Jim and Kathy Baker standing outside the huge doors of Chateau Niagara, their new winery.
By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor
The story of Chateau Niagara begins like many in this romantic little region. Boy meets girl. Boy marries girl. Couple starts family, discovers local wine. Boy gets girl tipsy, sells her on starting winery.
In this particular chapter however, owners Jim and Kathy Baker’s story takes an interesting twist -- girl goes on to become tasting room manager at a local winery as Jim stays the course of his career so both can one day open up their own winery and vineyard.
It’s a story that only seems to be possible in young regions like Niagara, where vineyard-suitable land is still affordable and people with a desire to get involved and learn the trade can easily get their feet wet. Kathy’s experience along with Jim’s passion and idealism has never been more evident as last month Chateau Niagara quietly opened it doors to the public.
“We wanted to ease into it and open on a normal weekend before the next Niagara Wine Trail event,” says Kathy. Overnight she’s gone from overseeing a full staff of experienced tasting room employees in the largest tasting room on the trail to pouring wines with her husband and daughters behind her own tasting bar.
“It’s a whole lot more rewarding knowing that people like the wines,” she says.
While Jim may not have the same tasting room experience, he brings an unmatched passion for wine and viticulture into the mix. Want to discuss obscure Eastern European grapes? Jim’s your man. Want to geek out on soil classifications? He’ll talk dirt with you all day – especially when it comes to what’s beneath his feet at Chateau Niagara.
“This is what is referred to locally as cherry ground,” he says, referring to how cherry trees are fussy when it comes to needing light sandy or gravelly well-drained soils.
Jim is confident that he picked the right site for his plantings of chardonnay, riesling, Gewurztraminer, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and pinot noir. “We are on Phelps soils about 2.5 miles away from Lake Ontario, where we benefit from a later spring and a warmer fall,” he says. “We are also on the edge of Eighteenmile Creek and the cool air doesn’t settle before it rolls down towards the creek.”
The couple’s shared vision has put them in a position to make about 2,000 cases annually. Right now all the employees are family members and the desire to stay small – and focused on making the experience of each guest as positive as they can – is first and foremost. “I’d be rolling over in my grave if this ever turned into a wine factory,” says Jim.
With only a month selling wine behind them, they’ve already learned a few lessons. “We don’t have enough Gewurztraminer in the ground,” says Jim. With just two white wines available in the tasting room today besides Gewurztraminer – chardonnay and riesling – the demand for the spicy white grape has been overwhelming. “It’s sales are more than double the other two combined,” he says.
Chateau Niagara’s first vintage is a blend of estate grapes supplemented with Finger Lakes fruit. The 2008 Chardonnay is lightly oaked, as in a whisper of oak, and shows aromas of stone fruit and melon. It fills out the palate with a creamy texture but stays austere on the finish. The 2008 Riesling is predominantly floral on the nose with some apricot notes and a long dry finish. Their hottest selling wine, the Gewurtztraminer, is intensely floral with lychee and grapefruit aromas. It finishes dry with notes of anise and without any oily or soapy qualities that I generally dislike about this variety.
Chateau Niagara’s opening also points to a boom in the expansion of the wine trail north to the lakeshore, where history has proven that the moderation of Lake Ontario consistently provides a growing season that grape growers can depend on.
The Bakers, for their part, in many ways symbolize the promise and ingenuity of a region that is looking towards the future while redefining itself in the present.