On a beautiful afternoon surrounded by the vineyards of Fruithaven Farms on Line 8, fellow growers and supporters celebrated with John Fedorkow as he was helped into the prestigious jacket that identifies him as this year’s Grape King, and an ambassador for the industry.
In 1956, the year the first Grape King of Ontario was chosen, the position was rewarded with a crown and cape. The tradition has changed to a distinguished jacket, along with a heavy silver chain which carries the names of all those ambassadors chosen in the intervening years.
During the presentation ceremony last Wednesday, Matthias Oppenlaender, chair of the Grape Growers of Ontario’s Board of Directors, and Fedorkow traded barbs, mostly about the Grape King’s age, but the respect, admiration and affection for Fedorkow was obvious from all who spoke.
Oppenlaender explained the long-standing tradition of naming a Grape King, which goes back 64 years, and joked, “they say wine gets better with age, and the older the vineyards are, the better the wine is. If age is any indication, then this Grape King will be a great ambassador.”
The Grape King is chosen based on vineyard management and knowledge of the industry, and serves as a representative for Ontario’s grape and wine industry at events across the country.
Fedorkow’s duties started with the Mayor’s Grape Stomp last Saturday in Montebello Park, and include the 68th annual Grande Parade Saturday, Sept. 28, as part of the annual Niagara Grape and Wine Festival.
Fedorkow is a member of the Grape Growers of Ontario’s Growers’ Committee, and of the Town’s Agricultural Sub-Committee.
He has been “a valued member of several agricultural associations throughout his career. With his experience and his knowledge of all aspects of grape growing, John will be an asset as Ontario’s next grape and wine industry representative,” said Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of the grape growers’ association.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero also spoke, thanking Zimmerman and Oppenlaender for all they do for grape growers, the town and the region, and for their lobbying efforts on behalf of the industry.
She first met Fedorkow when he was a member of the Town’s agricultural committee, she told the crowd. “He kind of scared me. He seemed like the strong, silent type.”
But she soon discovered, “in no way is he silent” in his efforts on behalf of the grape growers and the community, she said.
Fedorkow was born and raised on a mixed tender fruit farm in St. Davids, and graduated from the University of Guelph in 1980 with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture.
Although he left the area for four years, he returned and purchased Fruithaven Farms in 1984, not far from where he grew up.
It was an old farm, planted with old varieties of grapes, he said.
“I couldn’t pull them out fast enough. I said I would never grow grapes.”
He replaced them with tender fruit and berries, including strawberries, raspberries, cling peaches, pears and plums, and opened a pick-your-own operation.
Thirty years later, he told the crowd gathered to celebrate with him, “I’m the guy planting more and more grapes.”
He began planting wine grapes in 1999, and carried out a major expansion to the vineyards in 2008, after the St. Davids canning factory closed.
“This grape and wine industry, I’m finding it fascinating, and I’m learning a lot.”
He said he is already an ambassador for the industry, as the “pain’ who gives restaurant employees a hard time if they don’t offer Niagara wines.
He admits to feeling his age, and has Oppenlaender of Huebel Grapes Estates manage his vineyards. He promised to be an ambassador for the industry, and asked everyone gathered on his farm to also “spread the word” about Niagara wines.
Being named this year’s Grape King “is a great honour,” he said, thanking the Grape Growers of Ontario, Zimmerman and Oppenlaender for their support.
He also thanked his family.
“Grape growers like me can’t do amazing things without a great wife, and I have a great wife.”
He introduced their son Michael, a police officer with the Niagara Regional Police, their daughter Camille, a registered nurse in the Hamilton General critical care unit, and then, taking a breath to compose himself, he spoke of their son Alex, who died 12 years ago this spring at the age of 14.
“Spring is always a tough time for Debbie and I,” he said. But Alex is “right here behind me,” he added, offering words of encouragement to him in this new venture as Grape King.
“He is always with us, Alex.”
Fedorkow currently grows 75 acres of vinifera grapes for Peller Estates and Creekside Estate Winery, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Semillon.
He also thanked the men who come to Niagara for the summer to work hard on the farm, and who were also part of the celebration.
“We couldn’t do this without them,” he said.