Emerging from the demise of large-scale tobacco farming little over a decade ago, Norfolk County’s burgeoning wine industry has grown to become a central plank in the county’s agri-tourism plan.
But the COVID-19 pandemic put a cork in that progress and left wineries and cideries starved for tourist dollars.
To help businesses recoup revenue lost during the lockdowns, the province announced a $10-million relief package earlier this summer.
The one-time grant money will go to wineries and cideries with on-site retail stores that can prove they saw a decline in revenue through decreased tourism, events, or tastings, or that they incurred added costs to comply with public safety measures — such as increased sanitation and installing Plexiglas barriers — when they could reopen.
Norfolk’s winery owners say making that case is not an issue.
“COVID was a big (revenue) hit,” said Richard Czerlau, owner of Frisky Beaver Wine Co. in Port Dover, explaining that being forced to close for most of the last 18 months had a “huge” affect on sales.
“We did apply for (the relief funding) and it’s definitely going to be helpful, that’s for sure.”
Shantel Bosgoed of Inasphere Winery near Turkey Point also applied in hopes of recouping some lost revenue after a “really tough” 2020 season.
She said the money will “absolutely” help cover expenses such as the website she and her partner, Ryan Bosgoed, scrambled to launch once pandemic closures forced all business online.
“We’re a smaller, newer winery, so we didn’t have a chance to do that yet,” Bosgoed said.
Agriculture Minister Lisa Thompson said the funding is an investment in rural Ontario.
“Our government is taking the necessary steps to provide these businesses with the support they need to continue operating, recover and to maintain these good jobs in the agri-food sector,” she said.
The payments — which are expected to arrive in September — will be “much-needed relief” for an industry that supports 18,000 jobs in Ontario, added Wine Growers Ontario chair Del Rollo.
After a late start waiting for pandemic restrictions to ease in July, business has been steady this summer at Inasphere, which opened in 2016 as an outgrowth of a third-generation veggie farm. Shoppers at the winery overlooking Long Point Bay can also take home fresh produce from a farm-gate stand currently overflowing with tomatoes.
“We’re finding people are out again, but there’s a lot to make up for,” Bosgoed said.
Czerlau said while winery owners appreciate the financial support, a policy change would go even further.
“The grant is phenomenal, but what would really help us out is having a level playing field,” he said, explaining winery owners would like to see Norfolk wines available at LCBO outlets in local convenience stores.
As it stands, Czerlau said, local breweries can ship directly to convenience stores in Haldimand-Norfolk that sell alcohol, but only wineries with much broader distribution are eligible to be stocked there. That gives European vintages an edge and stifles local growth.
“We as a small winery can’t get into these outlets,” Czerlau said.
“Let us compete against the big wineries.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator