As a relatively new lifestyle and travel photographer, the opportunities I’m about to embark on while visiting far away destinations and delightful wineries will undoubtedly be the envy of many wine connoisseurs.
Luckily for me as a proud Canadian, I will never have to venture too far away from home to experience the thrill of visiting world class wineries and meeting passionate and inspirational people along the way.
So it made perfect sense to me, with the imminent end of summer fast approaching, that I grab my camera and head off to the most picturesque place I know – the Niagara region!
Of course, no photographer goes into a photo shoot without researching every angle first, so I had to have a plan, but where to start? You can get lost in a sea of choices with every tour brochure you pick up. There are farm wineries, micro wineries, boutique wineries and even the newly coined term, urban winery just to name a few.
All wineries can be considered either small, medium or large. Together with my research assistant Sue (who is quite the wine connoisseur in her own right), we decided to divide and conquer our day by visiting two wineries at opposite ends of the spectrum to see how they differed.
We left at the crack of dawn giving us ample time to mingle with staff, take great pictures, experience the ambiance and aromas, and of course the best part of all – taste test some exceptional wines.
For the purpose of this post, I chose to focus my research on the following key elements: service style, approachability, ambiance, and finally the overall experience of our visit.
Sue and I chose to visit a small winery first, and it quickly became evident that we had stumbled upon a very BIG story, so I decided to make this blog into a two-part series.
RAVINE VINEYARD ESTATE WINERY
We started our day off by visiting what we will refer to as a “Small Production Artisanal Winery”. Ravine Vineyard is a 34-acre family owned and operated working farm and organic winery that opened their doors to the public on November 8th, 2008.
This farm is on 100% residential land in the urban boundary of the Village of St. Davids, just south of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
What this means is that Ravine is nicely nestled in and amongst the homes of St. Davids and because of that, the entrances can be easily missed if not for their signs when you access the winery from either 1366 York Road or around the corner at Four Mile Creek Road.
The moment we parked our vehicle, we knew this wasn’t just any ordinary winery. The property has three main buildings, each with its own unique style and characteristics. Front and center is the historical Hospitality Centre located in the 200-year-old Loyalist Georgian Woodruff House.
To the right, is the historical packing shed, home to the Ravine Bistro Restaurant, offering a “farm-to-table” culinary program, which in my books, must mean “great food”! And finally, to the left is the heart and soul of the winery which is where the production facility and wine cellar resides. By the way, what you see from outside is actually double in size when you get downstairs!
First stop, the Hospitality Centre where we met and chatted with Paul Harber, Proprietor and General Manager of Ravine. He is one of three sons of Blair and Norma-Jane Harber with Alex and Andrew being the other two.
“It’s a whole family affair here, our boardroom table is our dinner table
and the decisions are made by my parents, my brothers and me.”
Paul was gracious enough to take time out of his busy day to give us an amazing tour that was super informative. When I first was told that I would be interviewing one of the owners, I must confess I assumed I would be greeted by a more senior individual.
However, let me say this about Paul – at the sprightly age of thirty-six, he is one of the most passionate and driven entrepreneurs I have ever met. His detailed account of the history and complexities of his business was truly impressive.
A Brilliant History
Paul recounts that it all began when the home of David Secord (Laura Secord’s uncle) burnt down during the war of 1812. In 1815, William Woodruff purchased that land and built a new home around the remaining brick fireplace that was still standing amongst the rubble.
The Woodruffs lived in the home until 1902 when they then moved out and turned the home into a refuge for new Canadians, which at times would house up to six families!
This went on well into the 1960, then in 1969, Douglas Doerr purchased the home and had it painstakingly dismantled board by board, brick by brick and moved it in its entirety to Caledon, Ontario. Soon after, Douglass suffered a heart attack and died, leaving the unfinished home to his son who eventually sold it.
It was then passed untouched, to two more owners before it was finally purchased by architect Peter Rumgay who had dreams to re-erect it as a retirement project. However, the Harber Family had a different idea.
Blair Harber tracked down Peter and convinced him it should be rebuilt a block away from where it originally stood in the town of St. Davids as the Hospitality focal point of the winery.
After lots of thought and consideration, Peter finally agreed, and the Woodruff Home now proudly stands remarkably close to its original form, right down to that same fireplace that was abandoned on the land back in 1812.
Paul also recounts the story of Canadian Hero William Lyon Mackenzie taking shelter at the Woodruff House while hiding from the British troops. Obviously there were no log books to prove this back then, but because of a lucky tip from a family friend, the Harber family was able to acquire a painting of the Woodruff House commissioned by Frederick S. Haines in 1932.
Today, you can find this historical painting still in its original frame with the insignia clearly labeled as the “House in St. Davids where William Lyon Mackenzie lodged,” resting on the fireplace mantle in the Peter Rumgay Parlor of the Hospitality Centre.
The Woodruff House is credited as being one of Canada’s Top Fifty most architecturally significant ancestral homes and is a perfect example of a Georgian Loyalist style home.
As Paul says, “Architecturally, this house is a time capsule. For all the years it was rented out to immigrant families, it was never updated, so it was still true to its original build in 1815 unlike all other estate homes in Niagara that were all updated with the latest and greatest.”
It was touching to see such a young professional like Paul take such pride in his family history.
Next we headed down to the the heart of the Ravine Winery which brought us to the kitchen where Executive Chef Ross Midgely performs his culinary splendor. The kitchen staff were in full swing preparing lunch and prepping dinner.
While I grabbed a few shots, Paul remarks to my research assistant Sue “All we want to do is be a small production artisanal winery that makes great artisanal food. At Ravine, we focus on the guest experience.” And with that, Paul leads us to where the true magic happens, the production facility and wine cellar.
Original Fireplace Built by Peter Secord – circa 1812 now standing in the Ravine Wine Bar.
The facility was hopping with buzz and anticipation as we entered right in the middle of the staff bottling last summer’s harvest so they were all busy at work. Amazing how large those stainless steel containers really are!
A Savoury Future
Not only does Paul dazzle us with his amazing historical accounts but he also lets us in on the family’s vision for the future of Ravine. This includes adding an event facility with the capacity to hold 300 people as well as a roof top patio and cocktail bar.
Another addition Paul is excited about is the newly proposed outdoor pavilion which will accommodate small groups of visitors who may enjoy watching the culinary team of chefs prepare tantalizing meals such as leg of lamb searing on one of seven open-fire stove cooking stations.
All the food served will be locally sourced including the vegetables and herbs picked daily from Ravine’s certified organic garden, adding to the menu’s amazing aromas and savoury taste that only freshly picked produce can offer.
Paul wrapped it all up with a brisk walk outside. The weather this particular day was unbearably hot and when I asked him how his crops were fairing in these unusual conditions he informed me that they were virtually unaffected.
He remarked that this was mostly due to a very unique soil condition where the Niagara River once raged through St. Davids and Ravine’s property, leaving behind 13 to 22 feet of limestone rich loam before touching clay.
The unique soil found below the Ravine’s surface is now referred to by geologists as part of The St. Davids Buried Gorge. This terroir is what gives Ravine wine its unique textured flavour and aroma that they have come to be known for.
An Elegant Experience
As a photographer who loves architecture, I have to say if there was one room that really caught my eye, it was the impressive basement wine cellar. This magical and mystical room is unveiled through a set of french style glass doors.
Picture a grand century wood table seating about 20, spectacularly decorated with all the sparkle and dazzle of fine dining. Tall vintage candelabras and rustic oak wine barrels, give this venue the look and feel of true authenticity.
If there is a wedding in your future, you have to check out this venue. Other impressive features of the wine cellar were the glassed-in charcuterie cave, and antique vinyl record player with records on hand just waiting to be played during an intimate wine tasting affair.
Speaking about wine tasting affairs, I have yet to mention ours. We tried four great Ravine wines starting with the 2015 Sand & Gravel Sauvignon Blanc and the 2015 Sand & Gravel Riesling.
I’m not usually a fan of white wine, but I was pleasantly impressed with the Sauvignon Blanc and would definitely serve it at home and recommend it to friends. Sue, on the other hand really enjoyed the Riesling, she found it less dry and sweeter than my choice.
We finished off by taste testing two reds, the 2015 Ravine Cabernet Franc and Ravine Cabernet Sauvignon.
In this case we both preferred the Cabernet Sauvignon. Thanks to the Alex our server who was super friendly and approachable, she made our experience at the wine bar fun and informative.
We really enjoyed our time at the wine bar and look forward to coming back in the winter when we can review their ice wines and enjoy the outdoor ice-rink!
I learned so much from Paul and my time at Ravine. He made me feel proud to be a lifestyle & travel photographer, capturing and documenting a time in our history for all to experience.
“What has happened in the last ten years was exciting, what is going to happen in the next ten years will be awesome,” he enthused about the Niagara region and its burgeoning wine and tourism industry.
“What has happened in the last ten years was exciting,
what is going to happen in the next ten years
will be awesome!”
We ended our tour by the main restaurant Ravine Bistro where we met brother Alex, Paul’s mother Norma-Jane and wife Nicola who were all kindly attending to guests and going about their daily duties of the winery.
The restaurant was bright and airy with a subtle decor that made you feel cozy and comfortable.
Our overall experience at Ravine Vineyard was nothing short of astounding. For a smaller production winery, the Harber family and their employees have proven that big dreams can grow from small beginnings.
Sue and I want to thank Paul and the entire Harber family for their charming hospitality and to the staff for letting us peek into the daily operation of a truly world class winery. Stay tuned for my next post, when I take you on a journey to one of Niagara’s largest estate wineries.
Photography and story by TRISH O’Flaherty :: Originally published as “A Tale of Two Niagara Wineries: Ravine Wines Have Deep Roots” August, 2016 for www.NatalieMaclean.com
Travel & Lifestyle Photographer & Blogger
Trish is based out of Toronto Ontario, and has worked passionately as a professional Photographer, Graphic Designer and Illustrator for over 20 years.
Do you have an inspirational story to tell? Do you know somebody who’s time it is to shine? Trish will be travelling far and wide to find inspiration people to photograph and write about.
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