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Sandor Johnson and his Potter Settlement Winery

A Model Winemaker

A guided tour of Potter Settlement Artisan Winery north of Tweed combines a detailed explanation of the science of grape growing and wine making in a most unlikely location, and geography and history lessons, too.

The tour guide and winery owner, Sandor Johnson, is full of enthusiasm about what he and his family have built on the former dairy farm his great-great-great-great grandparents settled in 1836. This 100-acre property on the southernmost edge of the Canadian Shield is not what anyone would consider wine country. In fact, a large section of the vineyard was previously occupied by a quarry, where a mix of rock and fine sand comprised of multiple minerals was extracted to build highways in the area.

Rock outcroppings of varying colour make the winery’s location uniquely beautiful. The rugged rock formations form a dramatic backdrop for the lush, green vineyards of trellised grape vines. The original wine tasting room is in a gazebo-style building at the crown of the property. The view from there includes the winery building set on top of a large rock formation into which a cave has been blasted for cold storage. The building is adjacent to two large ponds. One of the ponds was dug by Sandor, while the other is an aquifer recharge pond 105 feet deep and fed by an underground river flowing east to west.

The exterior of the winery building is awaiting finishing touches, including charred wood siding. This shou sugi ban technique originated in Japan in the 18th century as a way to treat wood and make it weatherproof. It involves charring the surface of the wood to render it a deep charcoal black. Describing the wood siding makes Sandor’s eyes sparkle with delight. He’s excited by finishing details like these that make his winery unique, which it is, in many ways.

It is the first and only vineyard/winery in Hastings County and one of the most northern latitude vineyards/wineries in North America. When he began the business, Sandor was teased by other winemakers, “What are you making up there – Chateau de pine needle?”
Hastings County is known as the Mineral Capital of Canada, at the apex of goldmines, sulphite mines, an actinolite mine, and limestone mines, all of which were active for generations. “The mineral soil gives more complexity and depth,” says Sandor. “It really amps up the flavour profiles. It truly fleshes out what the grapes give to the wine. This is like a mineral jackpot and it really adds to our tapestry in terms of our complexity of different wines.” His fellow winemakers are jealous, saying, “Your wines are mineral on steroids. It’s not fair.”

Why take on the challenge of growing grapes and making wine where it had never been done before? Sandor is an innovator and doesn’t shy away from a challenge. Innovation is in his genes. He proudly describes his great-great-great uncle Charles Henry Labarge, who owned and operated several cheese factories, including Chateau Cheese in Ottawa. Charles was also an innovator who invented and patented powdered cheese and powdered milk. He sold his cheese factories (in Tweed, Bogart, Otter Creek, and Ottawa) and patents to Borden’s (now Kraft Foods, Chicago) in 1928 for $3 million – about $300 million in today’s dollars – becoming the richest man in Hastings County at the time. The Labarge ancestors were the original owners of the Potter Settlement property in the 1830s.

Winemaking also runs in the family. “Since day one, with my grandfather making wine when I was a child and my Dad in the ’80s and then my kid brother bringing more knowledge with his education, I was there with them every step of the way. So, 30, 40 years of knowledge making wine, that’s what I bring. My brother had the education and the professional experience. I brought a chef who’s also a mead maker and beer maker on board. As a group, including my cellar hands – they’ve been doing this for years and they’re family – when you’re in a valley for 180 years, you’re related to everybody, so I hire a lot of family.”
Sandor has an intense attachment to the land and the immediate area. As a child growing up with his siblings in Hornpayne, Ontario (northwest of Sudbury in Algoma District), he could not wait for summer vacation. Their mother was a teacher and she brought them south to the family property on Potter Settlement Road for two months each year.

“This was always an escape,” says Sandor. “I grew up in northern Ontario. The winters were brutal there. Coming here in the summertime, we were escaping. We were on the family farm. All our cousins were here. They were waiting all winter for us to come down. We’d run around barefoot with the chickens; be up at 6 a.m. to do chores and work at night to do hay.”

As Sandor and his three siblings (two brothers and a sister) grew up and pursued various education and career paths, they remained attached to the family homestead. Despite having top marks in science as a student, Sandor was attracted to the arts, earning a Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Western Ontario. While there, he learned of a modelling call from Ford agency. On a lark, he pursued it. He ended up winning in the men’s category, attracting attention from modelling agencies globally. This side gig supported his education, including a master’s degree in Journalism and Communications from Carleton University.

Sandor worked as a financial reporter for CNN in Tokyo, then worked for other television networks in North America. Modelling was generating more income than his journalism career, so he turned to modelling full-time for almost 20 years. He is the face of many luxury brands and can be spotted on runways in the top fashion capitals around the world. He is represented by 46 modelling agencies and still gets regular calls for modelling jobs. The bonus of travelling around the world routinely is the opportunity to visit winemakers, learn about their techniques, and even acquire some of their yeasts for use at home. The income from his modelling work made it feasible to pursue a winery business.
The first step toward his building his dream business was reclaiming the land. The quarry had to be filled in to establish a vineyard. That took 10 years and included moving large boulders one by one to build a ramp up to the peak of the land, where the original tasting room was built. Then came the challenge of finding vines that could survive the harsh climate (particularly sub-zero degree winters) in this location. Sandor first tried European varietals, assuming if grapes could grow in Austria and Germany, they could grow here. For the first several years, every vine died.

Through his ongoing research, Sandor found Peter Hemstad, a grape breeder at the University of Minnesota. Peter and his team had developed the Marquette grape in 2006 after pioneering the Honeycrisp apple. “They married European Vitis vinifera with North American varietals from Quebec and ended up having the toughness of Quebec and the disease resistance of our natural grapes that grow here in North America, but they have the flavour profiles of France,” says Sandor. “It’s a remarkable grape. It’s great because you don’t have to spray chemicals to keep that plant alive. It can handle the cold as well, and you don’t have to bury the vines in the winter.”

Since the Marquette grape was so new, Sandor was uncertain about whether it would produce a good wine. The first step was see how it grew in the Potter Settlement vineyard. Planted in 2007, it and the previously planted Frontenac Gris varietal both flourished. Sandor approached his brother, a chemist and professional winemaker, with his long-germinating dream of making wine from grapes grown on the family homestead.

His brother was skeptical and admitted he had no idea how to make wine out of these grape varietals. He agreed to work with Sandor to experiment with styles of wine and yeasts, but he would only work with the best of materials. His brother said, “I promise you I’m going to make the best wines of my life for our family, for my grandparents, for you. Because my reputation is on the line and our family reputation is on the line, but I’m going to need you to be really patient; this is going to take a lot of time. And I need you to spend a lot of money.”

“It was serendipity,” says Sandor. “All the stars aligned. We have a winemaker in the family; we have family land in an area with high mineral levels adding a lot to the wines; my career took me all over the world where I could get great winemaking techniques and recipes and yeasts. Being in an area where I have family; we’re from here. When I’m here working, and my cousins are all here, we’re thinking of our grandparents. We miss them. We love them. We want to make them – their memory – proud. There’s a lot more at stake when you’re a family-owned winery on a property that’s been in the family for 180 years than just showing up and trying to make a buck. That’s where we’re coming from.”

The Potter Settlement Marquette wine has not disappointed. It’s the wine Sandor has the most affinity for, “because that’s the one that kind of saved us.” It’s also his biggest seller, and an international award winner.

“That is a world-class wine,” says Sandor. “That’s why I was invited to serve Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It holds its own. This is one of the grapes that has promise for Hastings County. We can grow it here. It’s a prolific producer. It makes gorgeous reds. That’s one of the challenges we have in Ontario, especially in the northeast, making big reds.”

Sandor was also invited to the White House as part of a trade mission for American innovation that spurred economic growth outside of the United States. He had a few moments alone with President Obama. “We had a lovely conversation and within a few minutes, one of his aides came by and said, ‘The President would like your address.’ Then I got this lovely seal and a Christmas card.” The seal, card, and a picture of the pair are framed and displayed proudly on the winery wall.

“I was a disbeliever when I heard about Sandor producing great wine at Tweed, of all places,” says Peter Ward, a founding governor of the National Capital Sommelier Guild and long-time wine critic for The Ottawa Citizen. “The day I spent with Sandor and time at the tasting table were more than convincing. Sandor’s wine work at the edge of the Shield, combined with the hybrids developed at University of Minnesota, have opened a whole new spectrum of potential Ontario grape growing acreage. Potter Settlement makes great wine on a beautiful site.”

The winery opened to the public in 2015, and many of Sandor’s wines have been selling out each year. He now offers 13 different wines, most made with grapes grown on the property. When he uses grapes from elsewhere (sustainable growers in the Niagara region), Sandor acknowledges it with the GPS coordinates of where the grapes were grown included on the label, along with signature, meaning he has signed off on the quality of the raw material.
Potter Settlement wines now have a bit of a cult following, according to Sandor. People are attracted to his organic approach with no sulphites or pesticides and the unique flavour profiles of his wines. “Being an artisan winery is like being a winery in France or Italy, where you’re small and you’ve got families making it, making small amounts of really good wine. That’s lost in the corporate winemaking world. People are getting kind of tired of bulk wine.”

“We’ll always be little,” says Sandor. “I don’t want to be big. There’s beauty in being small.”

Sandor calls his wines artistic creations. “Being an artisan winery, like painting, our wine palette has different colours and styles you won’t get somewhere else.”

Sandor is also all about transparency. Unlike many wineries, he is building a new tasting room on the second floor of the winery with windows overlooking the production area. He wants his customers to see how their product is made, as messy as that may be.

The new tasting room will also include a kitchen where Sandor will display his copper pot collection and where guest chefs will be invited to cook and serve at special functions. A future greenhouse is planned where fresh herbs and vegetables will be grown for use in the kitchen.

The new tasting room will be surrounded by the vineyards themselves, so when people visit, they will be totally immersed in the grape growing experience.

“We have so much to lose being alone here in this entire County and being the pioneer. You want to set the bar and set it high.” At the same time, Sandor is working to encourage others to take a risk and invest in grape growing in Hastings County. Two other families have already joined him. He’s hoping to offer seminars about grape growing techniques for the area.

“Instead of going through Belleville down to Prince Edward County, I want to see tourists coming north from the 401 to Hastings County. It’s exceptionally pretty here. We’re the ones with the minerals. We have the grapes that can grow. We pioneered them here in Hastings County. I think that we would all benefit.”

Photography by Daniel Vaughan