With the town promising a tourism strategy within the next year to 18 months, wine industry representatives want to ensure there is input from farmers, wineries, residents and other tourism stakeholders in creating the strategy, before it becomes a document used to make decisions at the council table.
Tim Coons of Peller Estates and Andrea Kaiser of Drea’s Wine Co. and Drea
Kaiser Marketing, as well as continuing to work with Rief Estate Winery two days a week, were at council Monday night to provide an update on the Niagara-on-the-Lake wine industry and its impact on quality of life locally, including jobs, economic well-being and sustainability. Their goal was to ensure the industry, and the importance of its sustainability, is well-represented in any discussion of a tourism strategy.
“Our mighty industry is made up of 42 wineries right here in NOTL, over 9,500 acres of vineyards, and 179 grape growers,” Coons told councillors.
There is the equivalent of more than 6,200 full-tme jobs, all created from producing 100 per cent local wines — jobs in farming and agriculture, manufacturing, commercialization, and tourism, he said. “It won’t be a big surprise, but our local industry in NOTL has evolved significantly over the last century.”
Local farming began with fruit trees, starting with peaches and cherries, and, by the 1880s, the area had a thriving fruit-growing industry, which led to a large manufacturing and canning industry.
In the 1950s and 60s, the local demand for canning began to fall off — it could be done cheaper overseas, Coons said. By the 1970s the wine industry had begun to fill this gap, “giving the region hope for the future.”
The modern wine revolution in Niagara started with industry pioneers planting some of the first vinifera grapes, he said. “Our industry has grown from infancy to 9,500 acres of vineyards in just under 50 years, simultaneously gaining a reputation as a world-class agriculture, manufacturing, and service-based industry.”
Today, Coons said, winemaking is the greatest value-added agricultural industry in the world. “You might be thinking this is a bold statement, but it’s true.”
About 90 per cent of Canadian agriculture is exported —almost 80 per cent of soybeans, for example, is exported to China alone, and most of the domestic consumption is used in meal for livestock, representing little to no added value for our economy.
“Soybeans are picked at $300 per tonne, which pale in comparison to grapes that command anywhere from $700 to $2,500 per tonne, and add value right here in our backyard.”
“In our wine industry,” he continued, “we grow grapes, we farm, tend to the vineyards, and we add value through the many facets of manufacturing, commercialization and tourism — and there are a lot of people involved to make this happen.”
At the heart of it all, Coons said, “it starts with our farmers, and their passion and dedication to growing some of the finest grapes in the world. We are a farming community with a rich history of family legacies dating back to the 1800s. And the great part is that is when the wine industry thrives, these legacies are protected.”
Manufacturing in the industry includes winemaking, sorting, bottling, shipping, and distribution, and jobs range from winemaker and cellar hand to truck drivers and trades people. “These are high-paying, skilled jobs, right here in our community.”
Another “mostly invisible” side of the industry is commercialization, he said, including product development, marketing and promotional activities “to create a really big reputation for our small town.”
Value is also added by bringing NOTL wines to consumers in Canada and around the globe, mostly sold through retail, e-commerce, and restaurant channels.
“And, of course, our secret, winery tourism,” Coons said, an umbrella term that includes hospitality, retail, events, tours and tastings, and restaurants, which together contribute over $280 million to the region’s economy.
With decades of involvement in the wine industry, and a father that was considered one of its pioneers, Andrea Kaiser spoke to councillors about sustainability, and a need for the industry to be profitable.
“Our community is home to the only specialty crop area in the province and the greenbelt — think about that — and so it is imperative we look at how we continue to ensure these lands are sustainable and preserved for future generations.”
To protect agricultural land, three pillars of sustainability must be recognized — environment, of course, “but also community and economic well-being,” Kaiser said.
“Our industry cares deeply about the environment and protecting our planet for future generations. And at the end of the day we are farmers first,” committed to working within the greenbelt to secure a sustainable future.
Producing local wine ensures a sustainable future for NOTL’s farming community, she said. During the last decade, farmland in the Niagara Peninsula has decreased by 4,600 acres, however in NOTL, “we have a good news story.” Farmland grew by more than 200 acres, “and as the wine industry continues to succeed, it ensures a bright future for the farming community.”
“But — and this is the core of the presentation and what I’d like you to take away,” she said, “to be sustainable we need to also think about community and lifestyle.”
The wine industry has contributed to NOTL being named one of Canada’s most liveable places, with rankings that consider entertainment venues, restaurants and theatres, scenery and natural landscapes and “we were the top place in Ontario to be given this distinction,” Kaiser said.
“But what I find most interesting about the three pillars of sustainability is the one almost often forgotten – the need to be profitable to be sustainable.”
A local tourism strategic plan must ensure long-term sustainability, she said.
“Certainly COVID has presented unprecedented challenges, as have so many other businesses, but even before COVID many wineries were struggling to be profitable.”
Kaiser asked council to pause on any decisions related to tourism until the strategy is complete, and to work with the wine industry to create “a better NOTL for everyone. “
She referenced a tourism strategy developed in the 1990s and a report put together by TEMCO, a tourism management committee led by Debi Pratt, tasked with ensuring a sustainable tourism and wine industry, and suggested a similar process be developed to put a plan in place that is good for businesses, as well as the quality of life for residents.
“What we’re really asking,” she said, “is don’t put the cart before the horse. Do the work with the industry, our neighbours and our community, to figure out a tourism strategy, and then use it to make decisions at the council table.”
Coun. Wendy Cheropita told council she sees a tourism strategy “as the number one priority” for the town, with a strategy providing a roadmap to both guide tourism and address residents’ concerns. She presented a motion asking to have the strategy put first on a list of town priorities, in part to ensure NOTL gets its fair share of tourism support.
Coun. Allan Bisback said the budget committee has also discussed the importance of a tourism strategy, but was uncomfortable with putting it first “above all else,” with a total of 19 studies planned for 2022.
The impact of the motion “would be nominal,” said CAO Marnie Cluckie, with it already next on her to-do list. It would take priority over planning issues, as stated in the motion, “but it would not stop the planning work. It just means I would need to focus more on the tourism strategy at this point.”
Coun. Norm Arsenault also said he couldn’t support making it the top priority, because it would take away the ability for staff to work to their own schedules as necessary.
Planning and zoning issues are also important, added Lord Mayor Betty Disero, asking for a delay of a week on Cheropita’s motion, so it could be discussed during the budget meeting.
Cheropita said it’s already in the budget, is really about process, and she did not want to see it delayed, saying she’d like to see timelines and staff allocated to it.
Coun. Erwin Wiens said he too is concerned about the 19 studies going on, and a timeline of 12 to 18 months for the tourism strategy, which is supposed to be a priority. “Everybody wants us to take care of it, and we say we’re going to take care of it,” he said. “Tourism has more impact on NOTL than anything else, and we’re not giving us the due process it needs. I think it should be a priority.” Staff should know it’s a priority, he added, and it needs to be done before the election.
Coun. Clare Cameron said she shared the “discomfort that it should be a priority above all else,” tying the hands of staff, without knowing what else might come up.
Cheropita’s motion was defeated, with Arsenault, Bisback, Cameron, John Wiens and Disero voting against it.