Exploring Ontario: Canada’s ‘happy connotations’ for drink lovers

Time spent in Ontario and around its border with the US reminds Nina Caplan of the folly of Prohibition and its negative impact on the discerning drinker. Thankfully, a trip around the state today demonstrates that the best winemakers are firmly focused on quality and all the pleasure that can give to lovers of fine wine

Words by Nina Caplan

Netted vines at Le Clos Jordanne
Netted vines at Le Clos Jordanne in Ontario, Canada, where Thomas Bachelder is the original winemaker

The mad social experiment that was American Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933, which doesn’t sound so long until you recall that, this time a century ago, there would have been another decade of deprivation to survive. The impetus behind it ranged from the rational – men drinking away the family money, leaving wives and children in poverty – to the abhorrent, with a nasty strain of anti-immigrant racism: all those German brewers, not to mention the Jews and Catholics whose religious practice required wine.

Never mind that the Founding Fathers all drank. George Washington made whiskey; Thomas Jefferson had a wine cellar I’d very much like to have sampled (we are, after all, both big fans of Châteaux Lafite, Haut Brion and d’Yquem but only one of us could afford them). ‘Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards,’ wrote Benjamin Franklin, ‘there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.’

A raid during Prohibition
The Deputy Police Commissioner for New York City watches agents pour confiscated liquor down a drain during Prohibition in 1921

That happiness was much less in evidence during Prohibition, when accessing good wine became impossible for all but the wealthiest, while everyone else was left to make do with rotgut (sometimes actively dangerous) whiskey and bathtub gin. There was a great deal of DIY wine – Vine-Glo, a grape concentrate sold in the form of a brick, came with a carefully informative warning: ‘After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.’

This emphasising of quantity at the expense of quality was on my mind in April, when I visited Windsor, Ontario. The line of skyscrapers that looks as if it lurks at the end of Ouellette Avenue is really across the invisible river, in Detroit. It’s another country in every sense: the tall buildings – offices and defunct car factories – that spike the skyline, the remarkable celebration of industry that is Diego Rivera’s murals in the Institute of Art, the louche late-night bars. It is still an exciting place but not a happy one: the car industry that made it rich has foundered, the money has gone elsewhere.

A mural in Windsor
A mural in Windsor depicting factory workers (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

At the Detroit Historical Museum, there was historical footage of streets crowded with pedestrians, mostly bowler-hatted men. This was the mid-twentieth century, when one in every six working Americans was directly or indirectly employed by the car industry, and Detroit was the centre of that industry. Today, those pavements are eerily empty, as if all those industrious men had climbed into their cars and driven away.

The narrowness of the river between the two cities (détroit is French for strait) made this prime rum-running territory during Prohibition. ‘Uncle Sam would have to get the best people in Detroit… to halt liquor-peddling through this port,’ crowed a Detroit resident in The New York Times in 1922, ‘and he hasn’t got them!’ The intention was to halt consumption completely. Instead, it went up. ‘There are some people here who do not talk liquor, buy liquor and drink liquor,’ wrote that Detroiter, ‘but one seldom hears or sees them.’

jean pierre colas
Jean Pierre Colas of 13th Street Winery (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

Back in Windsor, I walked around Walkerville, now in the eastern part of central Windsor, where the vast white grain elevator on the waterfront serves as a reminder of the town’s past because this, too, was a centre of industry. Hiram Walker moved his business across the river in 1856, after an earlier Michigan crackdown on whiskey production. This turned out well when, four years later, the American Civil War began, disrupting alcohol production and storage. After the war, his Club Whisky’s popularity so threatened American bourbon producers that a law was passed mandating the name of the country on the label. Hardly a winning move. Canadian Club may no longer be owned by the Walkers, who sold up in 1926, but there can be few spirits drinkers who haven’t at least heard of it. The circumstances may have changed but Canada still has happy connotations for drinkers.

And these days, that goes for wine drinkers too. We drove 230 miles east along Lake Erie to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a place that made me recall Franklin’s suggestion that rain in the vineyards is proof of celestial benevolence and wonder what conclusions he might have drawn from snow. We were there in April and the wind off Lake Ontario still carried a reminder that in winter, it is cold enough here to make burying the vines in the warm earth a good idea.

Thomas Bachelder
Thomas Bachelder's wines 'speak of ambition, the desire to do ever better' (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

Thomas Bachelder, who with his wife Mary Delaney makes wines a little way inland on Beamsville Bench, is a man so interested in quality that quantity only enters the conversation under extreme circumstances. He did talk of ‘the sadness of 2022’ – a year when yields were so low there will be, he says, almost no wine. But the rest of the time he rumbled equally cheerfully about soil types and his daughter’s upcoming birthday dinner, while opening wine after beautiful wine for me to try. He is not the only winemaker around here – Hidden Bench, Stratus and Domaine Queylus are all interesting, while Jean Pierre Colas at 13th Street Winery makes great wines and has a restaurant to show them off too.

Bachelder has a cluttered garage and a very restricted door policy but the wines – luminous Pinot Noirs, racy Chardonnays and lovely Gamays, their fruit restrained and elegant– were so good I didn’t notice the surroundings. The challenge of Gamay is ‘how to make something gulpable that will also age,’ says Bachelder. ‘How can a Pinot lover make good Gamay? Maybe it’s a question of how much whole bunch I can use’.  He talked about limestone-rich soil and the terroir’s potential; this is a man who has made wine from Oregon to Chile to Burgundy, so he ought to know. About half his tiny production are single vineyard wines. ‘If we didn’t make 27 wines, life would be a lot easier,’ he admits.

These wines are not just high in quality: they speak of ambition, the desire to do ever better. They are as far from Prohibition-era rotgut as it is possible to get. Wine like this, as America’s first Presidents knew, makes people happy. All deprivation does is make them thirsty, and that’s the best argument against it that I have yet found.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine. Her award-winning book, The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, came out in 2018.