By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor
Dan Hogue is apologetic as I get out of my car and approach his tasting room. “Sorry about the mud, I’m going to have lay some gravel down,” he says. A little mud at a winery doesn’t bother me though and I assure him that it’s not a big deal.
The last time we visited Victorianbourg Wine Estate in December, Hogue was scrambling to get the tasting room ready for the public. In the final days before his opening, he got it together and handled the crowds that are indicative of a wine trail weekend. His menu consisted of three wines – a riesling, pinot gris and an off-dry rosé.
After three months of being open on weekends, I wanted to get back and see how things were evolving and get his reaction to pouring wine for the diverse crowds that we find in to the Niagara Wine Region, USA. He sat down with me and answered some questions on buses and limos, signature grapes, winemaking and his goals for the next season.
What expectations did you have for your first few months of business and have they been met?
To be honest I didn’t have much expectation — or specifically no independent expectations — only what I’ve heard from others and it’s been fairly consistent with what I was told would happen…that we would get lots of people on buses and limos that were partying instead of being interested in wine. Some of them maybe having a little too much partying before they got here, but with every single bus there are still a few people who are really into wines and want to taste and buy. So overall I’ve been pleased.
In general, meaning during trail event weekends AND normal weekends, which wines are selling more?
In general I think our dry whites, especially if you take it out of the context of wine trail weekends, our pinot gris and riesling are our best sellers. We’ve just recently bottled up our first dry red, a Meritage made from 60% cabernet franc and 40% merlot and that’s done real well too.
I assume you’ve never poured in a tasting room. Do you enjoy it?
This is a first for me. It’s actually kind of fun. I find it energizing honestly and I’m hopeful that even if the winery fulfills my dreams as far as its growth and so forth that I will always find the time every weekend to spend some time pouring for a couple reasons. First of all feedback is extremely useful and being a people person myself, I like the crowds.
What do you consider to be your signature wine?
When we opened originally I’d hoped that our riesling would be our signature wine for several reasons since I really like riesling and I suspected it would be one of the easier grapes to grow.
In all actuality in the five years since the vineyard has been planted, I’m finding that chardonnay has been the easiest grape to grow both as far as quality and quantity. It’s possible that chardonnay may end up being our signature grape. Ultimately the market and the vineyard will tell me.
What are you tastes in chardonnay?
My tastes in chardonnay personally are, I don’t want to say narrow, but I don’t like heavily oaked California-style chardonnays. I like both the very steely Chablis-style chardonnay and I love white Burgundies. We have two tanks of chardonnay one of which we are trying to make into a Chablis-style and the other as a white Burgundy-style with maybe even less oak then a typical white Burgundy.
What does your consulting winemaker Domenic Carisetti bring to the table that you find most important?
Thirty-five years of experience that I don’t have, honestly. There probably isn’t a single problem in a winery that Domenic hasn’t seen and solved. I’ve been a home winemaker for thirty years and been a commercial winemaker for five or six months but the scale is much different. Domenic brings a kind of calmness to the whole process whereas I might panic with something and the other thing is that I just really like him personally.
What are you next short-term goals for the winery?
I now have three short-term goals. One is to get the inside of the building finished and decorated so it doesn’t look so austere. Secondly the outside of the building needs to be stuccoed. Thirdly I want to get a little bit of landscaping and patios built just to increase the overall ambiance.
I think that’s the right word for everything I want to do in the immediate short term over the next two three months is to upgrade the overall ambiance and the general impression of the winery.
At the end of the interview he invited me to taste his newest dry wine, the Meritage he had just bottled six weeks before. Knowing that the lakeshore doesn’t get the heat units that the Niagara Escarpment vineyards get on the average, I was really curious as to how the Bordeaux grapes would show.
Turns out they show quite well. His Meritage has good extraction and is hugely aromatic with bright cherry and ripe plum notes. The oak notes are in delicate balance with the fruit and I know that this wine will appeal to a wide range of wine tasters. It’s quite supple and when I asked Hogue if there was residual added, he told me that there was some residual left from fermentation. While I don’t think the perception of sweetness helps the wine, I do think it will sell extremely well at the winery.
As he walked me back out to my car, once again commenting on the muddy parking lot, I looked back at the unfinished building that houses his tasting room and saw that the real progress being made here is in the quality of Hogue’s estate wines. His pinot gris and Meritage show dead-on varietal characteristics and as long as the temptation to sweeten wines for the crowds is avoided, I think Victorianbourg will be making some serious wines by the shore of Lake Ontario.