“I know what I’m doing, I’m confident in it, well confident. Some people around here think I grow the best grapes.”
Linford “Dougie” Hall is a serene and self-assured man. He first came to Niagara-on-the-Lake from Linstead, Jamaica on June 5, 1978, on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and has been working in vineyards ever since. He went back to Jamaica off-season until 2005, when he decided to stay in Canada. “My work is here,” he says.
Hall just celebrated his 65th birthday (“I feel pretty good”), and continues to enjoy the hard work and great reward of vineyard management at Coyote’s Run Estate Winery.
“I know all about the grapes,” says the compact and elegant man, removing his well-worn baseball cap. “I learned it all in the field.” Hall started at Stonechurch Vineyards (now Small Talk Vineyards), and was patiently trained by then-owner Lambert Hunse. “He taught me everything I know,” the sincere man says with gratitude and respect.
Hall moved from Stonechurch to Coyote’s Run in 2012 — the same year he became a Canadian citizen. “It was hard to leave there and come here. Hank [Hunse, owner of Small Talk] came two years ago and asked me to come back. He said there’s a job for me there anytime.” The opportunity at Coyote’s Run was worth it though, and has paid off. “I was hired as a tractor driver and experienced vineyard person, and was promoted to vineyard manager.”
The field-schooled viticulturist is proud of his clean vineyards, and his clean record.
“People come from Niagara College to see what we’re doing,” he says. “’How come your vineyards are so clean? What are you doing here?”
What are you doing here?”
I always come out with clean berries, no fungus, no bugs — just clean berries. Everyone says it.” He cites some important names in the industry: “Thomas Laszlo, [former winemaker at Stonechurch] walks in the vineyard, says he has never seen anything like this, not even bugs or fungus on the leaves. Even Ron [Giesbrecht, faculty and co-ordinator of Niagara College’s wine programs] says it’s super-clean, pristine clean,” he says with great satisfaction.
The father of four (aged 19 to 31) says, “I think I’m a nice guy — I don’t break rules. I got my driver’s licence in 1979 — not one ticket since.” He recounts with pride, “I was pulled over by a cop a few years ago. He told me I was speeding, and I knew I wasn’t, because I never speed. He took my driver’s licence and scanned it and said, ‘This guy is so clean.’ He let me go.”
One of Hall’s sons is a chemical engineer, currently working at the winery until he lands a more permanent job. One of his daughters is an ultrasound technician. His offspring seem to have inherited Hall’s clear, logical mind.
Even Hall’s fingernails are clean: He met and wooed his second wife, Mary, at her nail salon, where he would go regularly to get manicures. They’ve been married for five years now. Hall feels short and well-maintained nails are a crucial aspect of vineyard management, where any fungus, insect or residue could be tracked from one vine to another. He flashes his strong and immaculate hands, fingers that can sense the life and health of a plant through simple touch.
Part of keeping healthy vines is maintenance and dedication, Hall believes. He is often found on the property as early as 4:30 a.m., and on weekends. “I scout the vineyards every weekend, do all the tractor driving myself,” he says. “I keep chemicals to a minimum, and check the berries. I follow labels and weather.”
In the weather department, this year has been a doozy. Hall has been monitoring the vines to determine whether or not they have survived the brutal cold snaps, as well as the ice and warm spells. He explains the process: “I went to each block and collected 10 canes with 12 buds on each at random from across the block,” he says. “I put all the canes in water and left them for four or five days, until I could see the buds swelling up — then I cut them open to see which ones were dead, and which ones were alive. This way I can tell right away how many canes are alive or dead in any vineyard.”
It looks like the brutal winter hasn’t done as much damage as it might have: most of the varietals at Coyote’s Run are at an 85 per cent or higher success rate. Hall has a plan to mitigate any losses. “If there are dead buds on a vine I will leave more when pruning, to compensate. I might have to leave a longer cane, but I can still compensate,” he says confidently.
While in the summer and harvest seasons Hall runs a staff of 10 to 18 people, he has plenty to do throughout the winter too. “I’m busy here all year around — I’m responsible for all of the machinery, servicing the tractor and ATVs. All the machines I use I maintain myself, winterize them, put them away,” he says.
The fifth of 11 children, Hall makes time to visit his friends and family in Jamaica regularly. “I have lots of sisters and brothers there. I miss it sometimes — especially now, in February,” he laughs, looking out over the property seized in ice. “At one point I thought maybe I’d retire to Jamaica, but now more and more it’s no.”
While he has siblings in Jamaica, Hall’s family is here in Niagara. He has chosen family here as well, in Coyote’s Run’s winemaker, Taylor Hulley, and his partner Laurel Minnes who took him to Silks Country Kitchen in Virgil for his birthday. “That’s like family.”
“I like to hang out with Taylor, he’s such a nice guy,” says a gracious and grateful Hall. “Taylor and I make a happy working crew. It’s beautiful working with Taylor — he’s so easy to get along with.”
The two men clearly have a surfeit of respect for one another: Hulley has much good to say about Hall. “Dougie is a good man and a great teacher. I’m constantly learning from him. He has a way of understanding things from the inside out. Whether he’s fixing engines or growing grapes he just seems to inhabit whatever he sets his mind on. It’s that empathetic thought process that I most admire about him,” says the winemaker. “I think that’s also what drives his fierce loyalty and sense of duty to the people in his life. He knows what it’s like to go through tough times and when he sees someone in need he’s always there to help.”
When asked, Hall says his experience with racism as a person of colour in Niagara has been blessedly limited, “And if there’s ever one person who is rude, the majority of people are so nice, they just blanket over anyone who isn’t.”
This good man’s sensible creed: “I try to work within the rules, be a law-abiding citizen, and I am honest — it’s a great way to be in life. The only way to be.”