The day began with sunshine, crisp air and a whole lot of street vendors selling cotton candy and hot drinks. On Saturday, September 24, the Niagara Wine Festival was in full swing with a day of events. First in its line up: the festival’s 2016 Grande Parade. With a record of more than 70,000 spectators crowding the sidelines of the parade route, the Grande Parade proved itself to be the epitome of an old-school, community and family event. There were live music floats, marching bands, horse-driven carts and enough squealing Shriner-driven tiny cars to make every age happy.
As soon as the parade finished, a lot of that spectatorship migrated en masse to St. Catharines’ Montebello Park, where Grape and Wine was being held. Once inside, I was finally able to grasp how huge the event was to St. Catharines and the Niagara Region in general. Hammer Bros., a band covering fan favourite classics and current hit songs, was leading the musical line-up; on stage first, they played a wicked cover of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” that set the right mood for tasting some good wine.
The park was lined with booths set up by Niagara wineries and restaurants, food trucks and tents where you could purchase tokens for wine tastings and food. Megalomaniac winery’s Ben Ambacher commented that it was his first time at Grape and Wine – on the other side of the booth. A graduate of Brock University’s Political Science department, Ambacher expressed his excitement at the opportunity allowed by such a festival.
“You can walk just down along this line of booths and hit six different wineries,” he noted. “It’s a little bit better than having to drive around the country, for sure.”
Leigh Anne of Inniskillin winery has been on the vendor’s side for five years as of this season. On one of the best things about Grape and Wine, she immediately talked about meeting new people: “For us, we get to get out of the store and we get to see so many people. From Toronto, to England to Scotland, that’s one of the best parts. It’s a lot of fun.”
Many vendors were excited to be involved in all the fun, they were also passionate about their craft. At the Vieni Winery booth a volunteer explained that, although they’ve been involved in the business for a long time agriculturally, Vieni itself is just past three years of age – and they’re expanding. For them, the Niagara Wine Festival means promoting their wine and getting their name out to the community.
Next, I was able to discuss the festival’s history and goals with the 2015 Grape King, a title given to a notable person in the wine community that will go on to represent Ontario’s grape growers at events across the country, Jamie Slingerland of Pillitteri Estates. Throughout the conversation, Slingerland continually connected Brock and the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture program (CCOVI) to the Growers’ community.
“There are all these interconnections the community has with Brock, especially with CCOVI. Until we had a full-time lab assistant [at Pillitteri], I used to get my grape samples done at Brock,” Slingerland noted. “Brock is not this distant place for a lot of the wineries; there’s a very close connection that a lot of wineries have with Brock and CCOVI. Not only the university, but nephews, nieces and friends of ours have gone to Brock, so there is a real close connections to the community and to the wine industry. We just happen to be tied by Brock to both.”
On the festival itself, Slingerland was ecstatic. “The whole festival has been evolving year after year. This is one of the best festivals in North America in regards to size and quality. It’s this nice little mix up of everything happening and it is one of North America’s premiere festivals, and it’s right in people’s backyard. It’s also very much a community thing. You get to connect with a lot of friends from the years gone by.”
Finally, the former Grape King noted how valuable an experience it is for incoming students at Brock, welcoming them as the fall season begins.
“All the kids that come down here, they just love it,” said Slingerland. “They’re travelling across Canada and sometimes across the world, and then to come upon this to welcome them in their first few weeks of school at Brock University, makes them feel very welcome. It is a great way to introduce Niagara to them.”
The local St. Catharines citizens were equally as spirited as the vendors themselves. In a beautiful park, surrounded by people enjoying themselves, music and good food, it was easy to see why Grape and Wine is so popular. Josh Brens, a St. Catharines local and student at Brock, said that he’s come to the park since he was young.
“I really like Grape and Wine because you get the most of St. Catharines down in one location,” said Brens. “It’s really awesome having the entire city here mingling together, all doing the same thing; it’s really great to see everyone here having a great time together. Back in high school, when I was actually in the parade, it was awesome. Marching down the road, seeing everyone cheering and everything, being on TV for it, that’s probably one of my favourite moments.”
Upon being asked to give a few final words on the event, Brens only had to reflect for a moment. “Memorable. Great community bonding. You get so much of the community all in one spot – we’re all having fun together, there’s no competition here, we’re all here to just listen to music, support local business and have a good time. It’s really great.”