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'Being a dairy farmer wasn't for me:' Hybrid grapes help Navan's Jan-Daniel Etter establish winery

For the last 20 or so years, more than a dozen artisanal wineries have taken root around the capital region, making eastern Ontario one of Canada's most northerly wine regions.

Ottawa is fermenting a reputation for producing fine wines.

Once considered too frigid for traditional grape vineyards, the recent introduction of hardy winter-resistant hybrid grapes is turning the capital region into a capital of wine making in eastern Ontario.

Growing up on his parent's dairy farm in Navan, Jan-Daniel Etter never imagined he would one day own his own vineyard and winery, Vignoble Clos du Vully, named after his grandfather's winery in Switzerland.

Fate got the ball rolling in 2003 when, still a teen, Etter was asked to help his cousin pick grapes on their grandfather's vineyards in Switzerland. He loved it. He didn't like getting up a 5 a.m. to milk cows, but grapes don't come with a 5 a.m. wake up call.

In 2008 he returned to Canada with plans to plant 250 new hybrid grapevines and see if they could survive a Canadian winter on his parent's 2,000 acre farm.

“When I returned from Switzerland, I knew I wanted to try this. I thought it might work with the new grape that could take temperatures as low as minus-38. If they survived, I was ready to go all in. If they didn't, I don't know what I was going to do.”

“Being a dairy farmer like my father wasn't for me,” Etter adds while standing amidst rows of corn and grapes on his Magladry Road farm. “Dairy farming is seven days a week. The hours are long and the money, well, pennies an hour. A farmer never counts his hours, otherwise he'd get depressed.”

Fortunately, the hybrid grapevines not only survived, but flourished in the mineral-rich soil of eastern Ontario, and with 2,000 acres of premium arable soil, the family farm has room to spare for Etter's new vineyard.

It took him nearly 10 years and more than $100,000 to plant 5,000 grapevines, convert his barn into a winery and tasting barroom, and acquire a licence from the Alcohol & Gaming Commission of Ontario to sell wine off his farm, which is where he currently sells 95% of his yield.

They were 10 lean years. With no income to speak of, Etter had to work part-time, milking his neighbours cows to keep things going. But when he was finally approved for a licence, Etter had amassed a stock of more than 5,000 bottles of well-aged wine ready for sale.

“Most vineyards hardly have any wine their first year of sale,” Etter says. “The wine is young and they sell out quickly. I was in good shape because I had lots of stock, some seven year vintage. It meant that a taster's first experience of Etter wine was good.”

Bannered under the family name, Etter currently sells more than 12,000 bottles of wine annually, with 14 varieties including Chardonnay, Frontenac Noir, Gris and Blanc, Marquette, Riesling, Petite Pearl and Champagne.

Low in alcohol and packed with fruit, Etter says his wine is rich and fruity and meant to be paired with cheeses and meats.

He's applied for a VQA licence so that he can sell his wine in restaurants through the LCBO, but Etter says he already sells everything he makes through the little shop as well as wine-tasting events, yoga, picnics and landscape painting trips he and his partner Anne Grenon host on the farm every weekend. They post events on their website.

Etter wants to build the business, but not too big, something he can't handle on his own. At 39, this father of two young children is mindful of work-life balance. So his goal, to produce 25,000 bottles by 2026, is modest. Farming the way he likes it.

Drive one hour east or west of Ottawa and there are similar stories. Like Etter, a new generation of pioneering winemakers are building a new industry in eastern Ontario. There are now 14 artisanal vineyards, cideries and meaderies that have opened in Carp, Cumberland, Kinburn, Richmond, Navan, Mountain, Morrisburg and Vankleek Hill since 2000, with more in the works.

Some day, the capital region may join Niagara, Prince Edward County and Presquile among Ontario's premier wine regions.

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