'By no means are we out of the woods': Niagara wineries look to bounce back after the pandemic

·3 min read

As wineries gear up for what was expected to be the first “business as usual” season since the pandemic, cost-of-living concerns and sky-high gas prices might put a damper on that excitement and dissuade wine lovers from making the trip to Niagara.

Erin Mitchell, president of Megalomaniac Wines in the Niagara Benchlands, wants to see a “comeback summer” this year, as wineries are poised to welcome tourists back with open arms.

However, she also warns that predicting if tourists will come back in large numbers is “very difficult” and wants to see support from the government to help the tourism industry get back on its feet.

BUSINESS AS USUAL?

This is the first season since 2019 that the wineries can operate business as usual, and Megalomaniac used the opportunity to redesign its tourism experience, refreshing the visitor area and tasting experiences, and opening a new restaurant area last year. “We wanted to take the tasting experience up a notch,” said Mitchell.

In a promising sign for tourism, Richard Linley, president of Ontario Craft Wineries, said “the recent May (long weekend) saw a return to pre-pandemic level visits to our wine regions, which is likely indicative of pent-up tourist demand.”

However, Mitchell warned that “by no means are we out of the woods.” She said that it's difficult to predict if tourists will return in their pre-pandemic habits and is asking the government to play its part in supporting the wineries in this delicate stage.

“The government needs to do everything it can as we claw our way back,” she said. “The tourism industry still needs support.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF TOURISM

Tourism is a key part of wineries’ business models. Stephen Gash, general manager at Malivoire Wine, said “welcoming back visitors to our winery is vital to the sustainability of our business.”

“Tourism is vital to our overall business and connects directly to growing our brand at the LCBO, in restaurants and online,” he said.

And tourism to wineries is important to the economy of the entire region. Aaron Dobbin, president and CEO of Wine Growers Ontario, estimates that 2.4 million people visit Ontario’s wine country every year.

“Wineries in Niagara are the anchors to our vibrant regional tourism cluster,” said Gash. “When we thrive and prosper, so do our partners running the bed and breakfasts, the hotels, the restaurants and the local shop owners.”

One important population of tourists are Quebecers, who are “big supporters of Ontario wine,” according to Mitchell. Wine lovers drive down from Quebec in order to visit wineries and fill up their cars with an annual supply of wine from Niagara.

Another important group is Americans who come across the border from places such as Rochester and Buffalo.

MONEY WOES

However, as gas prices rise, cost-of-living concerns mount, and border hurdles remain in place, wineries may be seeing fewer road trips from tourists from Quebec, the U.S. and further afield.

And once they do reach wine country, “we do worry that the continuation of record gas prices could affect the spending power of our customers,” said Linley. “Do customers have less money to spend once they arrive? That seems inevitable, which will have direct and indirect economic impacts on overall tourism.”

At Megalomaniac, Mitchell sees the silver lining. She hopes that tourists from nearby, from places like the GTA, Kitchener-Waterloo and southwestern Ontario, are tempted to stay local and go on day trips rather than go on longer excursions. “I think it could work out in our favour,” she mused.

She posited that heading to Niagara is “one of the most economical ways to have a change of scenery without using a full tank of gas.”

“People who live in Toronto don’t have to go to Napa (or other foreign wine regions) in order to have an amazing wine experience.

“This is the year of domestic travel,” she said.

Chris Pickles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News

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