(May 29, 2008)
If Wayne Gretzky, Mike Weir and Dan Aykroyd walked into a wine
bar, what would they order? Tony Aspler explores how each of these
Canadian icons got into the wine business.
Golfer Mike Weir was first in the field. Maybe he got the wine
bug from his PGA buddies, Greg Norman and Ernie Els who both have
their own wine labels, the former in Australia, the latter in South
Africa. A little off-course competition perhaps. "Actually,
I've never considered it a competition at all," Mike told me.
"I've always enjoyed good wines. I spent a lot of time growing
up in the Niagara region, and I've paid close attention to the growth
and success of Canadian wines over the years."
Mike's grandparents emigrated from Italy and settled in Niagara
Falls, and like many Italian immigrants, they made their own wines.
The first wine Mike ever drank was a homemade wine at his grandfather's
table. "I think he cut it with ginger ale," says Mike.
"The grapes came from Niagara, even if they were a little rough
Does Mike Weir get to share the wine that now bears his name with
his fellow international golfers? Indeed he does. He has hosted
events at the last two Presidents Cups where his wines were the
only ones served. Currently under the Mike Weir label are Cabernet
Shiraz, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Merlot and Vidal Icewine.
And what has the pursuit of the grape taught Mike Weir? "There
are incredible similarities between wine and golf. Golf, like wine
knowledge, is a journey. They are both lifelong pursuits that keep
you constantly trying, practising and learning more. I don't think
you ever get to the point where you can say that you've reached
'perfection' in either case."
The wine epiphany for comedic actor Dan Aykroyd occurred in a Los
Angeles nightclub in the early 1980s. The erstwhile Blues Brother,
Ghostbuster and Conehead was the opening act for his Saturday Night
Live chum, Steve Martin. That night, his Blues Brothers Band guitarist
Steve Cropper opened a bottle of wine for him. "It was a big
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon," Dan recalls, although he doesn't
remember the winery or the vintage. "I changed my whole perception
of what I wanted to taste for the rest of my life."
Until that Proustian moment, he confesses that a big night out
in his hometown Ottawa was a bottle of Mateus Rosé. "On our
dinner table at home, my parents had Kressmann and big jugs of white
Italian wine. My dad bought in volume. But actually my first taste
of wine was Mogen David at a Seder."
In 2005, Dan Aykroyd acquired the Canadian rights for the ultra-premium
tequila, Patrón. The Canadian importing agent for this brand is
Toronto-based Diamond Estates, a company that controls three wineries
in the Niagara region – EastDell Estates, Lakeview Cellars and Birchwood
Estate Wines. Dan sunk $1 million into Diamond Estates, saying at
the time, "This is a sound investment in a growing and exciting
company with smart people. It's also an investment in my home province
and an opportunity to put more Canadian wines on shelves alongside
Australian and Chilean vintages."
Given his international celebrity status, it was perhaps a no-brainer
that Dan Aykroyd should have his name on the label. "They asked
me if I'd like to have my own wines... how good is that?"
In the fall of 2007, the company broke ground for the Dan Aykroyd
Winery. This 4,200 m² (45,000-sq.-ft.) facility will be built off
the Queen Elizabeth Way, on the site currently occupied by Diamond
Estates' Birchwood Estate property. The range of Dan Aykroyd wines
includes Vidal Icewine, Chardonnay and Cabernet Merlot at popular
prices, and a new Vidal Icewine produced under the exclusive Reserve
Click onto gretzkyestatewines.com and you'll be greeted by a portrait
of Wayne Gretzky that suggests his interests go far beyond the hockey
arena. Posed against a backdrop of vine rows with a glass of wine
in his hand, he wears an enigmatic smile. Perhaps the wine reminded
him of the first glass he ever tasted – a red wine made by his grandfather
in the 1960s, when Wayne was growing up on a farm in Brantford,
Wine is not a beverage you would necessarily associate with hockey,
but now that Wayne Gretzky is coaching behind the bench rather than
scoring on the ice, he can allow himself that indulgence. "For
many years Janet and I have wanted to fulfill a dream of launching
a winery that makes world-class wines," he says. "And
we are fortunate to have found talented winemakers who have already
won numerous international and domestic wine awards."
Like Mike Weir's wines, Wayne's are made by the winemakers at Creekside
Estate Winery in Jordan Station – Rob Power and Craig McDonald –
and the labels of the unoaked Chardonnay and Meritage (a red Bordeaux
blend) and a new Vidal Icewine bear his legendary number 99. In
2009, these wines will be made at the Wayne Gretzky Estate Winery
in Niagara Region, currently under construction.
While none of the three celebrity winery guys actually get their
feet in the vat, they do involve themselves in selecting the final
blends that end up in the bottle. According to Mike Weir, "I
have been fortunate to have been involved in every aspect of the
wines – from packaging and labels, to commenting on the wines themselves.
I actually do the blending on the Cabernet Shiraz with the winemakers,
although I wish that I had much more time to dedicate to that part
of the process. I really enjoy being part of the winemaking and
I have a lot of respect for the talents of the winemakers."
Both Mike Weir and Wayne Gretzky donate proceeds from the sales
of their wines to their own foundations. For Mike, the mission is
"to advance the physical and educational welfare of children;"
and for Wayne the recipients are at-risk or disadvantaged youths.
Now to go back to that question that opened this piece: they would
probably do the gentlemanly thing and order a glass of Bob Izumi's
Coyote's Run Chardonnay – because that TV fishing personality also
has his own vintages, produced at his small craft winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
In an effort to "make a difference," Mike Weir formed
the Mike Weir Foundation to support children in need. Net proceeds
from the sale of his wines are donated to this worthy cause. weirwines.com
An investment in his home province, the new Dan Aykroyd Winery
will celebrate the region's terroir as well as pay tribute to
Dan's 30-year career by showcasing some of his favourite memorabilia.
Take a light-hearted video tour of Wayne Gretzky's winery with
colourful host Jim Jerome, and learn more about Wayne's winery
and its support of the Wayne Gretzky Foundation. gretzkyestatewines.com
Article by Tony Aspler
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