Focus on the Grower: Daniel Lenko

Daniel Lenko is a third generation grape grower who took over the family farm in Beamsville in 1998. Since then his passion for growing led to the establishment of a winery and is visible in his hands-on operation. We recently spoke with Daniel to learn about his experience as a grape grower.

QUESTION: Tell us about your farm’s history.

ANSWER: The farm was purchased by my grandfather, John, and my dad, William, in 1947. At that time, the farm was planted with traditional labrusca grapes and hybrids. They bought a second farm in the 1950’s, and my dad bought another parcel of land in the 1980’s. Today we have a total of 33 acres. In 1959 my father planted the first Chardonnay vines in Canada. He continued with his pioneering plantings of Merlot in 1974, Riesling in 1980, and Viognier in 1993.

I was looking for a way to reach out to the customer directly and in 1999 the winery was established. From a size stand point I wanted to make our acreage more profitable. The winery was a value-added profit.

Q: What is unique about your vineyards?

A: We are situated in the Beamsville Bench appellation. We only use the grapes we grow to make our wines. We have the oldest Chardonnay in Canada. Some of these vines are six to eight inches across which makes harvesting quite labour intensive and requires a lot of hand harvesting.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

A: The weather. We’re always worried about rain, especially excessive rain. We’re always at the mercy of the gods. Too much rain can play havoc on the grapes.

Q: What makes the perfect grape?

A: An early bud break year. A normal spring with ample moisture that is followed by a hot summer and a warm fall. Getting two tonnes per acre. Leaf removal and hand harvesting so there’s no spoiling of the grape. You want to be the one to crush the grapes.

Q: What advice would you give a new grower?

A: Everybody’s got their own ideas for what they want to do. But the one thing you have to have is a good quality product that provides good value. With the current economy, we’ve seen bottle prices drop. Whether the industry can survive at that price is another question. These are troubling times for selling wines.

It’s important to have good communication with your buyers. You don’t know what some people want so it’s important to have frank discussions. There has to be mutual respect and you have to listen and be patient. Sometimes things work out well, and sometimes they don’t.

Q: What are some of the challenges you see for the industry?

A: It’s more of a lifestyle when you’re starting a winery. It’s a tough lifestyle to have. You have to carry a large inventory and there has to be great strides in distribution. One hour away we have a million people who don’t know we exist. It’s hard connecting the buyer with the wines. Inter-provincial laws have to be updated. Right now somebody could ship a gun from Alberta to someone in Ontario but I can’t ship a bottle of wine to somebody in Alberta. It’s a left-over law from prohibition that needs to be removed. Why can’t somebody from Manitoba phone me to order a bottle of wine and I have it shipped out to them tomorrow? That would really open a lot of opportunities for wineries.

Q: One of the wines you sell is a Chardonngay, with a rainbow label. How did this come about?

A: The Chardonngay is the same wine as our 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay. When I was selling to the LCBO they suggested a promotion and I thought AIDS research was a cause worth supporting. A dollar from each bottle of Chardonngay sold goes to AIDS research. And what’s so interesting is the simplicity of it. We wanted to embrace all of our customers, all year round, and we get to give back to the community.