to becoming wine.
After it’s inoculated with yeast to begin the fermentation process, daily tasting begins, to determine if and when tweaks – adding nutrients for the yeast to “eat” to “keep them happy” – might need to happen. Lab analyses back up this subjective process.
“If you make a mistake, you can’t go back,” says Shauna, adding that the Adamos have never told her to produce a particular taste. “They say, ‘We want it to come from a place that counts.’”
The next step is adding sulphur to stop the fermentation. Then, if necessary, Shauna sets up a secondary fermentation – process called malolactic fermentation – to bring out more body and flavour. The wines are then aged and bottled when the time is right. “The wines will tell us when they’re ready,” Shauna says.
“I could have used cases of unoaked Chardonnay six months ago. But we don’t release it until it’s ready,” John Paul adds.
Asked to describe their favourite tipples, the Adamos have trouble zeroing in on one of their “children,” especially in the absence of a menu pairing to ponder. But Mario knows what he’ll be tasting that night: a red, likely the Gamay, to go with the bollito (a hearty Italian sausage stew) he’d made during the day.
Into the glass
The burning question is how does the wine taste to outsiders? Well, for starters, more than two dozen Toronto restaurants stock Adamo wines, which Julie describes as a major vote of confidence. The Adamos’ care and patience appear to be paying off, resulting in wines that are much more than a hundred-mile curiosity.
One of their first successes is a 2013 Pinot Noir made from hard-to-get grapes harvested from the well-respected Lowrey Vineyards in Niagara. After a recent tasting of various Pinots made from his grapes, owner Wes Lowrey wrote this in a blog post on his winery blog at fiverows.com: “It was exciting for me to see what an excellent job they’ve done with the Pinot Noir from our 2008 planting … I highly recommend giving the wines of Adamo Estate Winery a try sometime soon!”
The Adamos are also already winning praise for making Ontario wines look good as a whole. In a note on the wine list at Toronto’s Biff’s Bistro, the sommelier writes that the Adamo 2014 Gamay made with St. David’s Bench grapes “proves Ontario’s mettle as a region capable of serious Gamay.”
Antonia Bachinski, sommelier at Toronto’s tony Auberge du Pommier restaurant, says embracing the Adamo wines is about zeroing in on top-notch “new world” bottles than can stand up to the powerhouse French and Italian favourites her customers gravitate toward. “You have to bring in something you believe in, something that’s good, and something interesting and different.”
She has four on the menu: a Chardonnay, a Riesling and, perhaps not surprisingly, the Gamay and Pinot Noir. Antonia recently added the two Adamo whites to Auberge tasting menus. The Riesling was paired with a crab dish and the Chardonnay with a lobster bathed in beurre blanc. “I was super-impressed with the ripeness and the quality of the whites,” she says.
For Nancy Adamo, the scene on a Hockley patio last summer was another good omen, right at home. “There was an Adamo Estate wine on every table,” she says.
Antonia says the Adamo story makes for lively tableside chat with diners in her restaurant. For her, the narrative is also personal. “I grew up in Orangeville and we’d go to the Hockley Valley Resort. I never would have imagined growing wine there. It’s so cool. He did it. He worked the soil and gave it a shot.”
Bottling the future
As March clawed its way in like a lion, Shauna, John Paul and a team of helpers oversaw a three-day wine-bottling marathon. A mobile bottling truck from Niagara-area company Hunter Bottling – a shiny stainless-steel mini-factory on wheels – was parked in the breezeway between the vineyard’s two main buildings. Inside, the team filled the first of this year’s projected production of 6,500 cases of wine amid a great racket of clanking bottles and whirring machinery. Good thing John Paul and Hockley head chef Mario Turco were wearing their Arctic-worthy parkas and Adamo Winery toques – a bitterly cold wind just kept on coming.
Chalk it up as one more exhausting, exhilarating milestone in the 24/7 business of winemaking.
As Shauna and the Adamos start sending those bottles out to their customers and wholesale clients, they’re also exporting the big idea behind them: Maybe Headwaters can be the next hot wine destination, even closer to the GTA than Niagara and Prince Edward County. The Adamos hope others are watching, learning, and brave enough to follow their lead.
Auberge’s Antonia says what many in the industry are thinking: There’s room. “A few years ago no one knew about Prince Edward County,” she says. “And now look at it. They’re past up-and-coming. What’s the new wine region going to be?”
Nancy points to the vacant fields in the area as potential vineyards. Mario is even more direct. “I’d like to see ten more wineries on the 3rd Line,” he says, gesturing north. His family chuckles. This is clearly typical of the quietly ambitious patriarch. In the same interview, Mario has vowed to one day make wine in the appassimento style – red grapes are dried before pressing, which increases their sugars and makes for big, bold reds like the Italian powerhouse Amarone.
And he’s not done. He adds that he’s confident Adamo vintages can shine in the home country he left at age 18, bringing his journey full circle. “You can put Ontario wines up against Italian ones. My goal is to sell wine to Italy. If you took our Riesling, it would sell there. Or our Pinot.”
Based on the story so far, mark his words.