Potter’s Settlement Winery

Perseverance Pays off for Potter Settlement Artisan Winery’s Sandor Johnson

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Potter’s Settlement Winery

The decision to open a winery was actually a pretty logical one when you look at all the factors at play in Sandor Johnson’s life at the time he chose to begin building Potter Settlement Artisan Winery nearly two decades ago.

He was making a good income as a world-travelling model and actor; he loved his home community of Hastings County and had developed an appreciation for wine – especially European vintages. His family had owned property in Hastings County near Tweed for nearly two centuries and he Johnson felt an emotional tug to come back home, to build his dream along the picturesque Potter Settlement road, between Highways 7 and 37.

“I was also working in finance on Wall Street and just asked myself if I wanted to live the rest of my life in Manhattan playing that casino game that is high finance like everybody else, or can I invest back home on the family farm. And another factor that played a huge role was that one of my family members, my brother Robin, has a degree in winemaking, and that’s a big deal. So having that in the family with a guy who also has 25 years’ experience to consult with was just huge,” said Johnson.

“The best part about having a winemaker in the family is he is not going to quit at 5 p.m., he is going to work with you until 2 a.m. if necessary because mom and dad said so. And then the really key part was the very special soil we have here in Hastings County. We are the mineral capital of Canada, and that’s not a small thing. Canada, of course, is a mineral nation, so to be the mineral capital of that mineral nation tells you how special things are around here. We’ve got everything in our soil: gold, silver, copper, sulfur, iron – it’s like a cornucopia. The more minerals in your soil, the high the quality of your wine. If fact, it gives the wine complexity and depth.”

The biggest challenge was then to figure out if grapes could grow as far north as the Tweed area. It was already a challenge to grow grapes further south in Prince Edward County and Napanee. Other top grape growing parts of Ontario – the Niagara Region and the north shore of Lake Erie, are in far more temperate locales. In fact, Johnson admits that he took a lot of ribbing and critical commentary from folks within the industry who felt he was playing a fool’s game in trying to establish a winery and grow grapes in the heart of Hastings County. Doing an extensive amount of homework, the Johnson brothers eventually found the perfect grapes on which to base their winery.

“What happened was the Americans wanted vineyards in the northern states, so they went to Quebec and took a lot of those grapes that we in Ontario threw away in the 1970s and 1980s from Niagara. That was the mainstay of the Ontario wine industry and what they did was threw those grapes away to make room for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, so that if we had a bad frost, we wouldn’t have to rely on Quebec for the overage, we could rely on California. So we in Ontario discarded those old grape varieties,” he explained.

“But the Americans kind of revived them and married them with some Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc ones back and France and the came up with these varieties, particularly Marquette [a blend patented by the University of Minnesota in 2006] They are known as the Frontenac family which are cold/hardy grapes, which we pioneered by being the first to plant them here in Ontario.

“The beauty of them is not only do they have the flavour profile of a French Vitis vinifera but they’re cold resistant down to about minus 30, and they’re also disease resistant. Many of the plants that are imported directly from Europe don’t know North American diseases, so in order for those plants to survive you have to soak them in some serious fungicides. The grapes we have are comprised of genetic material that originated here, so there’s enough in them that they tough out these diseases. I barely have to spray anything on them. So with these grapes you actually get these great flavoured wines that are actually better for you and better for the environment. It’s a win-win scenario.”

But it took many years and tens of thousands of dollars in experimenting with different varieties of grape vines before hitting upon the hybrid Marquette, as well as a Pinot Noir, Merlot, Vidal and Riesling. In fact it was almost 20 years of work, research and heaps of capital before Potter Settlement Artisan Wine began selling to the public in 2015 from a crop planted in 2013. In all there are 10 acres of vines on the property, which has been in Johnson’s family for more than 180 years, featuring vinifera, the aforementioned hybrids and some VQA-recognized grapes.

And each wine, each year is going to be slightly different from year’s past as Potter Settlement moves along its winemaking path. That’s because Johnson and his brother have taken a very old-school European approach to their methodology, including using very little machinery, especially when it comes to picking the grapes. This means only the best grapes get picked. As well, they have experimented extensively with different types of yeast, importing ones from all over the world.

“There are thousands of different yeasts, but it seems in the Canadian industry that everybody is using the same 50 yeasts. By bringing in different yeasts from different parts of the world, you get more unique flavour profiles,” he said.

There was also a monumental amount of work preparing the land, as Johnson spent a small fortune moved literally tons of rock and sand, built walls and a pond. But he was bound and determined to make his winery a success, come hell or high water, or the snipes from naysayers who consistently refused to take his venture seriously.

“People were asking if there was fur on the grapes. They were calling the wine Chateau de Pinecone, and we hadn’t even made a bottle yet. But that’s why we took our time, almost two decades, to get the wine right before we started selling to the public. But it came from a bias and from people just not doing their research. That research came at a huge cost from all the trial and error bringing in varieties from different parts of Germany and then Austria, but having them all die,” Johnson said.

“And we actually gave up for a bit, until as I was travelling for my fashion work I heard about these grapes that the Americans were working on. I tried the wines and I thought, wow, this is pretty good stuff and there was this great Canadian component to the wines which really appealed to me. These were originally Canadian grapes, but we threw them away and it was the Americans that saw the beauty and the potential in them.”

And there were almost immediate rewards for Johnson’s efforts. Not only has the wines produced at Potter Settlement been popular with consumers, selling out every batch so far, even though they are not in retail stores or restaurants, but they have also garnered some significant accolades, including receiving a compliment from then U.S. president Barack Obama back in 2011, before the wines were even being sold to the public. More recently, he had a photo taken with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holding a bottle of Potter Settlement wine – a rare thing considering most politicians don’t want to be seen as endorsing one particular product.

In 2017, Johnson’s 2016 Cabernet Franc won a silver medal at the National Wine Awards of Canada, while the Marquette brought home a special from the Intervin International Wine Awards also in 2017 among other honours.

One huge ongoing challenge is that even though Potter Settlement has essentially based its existence on its signature Marquette and related cold weather grapes, the Marquette is not recognized officially by the VQA, which essentially is the organization responsible for deciding which wines get sold in stores, restaurants and the LCBO.

“The big question is we knew they were good, but could they win international awards. This was the first year we sent wines out, and we sent them to four competitions and each time they came back with a medal, so it’s not only that they are great for the area, but they can stand up to wines from France, they can stand up to the U.S., Italy and the rest of Europe in terms of quality. But I struggle with the VQA because they don’t recognize my grapes let alone my wine. So I can make a wine and win medals internationally, but they won’t let me sell it in the province outside of my own property. I really believe that a panel shouldn’t decide what the people of Ontario could and should drink, especially if these are world-class wines and people aren’t getting access to it,” he said, adding that the reputation has indeed meant brisk sales, but without being able to expand the retail footprint, there isn’t the ability for significant growth, limiting his ability to hire more local residents, and making a bigger contribution to the region’s economy.

“Honestly, I am grateful that I’ve got this working here after so much time and effort. I make a modest living from the winery. I believe I am doing something that I enjoy, that adds to the legacy of my family, and that is good for my county. I am uplifting the beauty of this place and making world-class wine that I am proud of. I do well in the fashion industry, so I am fine. But my hope is to have others do the same thing in Hastings County as well, and have more people turning to go north of Highway 401.

“Everything that’s happened here is from word of mouth. I haven’t advertised outside of the blue highway signs. And instead of dumping my money into buildings and stuff I just put my money into the wine: barrels that we had to import, the yeast that we imported, spending lots on the wine styles we’re making. These wines are not monochromatic at all; each wine takes and smells radically different from the last because it’s real.”

Because of the proven potential of the cold-weather hybrids such as the Frontenac family, especially the Marquette. Johnson spends a lot of time on the road speaking to groups who want to plant the grapes, as well as to government officials to tune them in on the potential for expanding the Ontario wine industry outside of a few key regions.

“I would love to have more people growing these grapes. I would love to have more vineyards in Hastings County. I think competition breeds excellence; I am not afraid of competition. I think it’s wonderful if we can get the same sort of tourist traffic that Prince Edward County and the Niagara Region get,” he said.

“If we all succeed, the entire community succeeds. There will be more visitors, more people moving here, property values will go up. There is so much potential here.”

For more information, visit www.pottersettlementwines.ca.