When local comedian and business owner Joe Pillitteri emceed the 25th annual Ontario Winery Awards Thursday, the irony was not lost on those who know him.
Pillitteri was about nine weeks into what he has decided will be three months of abstaining from alcohol, not an easy feat when his career choice puts him in the position of wine-tasting and drinking almost daily, often with three different events a day where wine is the focus of the occasion.
And that’s just his day job as owner of Lakeview Vineyard Equipment, selling heavy-duty grape-harvesting machinery.
His passion and part-time evening gig is as a stand-up comic, often as master of ceremonies, and if it isn’t in a bar or a winery, there is always alcohol being served.
While he doesn’t drink before or during an onstage appearance as the popular funny guy from Niagara-on-the-Lake, when he’s done, he’s accustomed to relaxing and making up for lost time in the drinks department, he says. Between his innate ability to tell great stories and make people laugh, and his work in the wine industry, it’s not surprising he would have a bit of a reputation as someone who likes to party.
And he does, but these days, the drink in his hand is alcohol-free.
“It’s wasn’t an epiphany or anything like that. In our business we used to put on a lot of miles. Two-thirds of our sales were to the U.S., and we realized it would be more productive and efficient to bring our clients here to show what we can do for them, rather than us travelling to them. So we host a lot of people in Niagara, for two to three days at a time. We take them to vineyards and wineries, and show them the processes and the machinery we sell. They are interested in seeing our grape-growing region. With that come the lunches, the wine-tasting, the dinners, three or four weekdays at least.”
This is a busy time of year, says Pillitteri, with a lot of such events coming up.
“I just decided I would take a three-month booze break. In this business the time would never be right, so why not choose the busiest time of the year?”
He said initially it was difficult, often walking into an event where the first thing he saw was the sparkling wine, or buckets of beer — but it became easier as he went along.
He has been visiting a counsellor every two weeks throughout, to give him the tools he needs to succeed and to talk about some of the difficulties.
He’s reminded at those sessions to keep counting the benefits of not drinking, chief of which, he says, is a better night’s sleep, making busy days easier.
“I’m more organized and refreshed at work, and I find I have the ability to deal with stress better. A couple of beers doesn’t help solve any problems that come up. A clear head does.”
He’s also lost weight — 10 to 12 pounds — and that makes him feel energized, he says.
“I don’t necessarily tell people what I’m doing, but if they ask I’m happy to tell them. Most people are overwhelmingly supportive. Outside of some innocent teasing, there’s been no downside. I remind myself every day of the benefits to my body. It’s awesome — I’ve been building a house and planting grapes on the property, and I have no problem getting up at six in the morning to work the land. I feel great.”
He and Rebecca have built a house on a 10-acre property on Lakeshore Road, and eight acres will be planted with grapes. He’s calling it Rounding Error Vineyard — he’s been teased about rounding the number of acres of the small parcel of land — and will use the vineyard to experiment with grape-harvesting equipment and demonstrate the equipment to customers. Lakeview doesn’t just sell equipment, but through the knowledge of his partner, Jesse Willms, also the expertise of how best to use it to improve crops and produce high-quality wine.
Pillitteri’s start date for abstaining was just days before he and Rebecca left on a trip to Napa Valley. “People wouldn’t believe I could take my wife there and not drink, but I did,” he said. She offered to avoid visiting wineries, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “She respects what I’m doing, but we went to the wineries.”
Pillitteri’s three-month abstinence comes to an end July 6, he says, and a couple of days later he and Rebecca head to Halifax with his parents, his two sisters and their husbands — his father Vince wants to take them to Pier 21, where he, along with the majority of Italian immigrants, arrived in Canada.
He says he doesn’t delude himself into thinking alcohol abstinence might be a permanent condition. His goal is to limit consumption to weekends — the trip east will be his first test.
“I think now the Monday to Thursday thing is attainable. I can live with that for sure.”
Pillitteri says he doesn’t want to sound like he’s “preaching in any way. I’m not. I think people will understand why I’m doing this if they understand what my days are like,” he says, using last Thursday as an example, with a reception before and after the awards presentation, and an open house at Lakeview that evening, all with alcohol on offer.
“Right now, this is my story, and it feels like what I should be doing. It’s been a good experience and I’ll definitely get some material out of it for my next show. I’m already working it out in my head.”
His next stand-up performance is Joe Pillitteri and Friends at Jackson Triggs on Sept. 5. It’s not sold out yet, but it will be — it’s become a popular annual event, with 100 per cent of the proceeds going to the Terry Fox Foundation. For more information or tickets for the dinner and show or just the show, visit https://www.greatestatesniagara.com/product/Joe-Pillitteri-Friends-Comedy-Show-Dinner.