Life Among the Vines

Niagara-this-Week | July 13, 2015
By Tiffany Meyer
Photo by Mike Sansano

When he’s not buried in the latest mystery novel, Bill George solves the riddle that is the grape-growing business
Bill George likes to tuck into the pages of a good mystery novel. The last one he bent the spine of was Tom Clancy’s Threat Vector.

Come this time of year, though, George doesn’t need a paperback to provide him with intrigue. He finds plenty of it growing grapes in his Beamsville vineyard, and as the chair of the Grape Growers of Ontario.
After two uncharacteristically cruel winters took a toll on grapevines throughout Ontario’s wine regions, and a brutal frost racked up more crop losses in Prince Edward County in May, George is simply trying to make sense of the cold-blooded killer named Mother Nature.

“Having gone through two bad winters, there will be challenges going forth,” George said while taking a time out on his farm that’s mere steps from Lake Ontario. “Hopefully we just get out of this cycle of cold weather.”
When bad weather strikes, he hears about its effects from growers throughout the province, and he becomes the face and voice of the issue when the media starts calling. But if it’s not the weather leaving him guessing, George always has crop price negotiations between the wineries and Grape Growers to keep him busy.

It’s a task that takes him out of the vineyard and into an office, but the 46-year-old admits he “thoroughly enjoys that kind of work.” Tabling a $75 million-deal is a thrill. “Usually the first $70 million is easy, but the last million… that’s a challenge and it’s about getting the best price for growers,” he says.

George has helmed the Grape Growers for the past nine years — the high end of average terms for a chair. He was first elected to the board as a director 20 years ago, the same year his son Will was born. He has seen great change in that time, and with it turmoil, even on his own farm, where in the late 1980s his father Bill George Sr. couldn’t see a future in farming. Growers were beginning to replace labrusca grapes with European varieties better suited to making wine. Feeling bleak about the situation, the elder George encouraged his son to stay in school.

But he didn’t listen. George returned home from university and began in earnest to transition the family’s mixed fruit farm entirely to wine grapes, which today are sold exclusively to Jackson-Triggs.

“I felt it was the right move and still feel it was the right move with what happened to apple growers, and peaches and pears and the processing plants that closed,” George recalled.

By the time he was elected director, following in the footsteps of his father, who held the post for a decade, the shift from labrusca to wine grapes was well underway. George has since been part of a push to grow better quality grapes in an effort to win more fans of Ontario wines.

“We’re just doing that much better of a job and it’s reflected in the wines that wineries are producing,” he notes.
Early in his term as chair, he dealt with the last of that tense and emotional 20-year-long industry changeover. In 2007, Cadbury-Schweppes in St. Catharines shuttered, which left the last of the labrusca growers, whose harvests went into Welch’s products, little choice but to yank most remaining Concord and Niagara grapevines.

Eight years later, however, optimism prevails. The sign at the end of the laneway into the George farm, where he lives with wife Lesliann, their children, Katelyn and Will, and the family’s beagle, Dixie, reads Happily Ever After Starts Here. It’s easy to believe scanning the 140 sprawling acres of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines that overlook a sparkling Lake Ontario.

Will dreams of opening a winery when he graduates from Humber College where he’s studying business. George admits to having had no idea about the plan until Will outlined it in a successful college scholarship application.
Unlike his own father, who tried to talk him out of farming so many years ago, George delights in the prospect of his son coming home after graduation.

“I’m happy if wants to do that,” he says. “I’m happy to grow the vines and be in the vineyard. I think every parent wants their child to grow the family business.”