When model-turned-winemaker Sandor Johnson set out to grow grapes in Tweed, Ont., he faced a skepticism that rivalled any scrutiny he experienced in the highly competitive fashion industry.
Wine insiders dismissed what they described as a senseless dreamer’s vision of a winery rooted in land well outside the Ontario wine appellations of Lake Erie North Shore, Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County. “And this was years before I made or sold any wine – before they even tried it – that was the attitude coming at me,” said Johnson, BA’93 (English Language and Literature).
But he always knew the land – property that had been in his family since 1836 – was special. Today, as he looks out over Potter Settlement Artisan Winery, the first and only winery in Hastings County, it’s clear Johnson’s detractors underestimated the grit that lay beneath his looks and land.
Of course, winemaking was not always the plan – neither was modelling, actually.
Johnson happened upon modelling during his first year at Western when an agency scout spotted him on campus. He worked locally, at first, for Kettle Creek Clothing Co., before signing with Ford Models in New York. By the time he graduated, he had appeared in an Armani campaign and was cast for a walk-on role on The Young and the Restless.
But it wasn’t until he worked the finance beat at CNN Tokyo when he decided to model full time.
“Japan is very expensive. Reporters on the ‘B’ list don’t make a lot. Here I was, paying ridiculous prices for just an apple or a cup of coffee, then I’d get a modelling job that would pay what I’d normally make working one or two months at CNN,” Johnson said. “So I told my parents, ‘Look, I’m going to take some time off from journalism and do this fashion thing.’ They were upset and said, ‘You spent all that time in school. You really should be using that education. Why can’t you go work at the CBC, like all your friends, where you’ll have a good pension?’”
Instead, he did three commercials that summer, earning more than any model at his agency.
Today, Johnson is represented by 46 modelling agencies around the world. He is a familiar face promoting luxury brands and high-end retailers the world over. Yet, even with all his success, he still appreciates his parents’ initial concerns.
“In the fashion industry, there’s no pension,” he said. “I’d rather be the master of my own domain and invest my money in my business, in my winery. It’s a risk, but it’s all on me. I’m not a gambling man. But I did start a winery in Tweed. That’s probably the biggest gamble I’ve made.
“But you know what, I can make good stuff here. I know I can.”
Johnson’s vineyard sits nestled at the juncture of a significant geological transition, where the Canadian Shield drops out of sight and the Great Lakes Lowlands begin. “Mineral quality is the ‘gold standard’ when it comes to wines,” he said. “That’s what gives wine its complexity, its depth. I knew I had that right here.”
He also had his brother, Robin, a professional winemaker and graduate of Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology & Viticulture Institute. “I had the soil; I had the winemaker. I thought, ‘Now, if I could get some grapes to grow,’” Johnson said.
He had to repair the land, left badly damaged after decades of being quarried for soil used to construct county roads and to fill a mine in nearby Sulphide. It took over a decade – and 2,000 truckloads of fill – to raise, level and reclaim the land.
“Here I was, a fashion model with an English degree from Western,” he laughed. “I didn’t know how to run this stuff, but you just have to learn, when you’re doing it on your own. Then, just as I was catching on, a hose burst on the back hoe. Well, guess what, now you’re a diesel mechanic because you’re not going to pay some guy $200 an hour to fix it.”
When he wasn’t churning the land at home, he was building “homework tours” around his shoot schedules, consulting with vintners in California and across the United States, South Africa, Europe, New Zealand and Australia.
Given the raw winters in Tweed, Johnson first tested cold varietals from Austria and Germany. After investing $20,000 in Riesling, only to see the grapes die, he scaled back, spending a quarter of that on Gruner Veltliner, with similar luck.
Turns out, the ideal grapes were closer to home – in a French Canadian heritage-heirloom varietals from Québec, like Marechal Foch and St. Croix that grew along the St. Lawrence. These grapes hail from an earlier time, long before the standardization of the Canadian wine industry saw their vines ripped from the ground to make way for sure-bets like Merlot and Cabernet.
His research also led him to a cold-hardy red varietal, called Marquette, developed at the University of Minnesota for the relatively new northern wine industry.
Once his hand-planted, hand-picked vines bore fruit, he was eager to draw upon his brother’s experience at the bigger wineries in Niagara and British Columbia.
“Look,” his brother warned, “I can make merlot blindfolded, but I don’t know this old French stuff. I don’t know how to make wine out of these grapes and it’s going to take a long time to figure out which barrel to use, which oak to use, which yeast to use and what style to make.”
And, then – the revelation.
“To be quite honest, Sandor, everyone’s laughing at you,” Johnson recalled hearing, dumbfounded, as his brother continued. “They think this is a big joke. You’re so far north. In Niagara, they’re saying, ‘What are you making? Chateau du Pine Cone?’”
With their reputations and family name at stake, the brothers vowed to let nothing but small-batch, high-quality wines leave their vineyard. They’d be free of tannins, sulphates and pesticides, which also meant if the grapes weren’t good, they wouldn’t be made into wine.
They took their time to figure it out – 17 years, in fact.
“We were the Breaking Bad of winemaking,” Johnson said with a grin. “We were just trying to figure it out and come up with recipes that became our winners.”
Those winners, bottled in 2015, have been well-received. Johnson’s Marquette, in particular, has garnered high praise, including a presidential thumbs-up from Barack Obama who tried it at a political fundraising event.
Peter Ward, author and wine critic for the Ottawa Citizen for 29 years, noted the Marquette’s “excellent fruit-acid-alcohol balance and lingering taste that can only be achieved by controlling crop volume,” an advantage Johnson holds as a small-batch vintner.
Doing what others deem remarkable or impossible is part of the creative ingenuity that sets Johnson and his winery apart. He’s embraced the elements of his terrain, dynamiting a massive outcrop to create the perfect cave for aging wine beneath his winery.
The cave sits behind 700-pound solid hemlock doors hand-crafted by his cousin, Kelsey Moore, a blacksmith who also forged the 1,200-pound solid iron winery entrance gates that bear hand-pounded fleurs-de-lis and each letter of the winery name.
That hand-crafted detail flows throughout the property – from the stone walls he’s laid by hand around his vineyard and the copper-topped gazebo he built to house his current tasting bar to the fountain and cherubs he had flown in from Florence, Italy.
For Johnson, Potter Settlements is not just a winery, but a destination.
“It’s taken years and years of labour to get this right and I’m still working on it. I’m fortunate because of my modelling career, that I have the luxury of not bottling if the grapes aren’t good. I just want to make good wine and have people come for an outing and experience.”
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