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Hastings Trailblazer | Potter Settlement Winery

A man and woman walking together through a vineyard while holding a glass of wine each; at Potter Settlement Winery, located in Tweed Ontario.

Off the beaten path in Tweed is a quiet vineyard, where rows and rows of sweet, dark grapes glisten in the autumn sun, ready for picking.

Potter Settlement Winery, just north of the village, boasts 13 acres and 13 different varieties of grapes, all hand-grown and hand-cultivated by Sandor Johnson and his small team of staff, including his partner Erin Reitav, who began her career at the winery doing sales and marketing, and is now essential in the day-to-day operations.

The meticulous process of turning grapes into wine is something Johnson is passionate about. His love for the process is evident when he speaks about the art of wine making. He and his brother, a chemist, have dedicated more than two decades turning his family’s farm into a successful, small-scale wine operation. His family’s property was settled in the mid-1800s and sits on the edge of the Canadian Shield. At first glance, it may not look like the idea place to grow grapes, but Johnson knows different.

“This is home to me, so it’s important,” he said. “When you have your ancestors here watching over you and the work you’re doing, that’s important.”

The sun, climate and mineral-rich ground has proven itself a successful combination for grape growing. Canadian weather patterns and temperatures can greatly impact the yearly harvest – meaning Johnson’s batches of wine are small. Some are one-of-a-kind wines, never to be tasted again. It’s been a labour of learning, trial and error.

“I can’t tell from year to year what I’m going to get,” he said. “Mother Nature is the boss here.”

Johnson is the first location in Ontario to successfully grow and harvest the Marquette hybrid grape, a feat he is proud of, and one that has resulted in winning several prestigious awards for the wines the Marquette produces.

In 2019, Potter Settlement was the first recipient of the Hastings County Trailblazer Award for the development of the Marquette and its approval by the Vintners Quality Alliance – the first grape variety to be approved by the VQA in the past 40 years.

This year was no different. This past summer, Potter Settlement placed first in class and third overall at the Challenge International Du Vin in France for its Cordova 2018, a red wine. The wine stood out amongst 5,000 entries from 34 countries and was taste tested by a panel of 800 judges.

“You’ve got to be really confident in your product to enter these competitions,” Johnson said. It costs thousands of dollars to enter the Challenge International, and several cases of wine head to the competition.

“You do all of that and you may never hear from them again.”

Prior to shipping the wine overseas, a small panel at Potter Settlement tasted it to ensure the quality was award-winning.

“We sat down, and we tasted the wine, and everyone got really quiet. We said ‘this is the best wine we have ever made here. Ever’. It was a big win for us.”

It wasn’t the only win so far this year. Potter Settlement also placed second at the Concours International De Lyon for its 2018 Cabernet Franc this past summer.

The wines are beginning to gain momentum, Johnson said, and his batches each year are selling out. While creating quality wines remains his priority, he also wants to begin expanding the buildings and property at the winery to allow him to host events and provide a top-notch experience to visitors.

“I’m now trying to bring the property up to the speed of the wine,” he said. “I really want to do my best here for Hastings County and also for our community. I’m trying really hard to make it a destination – make it special and one-of-a-kind.”

Johnson is currently building a venue for weddings and has plans for an outdoor theatre and a space for festivals and farmers’ markets. His efforts, he hopes, will help create a destination in Tweed.

One of the greatest frustrations facing small vineyards across the province is crippling government taxation and the inability to compete with large-scale wine makers whose products are sold in big box stores, Johnson said. It’s essential that places like Potter Settlement don’t just rely on wine sales and can offer something more to clientele and visitors.

“The taxes are hard-handed. You can’t lean on small industries like us and squish them if you want them to grow,” Johnson said. He continues to lobby against taxation of small wineries and hopes to eventually see a positive change. “You really have to love what you do, because it’s a struggle for all small wineries.”

In the meantime, both Johnson and Reitav encourage road-trippers and wine lovers to seek out smaller operations and support the folks who are passionate about developing a high-end product from start to finish.

“We want to impart some knowledge on people when they come here,” she said, “so they can go into other places with a little bit of knowledge. You don’t just come here and buy a bottle of wine, it’s not just about that. It’s about going and seeking out the folks who are really doing it well.”

The benefit of being a small operation like Potter Settlement is the ability to provide customers with not only a great tasting product, but the understanding of the precise work it takes to make a great wine.
At its core, all wine begins with the same ingredient – grapes. But it’s the process that changes the grape into something magnificent, Johnson said.

A man and woman walking together through a vineyard while holding a glass of wine each; at Potter Settlement Winery, located in Tweed Ontario.
Credit: Johnny C.Y. Lam ©

“Real wine is just grapes – but it’s what you do with the grape,” he said. The type of yeast used, the barrels the wine is stored in, the temperature, the process of adding or taking away water or sugars – it all culminates into a distinct flavour profile. “You have to be half chemist, half chef to be a winemaker. There’s a lot of thinking that goes into it.”

As 2020 comes to an end, Johnson and Reitav are hopeful for a busy fall season and are excited to continue their work at the winery.

“I love seeing the progress of the property. I believe that we offer something that’s unique and amazing here,” Johnson said. “I think the wines speak for themselves and it’s an authentic experience.”

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Megan Abraham

Megan Abraham is a freelance journalist residing in Marmora and Lake with her husband and three daughters. Since she graduated from Loyalist College’s Print Journalism Program, her passion for journalism has had her writing for various online and print publications, followed by several years working in the municipal sector with a focus on tourism, business and economic development. Now Megan is living her dream as the community coordinator for The Belleville Local, and she continues to fuel her creativity as a freelance writer full-time.

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