Defying Odds as Hastings County Vintner

 

July 18, 2015 | Toronto Star |
By: Carola Vyhnak Special to the Star, Published on Sat Jul 18 2015

Former All My Children actor now producing wine that gets presidential approval

Stubble-faced, soiled and sweaty from cutting grass, he’s every bit the country boy. But dress him up in Hugo Boss or strip him down to his Calvin Kleins and there’s no mistaking the Greek-god looks of a top fashion model.

Welcome to the two worlds and many hats of Sandor Johnson. A famous figure on runways and in front of cameras around the world, he’s also a grape grower and owner of Potter Settlement Vineyards and Winery, the first such venture in Hastings County, midway between Toronto and Ottawa.

And after toiling arduously under those hats — heavy machine operator, entomologist, chemist, plant scientist — Johnson has just raised a glass to his first 12,000 bottles of wine, produced from the 2013 crop.

Naysayers told him it would never happen.

“A winery in Tweed? What, are you making wine out of pine needles?” he recalls hearing. Real wine appellations, after all, were in Prince Edward County, 75 kilometres due south, or Niagara four hours away.

Call it sour grapes but they were wrong, says a relieved Johnson, who planted his four-hectare vineyard 16 years ago.

The 45-year-old has poured millions of dollars from his 25-year modelling and acting career into the family’s 180-year-old farm on the edge of the Canadian Shield.

“The grapes just love it,” says Johnson of the mineral-filled sandy soil left by retreating glaciers.

He spent 10 years experimenting with varietals and recipes before settling on pinot noir, merlot, Vidal, Riesling, Marquette and several others.

Modelling gigs in New Zealand, California, Europe and South Africa bore fruit when he used the trips to pick the brains of the best in the wine business.

“My goal is to make excellent wine,” he says. “I can’t fail. I don’t care how long it takes.”

The newly minted vintner says he’s had nothing but “amazing reviews,” including one from U.S. President Barack Obama who tasted his wine at a 2011 fundraiser. “He tried it, he loved it.”

Andrew Redden, the economic development manager for Hastings County, didn’t think a winery was possible north of Prince Edward County. But after a sampling, he called it “some of the best wine I ever had.”

But it’s been an uphill battle. Johnson has moved mountains of sand, dynamited granite hillside, hauled rocks, dug a pond and built walls. One boulder the size of a small car took all day to move into place, he says, adding he’s taught himself the how-tos of operating heavy equipment.

“It’s a major departure,” he laughs, reflecting on the switch from well-groomed mannequin to sweat-stained farmer. Turns out he’s a model artisan too.

“Everything’s handmade with attention to detail and care,” he says, pointing out a gazebo topped with a copper cupola, a fountain he found in Florence, Italy, a pair of cherubs and 320-kilogram steel gates crafted by his cousin.

Family support, including expertise from his brother Robin, a professional winemaker, has been vital to the creation of Potter Settlement Wines, he says.

Johnson, who plans to make it a wedding destination, is now building a large, two-storey winery for public events. So far, wine-tasting and private tours are available by appointment only (917-673-5079).

Based in New York City, he spends off-days “where my heart is” and where his future is firmly rooted.

“It’s a life project,” Johnson. “I’ll be 80 and still making little paths.”