Updated: Apr 18, 2021
By Nicole Edwards
Between Owen Sound and Meaford, near the shoreline of Lake Huron, tourists have come to expect certain things: the roar of boats around Georgian Bay, sunbathing in the summer months, or cozying up in a cabin to watch the leaves fall in autumn. However, there’s one long-time occupant of the inlet that has sometimes gone overlooked. On a patch of land inside the Coffin Ridge Vineyard, Nyarai Cellars — the only Black-owned winery in Canada — diligently blends choice varietals for connoisseurs across the country. Although the winery has enjoyed a steady clientele since its outset, in June as the world rallied in support of Black communities, Nyarai fast became the talk of the town.
Nyarai Cellars isn’t new. Winemaker Steve Byfield started the virtual winery over a decade ago after years spent studying his craft, both in the fields and in the classroom through the Ontario Agriculture College of Ontario at University of Guelph. Being a virtual winery, Byfield harvests on land owned by Coffin Ridge. Since that means he has no storefront, colleagues lent him the space to host tastings during the outpouring of support for Black businesses this summer.
“The feedback was phenomenal. People came in from Milton, from Brampton, they came from Ottawa — and they all just said they wanted to see us for themselves and to show support. I was taken aback, and just proud to see that support and love coming from our community and beyond,” Byfield remembers. “We were running out of wine!”
Although Byfield may be the nation’s sole Black winemaker, he’s quick to point out the significant contributions by Black people to Ontario’s booming wine industry.
“In terms of making wine, there’s maybe a handful of [people of colour] I know who worked as part of the cellar crew. But you can’t forget the migrant workers who come in from the Caribbean as well as Mexico. They’re vital to this industry. Without them, we’d be in trouble,” Byfield says.
That labour, often invisible, is the backbone of so many agricultural endeavours in Canada. In 2019, the LCBO sold a whopping $505 million in wine produced in Ontario. The same year, VQA wines hit a record-breaking $162 million in sales. It takes 50,248 tonnes of wine grapes to fill Ontario’s demand, cultivated with the help of about 20,000 migrant agricultural workers each year. Yet, despite record-breaking sales and obvious demand, the industry has broken little ground when it comes to representation at all levels of the winemaking process.
On Canada’s West Coast, migrant work plays a role in the origin story of the country’s only Indigenous-owned winery, Nk’Mip Cellars. As winemaker Justin Hall recalls, building the winery was a way to keep the Osoyoos community close to their home in the Okanagan.
“My grandmother had nine children,” he says. “A lot of our family and the elders would go into the States to pick apples, peaches, and things like that. She did too. The way my dad tells it, my grandmother would spend $20 to fill her whole car with groceries, and she’d have people come over and look after the kids as much as they could — grandparents or friends — and she would have to turn around and travel right back down to the States.”
Seasonal work in the U.S. was the only way Hall’s grandmother could make ends meet. It was the late 1960s, and there wasn’t much tourism in the area to create jobs. Plus, as Hall tells it, Indigenous residents weren’t the first choice for roles as the tourism industry grew. That left a lot of the Osoyoos community roaming far from home for a paycheque.
“The Chief at the time said, ‘We’ve got to stop this. We have to create something here in the Okanagan.’ So in 1968, we started our own vineyard, one of the very first vineyards in the Okanagan — if not the first. It kept families closer to home.”
In the years since, Nk’Mip Cellars has become a major tourist attraction, standing on a hilltop in the desert terrain near Spirit Ridge Resort and Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre. In one of the hottest regions in Canada, its vineyards exist in a climate uniquely suited to grape-growing, with little rain and none of the harsh hallmarks of Canadian winter.
Hall, who is also an elected member of the Osoyoos Band Council, knocked on quite a few doors before he was able to get his career in wine off the ground in the early 2000s. The first hurdle was landing a job at Nk’Mip. “I bugged our winemaker once a week. In January 2003, a position did come up and I finally got the call,” Hall remembers. “That was on Monday, and by that Friday, I had signed up at the local college for the Viticulture and Oenology program. Within four days, I knew that this was a cool industry and I wanted to be a part of it.”
A few years later, the second hurdle appeared. Hall’s application to a wine program in New Zealand to further his training was denied. “My soul was busted,” Hall says. But with more hard work, networking, and a second application, Hall found himself holding an acceptance letter a short year later.
Though he hesitates to say so himself, Hall is a high-achiever. As senior winemaker, he’s haunted by the prospect of leaving his creations unattended. “It was a holiday Monday this week, but I drove an hour to do 15 minutes of work,” Hall says. “I have a mandate as a winemaker: put the time in at harvest. If you do a good job now, it will save you a massive headache in the future. In the summer, there’s a lot less going on, and that’s when I like to golf a little bit!”
Hall and Byfield both draw inspiration from their heritage when planning for the future of their wineries. Byfield’s latest sparkling wine, Folklore, was produced to commemorate the sacrifice his parents made when they left Jamaica to raise children in Canada. “We have a better life because of what they’ve done. And that goes for anyone from another culture whose parents came to North America to become part of this experience. I wanted to give thanks and praise to them,” he says.
Hall’s sentiments are similar. “I wouldn’t be in this industry if [elders] hadn’t thought back in the 1960s — let’s keep our people closer to home. They did this for us. So now, it’s about seeing a bigger picture and being able to do that for future generations as well.”