Pinot Noir from Leland's Vineyard being pressed at Arrowhead Spring Vineyards.

By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Editor

As I make my way up the steps of Arrowhead Spring Vineyards with Leland Mote, the local vineyard owner compliments me on a recent story I wrote for this site about Warm Lake Estate. But before I have a chance to thank him he adds, “Oh yeah, but you left out a few things.”

When I first met Mote three years ago I knew him as the guy from California who bought prime Escarpment property and made a deal with Warm Lake to plant, manage and buy pinot noir grapes from his vineyard. As it turns out, since the last time I’d seen him, he’d torn up his contract with Warm Lake, hired local grower Don Demaison to tend to his vines and solicited a few wineries to sell his 2010 pinot noir crop.

My plan that day was to sit down with Duncan and Robin Ross of Arrowhead Spring Vineyards — the pair is buying Mote’s grapes — grower Demaison and Mote himself to discuss their roles in salvaging what may be the only productive vineyard left over from the failed venture that was Warm Lake Estate.

If there’s anyone that’s willing to go on the record about Warm Lake, it’s Leland Mote. His 14.5 acres of pinot noir vines were basically abandoned during the 2009 growing season and Mote, living in California, says he likely wasn’t getting the full story on the winery’s troubles while his investment went sour.

In what was already a challenging year, what was known as Leland’s Vineyard was in a full-on downward spiral. Disease ran rampant due to a lack of spraying and weeds grew taller than the vines. Duncan Ross visited the site and knew something was seriously wrong.

“We looked at the vineyard that fall and just knew that he [Mike Von Heckler] wasn’t taking care of the vines,” says Ross. “I suggested that Leland talk to Don because Don’s a great grower, close by, and it seemed like a good fit.”

A good fit indeed. In addition to farming in the community for decades, with experience with native grapes and, to a lesser extent, vinifera, Don Demaison had worked with Warm Lake’s 45-acre vineyard in the past. He was familiar with the growing strategy Warm Lake employed and he picked up what Cornell suggests for pinot noir along the way.

That's not to say that caring for the vines was an easy task; Warm Lake’s vineyards are probably the most challenging in the region to keep healthy. Aside from the slope and high clay content that combine to make getting equipment and labor into the site difficult after even moderate precipitation, the vine spacing and trellis height makes maintaining healthy grapes twice as hard.
The 10-foot spacing between rows is a huge disadvantage, since the majority of vineyard sprayers are not designed to get that much coverage. The vines were also planted three feet apart with the fruiting wire at a mere 18 inches off the ground. The low fruiting zone makes an already sticky situation even worse with less airflow and more humidity than you’d have up higher.

Lelands_VineyardThe idea behind this design was to emulate the vineyards of the Cote d’Or where competition among the vines is high and the low fruiting zone benefits from the warmth of the ground to ripen the grapes. Demaison, for his part, isn’t convinced that this is the right strategy for the Niagara Escarpment, which is warmer and more humid.

When Mote contacted Demaison in September of 2009 he went up to see the condition of Leland’s Vineyard for himself.

“I took one look and thought, this’ll be interesting, I guess I can’t screw it up anymore than it already is,” jokes Demaison.

“The biggest challenge I had was all the disease inoculants from last year,” he adds. Even so, he took on the challenge and immediately made a plan to clean things up by taking off all the rotted disease-prone fruit and taking it far away from the site.

Next up was raising the fruiting wire as high as he could. He wanted to go as high as 30 inches but ultimately had to settle for 24 inches as the trellis was only 4 ft high itself. After cutting back the vines and getting most of them up to the 24” wire he was basically working with 2-year-old vines.

Mote couldn’t be any happier with the work Demaison has done in such a short time.

“Don has done a fantastic job with those vines,” Mote says. “Last year was god awful — the vines were spindly, they were small. They were so full of disease I couldn’t sell the fruit that was there. Now the vines are bigger and stronger…I don’t think they could be growing any better.”

Ross, who is making wine from Mote’s grapes this year, knew the challenges they faced and is pleased with the quality of grapes he’s received as well.

“It was a challenging situation where we were balancing bringing the vines back to life by growing foliage while trying to keep the fruit healthy and exposed enough to ripen and Don couldn’t have done a better job,” Ross says. “The results are excellent.”

Mote, who has had a rollercoaster ride to get to where he is today with his investment, appreciates the irony that lies in the fact that his goal of selling grapes has actually been made easier with the recent closing of Warm Lake.

“Their demise has actually helped my situation immensely. Otherwise I’d be fighting a larger market with 45 acres worth of pinot growing down the road,” Mote says.

He, like many investors, was sold on the romance and emotion of being a part of something special in the form of the right grape planted on the right site in a region that has everything it needs to be world class. I asked him if he still thinks that he has the perfect site for pinot noir.

“I believe I do. I just know it, it’s there.”