Georgian Bay Winery Looks to Scare up Halloween Sales
Mike Todd’s family has a pretty wicked sense of humour. And they don’t scare easily either.
In 1999, his stepfather Neil Lamont and mom Gwen decided on a lark to see if they could grow grapes on their property located near Balaclava, pretty much a ghost town situated between Owen Sound and Meaford.
Of course Georgian Bay with its icy, snowy winters isn’t known as wine country, but that didn’t spook them. They had noticed wild grapes growing in the Grey County area and figured they could grow their own.
“It was more like a hobby back then,” says Todd, who moved away to work at a tech company in Hamilton while his folks fiddled with grape growing.
That hobby eventually spawned the Coffin Ridge Vineyard and Winery, named partly after neighbouring Coffin Hill (they liked Ridge better). It’s considered the first commercial vineyard in the Georgian Bay area, and a couple others have since followed their lead.
Though they are available year-round, the wines with ghoulish names like Back from the Dead Red, Into the Light White, Riesling Bone Dry and Resurrection Rosé are well positioned among the slew of Halloween-themed products out this time of year in Ontario. They range from pumpkin-spiced craft beers and whisky to novelty vino like Dearly Beloved Forever Red Blend and KillibinbinScaredy Cat Cabernet Shiraz.
The LCBO says it gets a boost of 15 to 20 per cent in sales during the Halloween season and that their spooky selection this month is their biggest yet, including a skull-shaped bottle stopper/shot glass and lots of black and orange-coloured bottles and labels.
“This year we have seen even more Ontario craft brewers coming to market with pumpkin beer — a perennial favourite with customers. Increasingly though, we are seeing more diverse styles of pumpkin beer,” says LCBO spokeswoman Genevieve Tomney.
For instance Big Rig Brewing Co. has a pumpkin porter with a glow-in-the-dark can, Great Lakes Brewery has a pumpkin saison and Toronto’s Collective Arts Brewing offers a sour pumpkin saison among the 25 Halloween-ish craft beers sharing shelf space this year at the LCBO.
Select grocery stores in Ontario also carry beer and cider now, and Friday marks the launch of wine in the province’s supermarkets.
One of those lucky enough to be chosen for grocery store shelves is Fancy Farm Girl’s Frivolous white wine from the Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery in Niagara. She also has a popular Halloween offering out now called Black O’Noir (not surprisingly a baco noir she describes as “black as a cat.”)
“I think the wine has a cult following. I sold out here very quickly,” said Staff, adding many LCBO locations that carry it had to re-stock for the weekend in the lead-up to Halloween on Monday.
The Coffin Ridge boutique winery cranks out its scary-sounding vino year-round and for obvious reasons gets a nice boost in business this time of year.
“Producers like to have a little fun with creative packaging to get into the Halloween spirit, but what’s really great is that the quality of these products is excellent. It’s more than just a gimmick,” notes Tomney.
Indeed, the winery concept became serious enough that Todd left his tech gig and moved back home in 2006 after his mom called and asked: “Do you want to start a winery?” he recalls.
By then they had five acres planted and wondered “what are we going to do with all this stuff?” says Todd, general manager of the boutique winery.
Through trial and error they discovered winter hardy varieties of grapes such as baco noir, marechal foch and prairie star worked best in the Grey County climate, where summers aren’t as long or hot as in established wine regions like Niagara and Prince Edward County.
Their whites now also include L’Acadie Blanc, Geisenheim 318, Frontenac Gris and La Crescent and their reds showcase Marquette, Leon Millot, Frontenac and Pinot Noir.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing – which is actually how they landed on the creepy wine names.
They tested a batch of red made in 2005 and “it was terrible,” says Todd.
So they aged the two cases and a couple years later they had some with dinner. This time they really enjoyed it.
“We were joking that the red came back from the dead, and it all snowballed from there,” he says.
They also liked the life-after-death theme since the wine breathes new life into simple grapes, Todd notes. Appropriately, labels are shaped like tombstones and wine cases look like coffins.
Since opening their doors in 2008, they’ve grown from five acres to 25 and have since started a cider operation. Called Forbidden, the cider represents nearly half of sales at Coffin Ridge.
Since apples are easier to grow and plentiful in the area, more craft cideries have popped up there recently, while fewer have tried their hand at winemaking.
“Making wine is much slower, a lot riskier and more capital intensive,” Todd says.
In terms of wine, they make 5,000 cases of 12 a year and always sell out by year’s end. They make 200,000 litres of cider, or 400,000 cans a year.
“It was a steep learning curve because I was a beer drinker when we started, so I learned everything as I went,” said Todd.