By The Globe and Mail, August, 2012.
Grape Growers chairman, inducted into Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1999, grew sales by $10.4-million in fewer than two decades.
Ron Moyer was a hard-driving farmer, grape expert and all-around agriculture maven who fought for fellow farmers and growers and laboured relentlessly to put Ontario wines on the map.
A pioneer of the grapes-for-wine industry in the Niagara region, he was "the undisputed leader in the re-establishment of the grape and wine industry in southwestern Ontario," the Ontario Agriculture Hall of Fame said when it inducted Moyer in 1999.
When asked when Moyer retired from farming, his daughter, Margaret Sharp, referred to Aug. 10, the day Moyer, 94, and his wife of 62 years, Margaret, 98, died in a fire at their home in Grimbsy, Ont.
The Ontario Fire Marshall's Office is investigating the blaze, but officials have ruled out foul play.
Farming was Moyer's "life breath," Sharp said, and "he made it his mission to promote Canadian wine. And my mother held the family together."
Moyer "brought Canadian wine to the attention of the world," concurred Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of the 480-member Grape Growers of Ontario, which Moyer headed for 14 years.
"He played a significant role in putting Ontario wines into government offices around the world. He fought to keep Ontario wines on the shelves and pushed federal officials to develop policies that would assist Ontario growers."
He certainly did well by grape growers. When he began in 1966 as chairman of the Grape Growers of Ontario, sales of grapes for processing yielded $5.2-million for farmers. By 1980, his final year, growers' income had climbed to $15.6-million, and Ontario's wineries reported sales of 46 million litres (the latest figure is 58 million litres, according to the Winery & Grower Alliance of Ontario).
But taxes ate up a considerable part of growers' earnings, leading to Moyer's oft-cited quip within the industry: "This is the most profitable crop of all time - for governments."
Heeding his own advice in his farewell address, in which he urged growers "to be more active at the political level ... and in marketing. Do not criticize others, but accept help with gratitude," he built bridges with federal and provincial politicians to work on subsidies, taxes, tariffs and promotion. Largely through his efforts, the number of Ontario winery retail stores doubled.
Today, Ontario wines have 4 per cent more shelf space than their share of sales in Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores. And Moyer's beloved Niagara Peninsula accounts for more than 90 per cent of Ontario's grape-growing volume.
"He was tenacious about conveying his respect for the growth in Canadian wine and his respect for growers, whether for juice or wine," Zimmerman said. "He was determined to bring the story of good Canadian wine to the public."
Adept at marketing and PR, one of Moyer's earliest tactics was to join a government study mission to Europe, where he lined up buyers for Ontario wines, then set up thrice-yearly tastings at Canada House in London. Those wines were a hit and were then exported to the U.K.
Even though local growers added 300,000 new vines a year between 1965 and 1969, Ontarians seemed to prefer wines from Europe. "Ontario has not been called the land of opportunity without just cause," Moyer said in 1970. "Ask any foreign wine importer."
He became the public face of Ontario wine, appearing regularly on television and at news conferences, often jabbing a pointer at charts showing crop yields and prices.
"There was little public understanding of the progress and the good wines that were coming from Niagara," he explained in the growers' newsletter. "As chairman of the grape growers, I seemed to have some credentials and we ran as hard and as far as we could."
Ronald Claus Moyer was born on a fruit and cattle farm in Ontario's Clinton Township in 1918 to Ira Moyer and Georgina MacLeod, a teacher who graduated from the University of Toronto. Moyer's mother died when he was 10 and his father remarried. There were nine children from the two marriages.
Serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force's 408 "Goose" Squadron during the Second World War, Moyer earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar in two tours of duty in Britain as navigation leader.
According to the Ontario Agriculture Hall of Fame, the original commercial planting of specialist table wine grapes took place at the Moyer farm in 1949. The family says that a decade later, Moyer produced the first commercially viable de Chaunac grape.
In the early 1970s, he developed the vitis vinifera grape in a French hybrid vineyard that became the first supplier of Seyval blanc grapes and a major producer of vinifera varieties for Ontario wineries, the hall of fame noted.
In a Globe and Mail interview in 1979, Moyer pointed out that wine making in Ontario began only after the Second World War; before that, the chief effort was making sherries and ports. "We began with the Labrusca grape, which is native to Ontario but too sharp for making good table wines," he explained. "We brought vinifera in from Europe and hybrids from the United States and we've managed to produce a better grape - and it's measurably improving every year." Some of the varieties were the still-popular de Chaunac, Foch, Villard noir and Seyval blanc.
Moyer supported and took part in research. "The chief objective of experimental work is to get more sun on the grape, which hides under the leaf," he explained. "We do this by trying to deflect the sun upwards onto the grape. This leads to a higher sugar content, which is desirable since it offsets the natural acidity of the grape and leads to a more palatable wine." He also helped structure funding for Canada's first virus-free grapevines program.
In 1975, he introduced a program to buy surplus grapes that were processed and sold as juice or wine on non-traditional markets. He later helped establish strict rules for wine labelling and testing.
"He took us to the next level of maturity for our industry," Zimmerman said.
In addition to his work with the grape and wine industry, Moyer was president of the Canadian Horticultural Council and a long-term director of the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers Marketing Board, where he lobbied governments for crop insurance, and of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association.
His own farmland expanded over the years to 140 hectares from 30, producing strawberries, pears, cherries and asparagus. He won several awards for corn and wheat production, including top honours at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.
It's to be expected that he made his own wine, but friends and family are circumspect about his consumption except to hint that it was robust.
He leaves children Arthur, Margaret and Charles, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.