Pelee Island, where Pelee Island Winery grows its grapes, is home to species of birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, plants and trees either extinct, or very rare in other parts of Ontario. Because of its connection to the island’s wildlife through its wine labels, the winery has decided to donate $4 from the sale of every book to the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, which was created to keep an eye on migratory bird populations and help to keep those populations healthy. Check the bottom of the story below for details on how purchasing the book online now.

New book explores how Pelee Island Winery resurrected winemaking in the climate-perfect Essex County region

Many Ontarians associate winemaking with the Niagara Peninsula and never raise their gaze beyond. So they would likely be surprised to learn that the first commercially-made wine in Canada came from Pelee Island in the 1860s.  

That’s right: the little island off the southern shore of Essex County in southwestern Ontario, where Pelee Island Winery grows its grapes today, is the cradle of commercial winemaking in this country.  

Now a new book, Southern Exposure: How Pelee Island Winery Brought Winemaking Back to its Birthplace, weaves the tales of winemaking, agriculture and Lake Erie — including the rumrunning years — into a fascinating tour of Canada’s oldest winemaking region.  

According to author and publisher Gary May, wine’s association with the island that is the southernmost inhabited place in Canada has not been an undisturbed one. In fact, winemaking took an approximately 65-year hiatus from Pelee, broken finally in 1979 when the Austrian-born winemaker, Walter Strehn, introduced European grapes to the island and created Pelee Island Winery.  

Strehn took a gamble when wine varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were quite foreign to most Canadians. But ever since, European variety grapes have been thriving on the limestone-rich island soils, and the modern-day Pelee Island Winery has become one of the largest and most successful estate wineries in Canada. Pelee Island Winery was also the first in Canada to produce ice wine, which has become one of Canada’s most famous wine exports.  

Southern Exposure explains what makes Pelee Island unique, and how the modern-day Pelee Island Winery became the keeper of the special and fragile environmental conditions that exist on a 42-square-kilometre plot of land that is home to just 170 permanent residents. As well, it is the story of how the mild climate of western Lake Erie has fostered the development of one of Canada’s most important winemaking regions.  

Pelee Island so special it has its own appellation region

While Niagara is Ontario’s largest wine-producing region, there are three other officially designated viticultural areas, or “appellations of origin,” in the province: Pelee Island, Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County. Each is surrounded by water — a critical ingredient in creating the conditions for producing Ontario’s finest wines.  

The establishment of these designated regions is an important part of the campaign waged by industry and government to control, protect and promote the high quality of wines produced here, a system regulated by the Vintners Quality Alliance. The alliance allows its quality “VQA” symbol to be applied only to those bottles of wine that consist only of Ontario grapes and, in addition, 85 per cent of the grapes must have been grown in the area of designation.  

Pelee Island itself constitutes one of the four appellation regions. Small in size, it is prized for its environmental diversity, a place where the grapes share their territory with marshes, sandy and stony beaches, rocky plains called “alvars,” red cedar savanna and woodlands, all teeming with wildlife. The island is home to species of birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, plants and trees either extinct, or very rare in other parts of Ontario. In spring and fall, migrating birds and butterflies stop over on Pelee Island, and nearby Point Pelee National Park on the mainland, to take a break, recharge their batteries and continue their long journeys.  

Pelee Island Winery, keenly aware of its place in protecting these species and the environment on which their wellbeing depends, has featured many of them on its wine labels as a way of promoting its brands and letting wine lovers in on why Pelee is such a special place. Examples of the island’s history, events, institutions — and even its nearly 180-year-old lighthouse — have also found a place on many of the winery’s products.  

$4 from every book sale donated to Pelee Island Bird Observatory

Because of its connection to the island’s wildlife, the winery has decided to donate $4 from the sale of every book to the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, which was created to keep an eye on migratory bird populations and help to keep those populations healthy.  

Walter Schmoranz, who is today president of Pelee Island Winery, points proudly to the company’s record for environmental protection. “If you believe your company will be here for the next 100 years,” explains Schmoranz, “then you have to think about ways of farming that will let you use the land for the next 100 years to grow grapes. It’s how they grow grapes in Europe.”  

As for the donation of funds from book sales to the bird observatory, Schmoranz says: “We felt it was important to recognize the wonderful work PIBO does.”  

Internationally renowned Canadian author Margaret Atwood is a strong supporter of PIBO and of protecting the region as an important birding area. To show her support for Pelee Island, where she and her husband, fellow author Graeme Gibson, have a vacation residence, Atwood also hosts an annual event in May, called Spring Song, as a fundraiser for the Pelee Island Heritage Centre.  

The winery has always done its part for the wildlife and their environment. For example, it employs a variety of organic and low-impact methods to cultivate its grapes, keeping the use of chemicals to a minimum.  

Unlike the original Pelee Island winery, named Vin Villa, however, the modern-day vintners process their island-grown grapes into wine back on the mainland, at a winery in the town of Kingsville, 25 kilometres north of the island. Limited winter transportation links to Pelee, plus the needs of a modern-day enterprise, prevent the winery from conducting all of its operations on Pelee. (Ferries connect the mainland and island from April to December while an air service fills the gap over the winter).  

Visitors, however, will want to check out both the winery’s Pelee Island facilities and the mainland winery. On Pelee in the summer months, you can visit the island Pavilion, an interpretive centre that tells the story of winemaking, and includes a tasting bar and beautiful outdoor picnic area where visitors can buy a steak to throw on one of the gas grills and enjoy a bottle of Pelee Island wine.   

Visitors to the island will also want to check out the many bed and breakfast operations there, drop in to the charming Scudder Marina, visit favourite birding areas and beaches, and sample the food, including fresh-caught perch and pickerel — as well as the wine.  

Pelee Island Winery may be the largest and most important winemaker in the southwestern corner of Ontario, but it’s not the only one. Southern Exposure points out that more than a dozen estate wineries exist just north of Pelee Island, along and near the shores of Lake Erie. Walter Schmoranz is an enthusiastic supporter of the entire region as a wine destination, pointing out that there are villages in Alsace smaller than Kingsville that boast many dozens of small wineries. He believes there is plenty of room for a tourism-based wine industry to grow in Essex County.  

The book’s title, Southern Exposure, is a reminder that Pelee Island and the Erie North Shore sit at a latitude comparable to the great winemaking regions of northern California, Italy and Spain. Tanya Mitchell, a principal in Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery, points to the warmer temperatures achieved in Essex County than Niagara can boast. “Because of the heat units here, it further deepens complexities and richness of the red grapes,” Mitchell says. She says the climate is particularly friendly to hearty reds such as Cabernet Franc and Baco Noir.  

Grapes, tomatoes and mushrooms

Certainly in the eyes of many, Essex County, where the city of Windsor is located, is better known for carmaking than wine. And while Windsor and region remains a significant hub for manufacturing, the area also boasts some of Canada’s most fertile soils and a booming agricultural industry that extends far beyond the wineries’ vineyards.  

Surrounded on three sides by water, Essex County promotes itself as the “100-mile coast,” a place where spring comes early and autumn lasts longer than any other region of Ontario. That translates into a longer growing season and more weeks of boating, golfing, fishing, swimming, hiking, biking and other warm-weather activities. Because of the mild climate and the fact real estate prices are among the lowest in Canada, Windsor and the area’s towns and villages are becoming popular among 50-plus active retirees.  

Besides that mild climate, one of the things that attracts those active retirees is the county’s thriving agricultural sector. Agriculture is responsible for making the town of Leamington so well-known to Canadian grocery shoppers, thanks to its famous tomatoes.  

The town of 30,000 sits on the shores of Lake Erie. Along with the nearby and smaller waterfront town of Kingsville, Leamington is home to the largest concentration of greenhouses in North America, many of which are devoted to the growing of hothouse tomatoes. These tomatoes are shipped all across the continent and add a special summer-like flavour to our salads during the winter months. Those same greenhouses produce many of our cucumbers and peppers.  

Leamington is also the centre of a huge field tomato industry, with most of those tomatoes destined for the Heinz plant that sits in the centre of town, as well as to other smaller food processors in the area. When the tomatoes are harvested, lineups of tractors and trucks hauling wagons loaded with tomatoes crowd the town’s streets and the tomato is celebrated with an annual festival every September. Then, when Heinz begins processing the tomatoes — which are used in many of its products — the town is filled with the enticing scent.  

While the Leamington and Kingsville area might be known for its tomatoes, mushrooms have more recently become an important food product, too. As you’ll learn in the wine book, the Highline Mushrooms company has also helped to make this the most important mushroom-growing area in Canada, and the company also ships its products across the continent.  

Apples, peaches, plums and cherries, along with dozens of varieties of vegetables, are grown on Essex soils. But with thousands of acres of Essex County now devoted to grapes, winemaking is challenging the hold tomatoes have had on agriculture here for years. You’ll find one wine celebration or another in any season, but the biggest is the annual Essex Pelee Island Coast (EPIC) wine region’s International Wine Festival, held every September after Labour Day in Amherstburg on the shores of the Detroit River.

Southern Exposure’s Windsor author, Gary May, says he hopes the book will help readers gain a better understanding of all that Windsor/Essex has to offer. “Many of the local wines are excellent,” he says, “but wine isn’t the whole story here. The local food, the miles and miles of waterfront, the weather, parks and conservation areas, as well as all those great summertime festivals, all add up to making this a great place to live and to visit. I hope Southern Exposure will expose a lot more people to the region’s charms.”  

Southern Exposure is a 192-page, full-colour book just released in time for Christmas. You can purchase it online now at Pelee Island Winery's virtual gift shop. If you're in the area, you’ll also find the book at the winery's gift shop in Kingsville (and soon on Pelee Island), as well as other Windsor and Essex County booksellers, for $24.95, including tax. And remember: $4 from each sale will go to help the Pelee Island Bird Observatory continue its work. — November 2012