Chris Colaneri says one of his father’s last memories of Italy is of donkeys with pack saddles carrying newly-harvested grapes up the slope of the family vineyard.
With the Colaneri family’s Italian heritage and history in the wine industry, when Chris learned of the possibility of incorporating the animals into Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Colaneri Estate Winery, he was onboard pretty quickly.
Melina Morsch, owner of Fox Den Goat Yoga, had sought out some mini Mediterranean donkeys she planned to use for weddings, to entertain guests while photos are being taken, and to appear in photos with the bridal party. Her first purchase was Jenny, a friendly female. However, as Jenny began to put on weight, she discovered the donkey was going to give birth after about 13 months of pregnancy, and Morsch again began to search out donkeys, knowing Jenny would be on maternity leave for a while. She then purchased Phyllis and Earl from a breeder, but with weddings of any size cancelled, she had to find a plan B.
After some investigation, she discovered a European sport called donkey trekking, competitions that involve an athlete and a donkey navigating obstacle courses together, and was thinking that she could turn that into something fun to do in Niagara. But then she came across some descriptions of donkeys being used in Italy to transport harvested grapes, and had a lightbulb moment, picturing her adorable, friendly and even cuddly donkeys charming visitors to a local winery — and Colaneri, with its Italian connection, seemed the obvious choice. After emailing Chris to share her idea, he emailed back and said, ‘let’s make this happen,’ and the two began planning a one-hour VIP experience for Colaneri to offer on their wine tours, which began last weekend.
Earl and Phyllis are doing the tours now, and love it — on Sunday, they were happy to get into the trailer to be transported to the winery, and Phyllis didn’t want to leave at the end of the day, says Morsch. Once Jenny’s baby, Aires, is weaned, the two of them will also become part of the experience.
It’s like a normal day for the donkeys, only they’re in vineyards instead of their paddock, “snacking and walking, snacking and walking,” and enjoying foraging with a different menu of weeds and grass to munch on, says Morsch.
“Plus, they love the attention they’re getting.”
Chris has set up a donkey pavilion by the winery with picnic tables, where the tours begin and end, and there is a pizza oven close by. Each tour has two components — lessons from Morsch about donkeys and their connections to wineries, and the more traditional component, with visitors learning from Chris and Colaneri staff about vineyards, grapes and wine production.
Photos are an important part of the tour, and there is plenty of time for those, along with tastings of four Colaneri wines, one sparkling that’s offered at the beginning of the tour, and two reds (including their top of the line), and one white at the end. There are also opportunities along the tour, with a maximum of 10 people, to lead and pet the donkeys as visitors are able to stroll leisurely through the vineyards. It’s very welcoming, says Morsch, and completely hosted, with lots of individual attention.
“It’s all about Instagram and the photos,” says Chris.
“This is something really unique, and the donkeys are very photogenic.”
They learned after this weekend’s tours that most of the women come prepared, dressed up for the photos, adds Morsch.
“Everyone left really, really happy,” she says, with some of the tours fully booked.
Chris’s parents, Mike and Betty, love having the donkeys around as well, and Betty, says Morsch, keeps suggesting they create a special place for them at the winery so they can live there permanently.
“There is something very calming about the donkeys,” says Morsch. “They really bring something different to the tours.”