They pulled out the grapes to make a golf course at Rockway, then planted vines to add a winery
By Ted McIntyre
While there’s no shortage of avid fans of both golf and wine, there are precious few operations that pursue both of these passions out of the same facility. I’m only aware of two such tandems in the U.S.: The San Francisco Bay Area’s Wente Vineyards (which includes a 19-year-old Greg Norman layout) and Renault Winery Resort & Golf in Egg Harbor City, N.J., where an 18-hole course was added 13 years ago to complement one of the oldest wineries in America (at roughly 150 years of age).
In Canada, Rockway Vineyards stands alone. Situated within Niagara’s Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation in St. Catharines, Ontario, the facility bears an intriguing past. In a land of grapes, the Ontario government had paid Warkington roughly $400,000 in the mid-’80s to rip out the low-quality concord grapes that dominated his property. Warkington used the funds to build Rockway GC.
Late business mogul Bruce Strongman (who founded both Color Your World and Nevada Bob’s before selling each franchise for a tidy profit) was brought in as a major investor in 1998, before acquiring Warkington’s share of the property 11 years ago.
In a land of wineries, Strongman had found it increasingly tempting to join the club and finally succumbed at the turn of the millennium, purchasing grapes from local growers to produce Rockway’s first vintage in 2001, before planting vinifera varietals on their own property two seasons later.
The fruits of their labours constituted fruit—but not exactly high quality wine. In fact, it arguably damaged the overall Rockway brand for some years. But 2008 marked the beginning of an impressive turnaround. That’s when the services of noted wine consultant Peter Gamble were acquired; 2010 marked the first vintage with consulting winemakers. That year also marked the arrival of David Stasiuk. Having apprenticed everywhere from the Yarra Valley in Australia and the Marlborough Valley in New Zealand to the Okanagan in B.C., Stasiuk made his way from CedarCreek Estate Winery in Kelowna, B.C. to St. Catharines for the end of the 2010 harvest and has put his fingerprint on every vintage since.
“I had every intention of moving on to France, Italy, Germany, Spain in the near future, but the person I was working for at CedarCreek recommended me for this job,” says Stasiuk, who graduated with Honours in Winery & Viticulture at Niagara College in 2009.
The land Stasiuk now tends to, the last vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench, is blessed with an inherent minerality. “There are some parts where you can see the limestone poking out of the ground, layered with various soils,” says Stasiuk. “You walk through our vineyards and there are heavy clays, then a loamy part, then a touch of sand—and it’s very much the same way it’s been for hundreds or maybe even thousands of years. This was one of the last big river areas the glacier sat in before receding back to the falls.”
Those unique soil pockets can pose challenging growing conditions. The clay-based vines, for example, result in lower yields, although they typically pay off with intense flavours and quality wines. “There’s so much locked up in the clay in terms of its holding capacity for all its elemental mineral components,” says Stasiuk. “They deliver so much more to the vine than a loose, sandy soil, where everything can leach out.”
Stasiuk enjoys letting that soil do the talking. “We don’t add a ton of products or alter the composition of anything to sculpt the wine for a certain demographic or consumer,” he says. “We don’t overpower with oak—barrels or chips—and we try to keep everything in a very balanced profile in terms of acidity, sugar and tannins. That gives everyone the best picture of the site and the soil.”
That said, Stasiuk is unabashedly fond of a little racy acidity, particularly with his Rieslings. “Riesling the most interesting white variety to me, both as a personal interest and as industry staple too. I’ve started sulfuring them a bit higher so I can hold them back longer before they release. Because of low PH and higher acidity and residual sugar, they are wines that should be able to age longer.”
One grape that’s naturally higher in acid but that doesn’t get a lot of respect is Vidal, which Rockway has three blocks of. “When it’s picked earlier and fermented cold and treated reductively, it does have a lot of Riesling-like notes and other tropically aromatic accents,” notes Stasiuk of the grape that’s at the heart of Rockway’s popular and award-winning Patio 9 spritz.
A suggestion of noted wine industry expert Peter Gamble, who had great success with his Nova 7 sparkling at Benjamin Bridge in Nova Scotia (although it’s made with different varieties and style), “the Patio 9 was a huge success from the very start,” says Stasiuk. “We don’t have the means to make a closed-tank sparkling here. So we keep it as cold as we can and try to harness as much of the natural CO2 as possible. It’s only about 1 bar (of pressure)—effervescent wine is 2-3 bar. But it has that little bit of spritz to keep the wine perky and fresh. And with that added touch of residual sugar and higher acid, that spritz also helps prevent the wine from seeming sweet—although each year I’ve brought sugar down a bit; it was over 40% in 2010 and down to between 16-18% for the 2016 vintage.”
With the selling off of a 90-acre farm of predominantly hybrids across the street, Rockway has just 20 acres under vine right now, although Stasiuk has recently planted small blocks of varieties he wants to pay special attention to moving forward: Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Pinot Noir and a little bit of Syrah.
As for Rockway’s golf course, the forgiving but well-maintained 1989 Bob Moote design offers a variety of looks, with its more memorable holes including the par-4 second across a pair of valleys and the par-3 finale over a small lake.
As its Golf, Wine & Dine deal (18 holes with cart, dinner and glass of wine for just $85 per person) attests, management is doing what it can to promote its marketing tagline of “Three Unforgettable Experiences. One Unique Destination.” “But a lot of the golfers still walk down the stairs, come in here, go golfing, then go back up the stairs and forget there’s a restaurant and winery here,” observes Director of Golf Bob Allan.
A couple of notable athletes, however, are well aware of all the facility has to offer. In the shop last month there was a gift bag left over from Father’s Day, which included a sleeve of locally made chocolate golf balls and a bottle of Rockway-crafted David Hearn wine (the PGA Tour player hosts an annual junior golf tournament in the fall). Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, meanwhile, stages a celebrity tourney every fall.
But if you’re looking for historic greatness, make time for what is probably the best collection of winemaking artifacts anywhere in Niagara, located downstairs in the tasting room, a highlight of which is a ceramic bottle of Curacao from Dijon, France that dates to the 1880s.
|Rockway Patio 9 White – St. Catharines, Ont. ($13.95) – Dry enough to be enjoyed on its own, and eminently mixable should you want to combine it with Cranberry cocktail or such, this lightly spritzed Vidal is a great alternative to standard sparkling and makes for a popular late summer/early autumn aperitif, while its 9% alcohol volume makes it a safe indulgence. A gold medal winner at the 2016 All Canadian Wine Championships, it offers a little green apple and pear on the nose, which follows through on the palate to harmonize the lemon-lime tang. Refreshing through the finish. Just don’t re-cap it, since the bubbles won’t last. 88|
|Rockway Vineyards 2014 Small Lot Block 150-183 Riesling – St. Catharines, Ont. ($19.95) – The limestone of Twenty Mile Bench lends significant minerality to the fruit, although aromas of grapefruit, Granny Smith apple, herbs, wildflowers and rose petals have no problem lifting up from the glass and teaming up to provide a cultured nose. There’s a lively acidity that conceals the sweetness and a more velvety than normal finish. 91|
|Wither Hills 2015 Sauvignon Blanc – Malborough, N.Z. ($19.95) – While its crisp, vibrant acidity proved a perfectly balance to the spicy shrimp meal I matched it with, its herbal, grassy, wet stone notes are accompanied by an added weight and texture, the latter the result of leaving the wine on light less after fermentation. That means greater food pairing flexibility than usual for a Sauvignon Blanc, with options including oysters, mussels, prosciutto and melon. But I’m happy to drink it on its own. 89|
|Eradus 2015 Sauvignon Blanc – Malborough, New Zealand ($18.95) – Grown in the driest, coolest, windiest and stoniest valley in the Malborough region lends a mineral spine and distinct acidity, but there’s an Old World winemaking charm from this family-owned boutique winery. Green-tinged, it features a nose of Edamame beans, grapefruit, herbs and lime. On the palate there’s a savoury citrus blend, but with an elegant structure and weight atypical for traditional Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs. Pair it with ceviche or goat cheese-laden salads. 91|
|Tsantai Rapsani 2014 – Macedonia, Greece ($13) – Named for a nearly 1,000-year-old town in the foothills of Mount Olympus—yes, the actual Greek Mountain of the Gods—comes this ruby red blend of equal parts Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto from the mountain’s southern slopes. There’s a lot happening in the bouquet, which packed with a spicy concoction of dried raspberry, cherry and cranberry. Nicely textured, albeit with gripping tannins, and a lingering mellow finish. Well priced at just $13. Pair it with a variety of cheeses and red and white meats. 87+|
|Beronia Elaboración Especial Tempranillo (Special Production) 2014 – Rioja, Spain ($16.95) – Intense dark cherry in colour, with complex aromas of spicy—almost port-like—cherry, strawberry and cranberry compote, along with toasted coffee beans, chocolate, tobacco and oak. On the palate, the American oak is well integrated, while cherries and brandy-soaked strawberries dominate. This wine can sit for a couple years if you want, given its acidity, tannins and structure. Exceptionally priced at $16.95! Pair it with smoked meat or cured meats. 91|
|Beronia Reserva 2011 – Rioja, Spain ($20.90) – Good things tend to happen when you select the best grapes from the oldest vineyards in an excellent Rioja harvest. A slow fermentation of this blend of 93% Tempranillo, 5% Graciano and 2% Mazuelo is followed by 20 months of aging in a mix of French (providing spice) and American (offering vanilla and coconut) oak barrels, followed by a minimum of 18 months of bottle aging before release. Intense cherry red in colour, smoke and oak first hit the nose before giving way to dark fruit. On the tongue, wood, pepper, plum and dark berries combine with elegant tannins to enhance the body. Pair it with lamb, game meats and spicy burgers. 89+|
|Beronia Tempranillo 2013 – Rioja, Spain ($13.95) – Mother Nature was not kind to the 2013 vintage, but careful grape selection has still provided great value in this medium-bodied Tempranillo. Ten months in a mix of American and French oak, and a minimum six months in the bottle have given it great focus for its price. Black cherry, tobacco, mature blackberries are enhanced with sweet spices of cinnamon and mint chocolate. Smooth, not too tannic and easy drinking. Pair it with pasta, lamb or a cheese tray. 88|
|Fiorini 2014 Chianti Superiore — Tuscany, Italy ($14.95) – This diverse blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon—a deep ruby red Tuscan red with purple reflections—offers an aromatic nose of basil, violets, dried cherry, currants, raspberries, strawberries and cedar chips. A little smoke and spice follow through on a palate, with a long, consistent finis. Pair it with mushroom risotto, grilled meats and medium-seasoned cheese. 88|
| Angove Organic 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon — South Australia ($16)
– This cerified organic cab grows on you the deeper you get into it. A few swirls of the glass lift distinct forest floor off the surface, with earthy, dense red berries and baking chocolate and mocha hints following in the wake. Medium tannins with earthy fruit to taste. A very French nose and taste for a southern Australian cab. Pair it with stews and medium cheeses. 88