Little did he know, several decades later he would be teaching people about tasting notes and the science of winemaking, instead of becoming the classical studies professor he had once envisioned.
Evans, winemaker at Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery in Beamsville, has been in the wine industry in Niagara for nearly 20 years. It's not a far stretch for someone who says he grew up on the generational family farm just north of Kingston. Although then, he was tending to beef cattle and pigs instead of vineyards.
“When I was at university, I just found I was always thinking about growing stuff,” recalls Evans, 49. “I thought I had shaken it out of my system, but I hadn't.”
He changed paths and worked at a nursery, and that's when he first tried his hand at the winemaking world — although it was in a much less luxurious space than on the Beamsville Bench.
“I was making wine in my basement and I was thinking about that more than other things,” he admitted, noting it was Portuguese friends who would come to the family farm, wine in hand, who helped spark his passion for vino.
That's what prompted his move to Wine Country. He came to Niagara in 1997, went back to school to study winemaking at Brock and got a job at a winery. He was with Strewn for 10 years, before spending two years at Stonechurch, and ultimately coming to Peninsula Ridge in August 2009.
“It's been a great transition over the years and I am proud of the work I am doing now,” he said. “Now it's all about dealing with the big picture — what kind of wine you want to make, developing relationships with growers, and seeing the product through from vine to glass.”
That's one of the most gratifying parts of the job, he explains.
“I enjoy the continuity of an idea. I choose which grapes to plant and I see it through not just to a bottle of wine one year, but the next and the year after and year after. It's a total process approach — seeing every part. You're not locked away in a cubical dealing with one aspect of it.”
When it comes to the hands-on work, Evans said his philosophy is to approach winemaking with balance.
“It's really a blend. You have the art side of winemaking — all about sensory and tastes, aromas. Then you have to lean on the science aspect to ensure everything is progressing as you wish. You want to avoid mistakes and it's important you use your scientific training to support you,” he explains.
There's nothing more gratifying, he says, to hear of consumers enjoying the end product. One couple raised a toast to him during a celebration where they were enjoying Peninsula Ridge wines, for example.
“I really try to make a wine that expresses the soils it grew in, that's honest, well made and has lovely flavours, but also balance, finesses and qualities that take it from a simple drink to something more complex,” he says. “(I want) something people want to sit down with some friends and share.”
Of course there are challenges along the way. Being the boss when it comes to winemaking means making the right decisions from planting through to the bottling. He professes harvest is among the most challenging parts of the job.
“You're making decisions sometimes hourly that can have two or three year implications following,” he said, adding weather can also throw the winemakers in Ontario a challenge here and there. Sometimes it's working with the weather, but sometimes it's working to mitigate what the weather brings.
“Harvest, definitely gets the adrenaline going. You work crazy hours,” he adds. “I think my record is a 32-hour work day, and you make decisions on the spot. We work hard. It's a wonderful job, but nobody will say it's easy.”
Then there's the icewine harvest. While Peninsula Ridge hauls in its icewine grapes by machine there's always a risk to even keeping the grapes on the vines. Mother nature can take its toll, whether it be a long wait for the appropriate harvest conditions (the temperature must be a sustained -8C or lower before the grapes can be harvested and then pressed immediately) or the birds.
“You take off every other fruit in Niagara and the birds are hungry. Netted or not, it doesn't matter —they see these sweet, delicious grapes out there and they're hungry for them,” says Evans.
Evans says he's enjoyed his time at Peninsula Ridge — from the beautiful property to the ability to grow the winery's production capacity and diversify its portfolio.
It's also given him a chance to look back and smile while walking through the fields, thinking about his early years on the family farm.
“I often think as I am walking through the vineyard, I am kind of doing the same thing my dad did in different ways,” he says. “It's not growing corn and barley, but it's still growing things.”
Evans says his winemaker's choice at Peninsula Ridge, for those who walk in and are looking for something to purchase, are the 2013 Vintners Private Reserve Sauvignon Blanc — “It was aged in oak barrels and has an incredible depth of flavour, aroma and structure” — and the 2012 Vintners Private Reserve Merlot, “...deep and dark, wonderful complex aromas. It's an elegant, powerful, beautiful wine.”Peninsula Ridge is located at 5600 King St., Beamsville, and you can visit www.peninsularidge.comonline