By Janet Davies
Duarte Da Silva is Executive Director of the Prince Edward County Winegrowers Association (PECWA), but before he reached those heady heights, he volunteered for years in County cellars, vineyards and tasting rooms. He tells us his story.
“PECWA was formed in 2000 to support and promote The County as a wine growing region and support our members, so it’s only 17 years old. We act on several fronts: promotion and events like TASTE and TERROIR in the spring and WASSAIL in November, and we also do advocacy, education, and government relations, all to support our new wine region.”
Duarte was instrumental in the redesign of the TASTE event that happened September 23, and says, “We are looking to add even more events in 2018, particularly in winter. We don’t have to do much to draw people in summer! But we’re thinking about things like Family Day in February. Many wineries are open year round and they like to see people in the slow times. Life doesn’t stop after harvest. Winemakers are busy, there’s lots of activity indoors and new Spring releases are on offer by April or May. Wineries like to see visitors when it’s not quite so crazy.”
Why did PECWA need an Executive Director?
“It had grown to the point where the voluntary board – all growers, winemakers, vineyard and winery owners – saw the need for a dedicated resource to promote the region and the events. I started in April 2017 and I’ve been busy establishing a structure and team. We’ve worked with Ephra Events in planning events, and we’re partnering with the Wine Marketing Association, Grapegrowers of Ontario, government agencies, all sorts of people.”
NEED FOR DEVELOPMENT
“It may seem like Prince Edward County gets a lot of promotion already, but we’re still a very young wine region. Niagara has 30 years on us! We have a lot of growth potential. Most of our members are small to medium operations and independently owned. You walk into a winery here, you meet the owner, the winemaker, the vineyard manager. It’s small and personal and hands on. Wineries are very driven and undoubtedly helped to position The County as a big tourism destination, and there are a lot of economic spin-off. People move here, build new places, open new restaurants, there’s a thriving culinary scene, busy B&Bs and hotels. We’re proud the wine industry has contributed in creating jobs, opportunities and revenue.”
THE FLIP SIDE
“Ironically we now face a limited labour pool. We have to focus now on workforce attraction, and that’s part of my agenda, too. It’s a chicken and egg thing. We built this amazing destination and, now we have to continue to attract people to come and work with us, which raises other challenges, like where do they stay? Where can they live? PECWA is working with partners like the Chamber of Commerce and the municipality on creative solutions to attract and retain labour and talent. Every year, wineries are looking for more staff.
And rapid growth presents other challenges, like the risk of losing authenticity. It’s a valid concern. But when you visit County wineries you see how authentic and diverse they are, from old barns to more modern, there’s no cookie cutter approach here. And their winemaking approaches are diverse, too.
“Ha! Challenges, it’s farming! Year to year we face these challenges. There was a frost in 2015; big losses. In 2016, there was a drought with no rain from April to August, in 2017 we saw a HUGE amount of rain. It’s part of the contract a grape grower and winemaker makes with Mother Nature to produce outstanding wines.”
WHAT BROUGHT DUARTE TO THE COUNTY
“In 2008 I had heard about a new wine region, so I took a bus here! Okay, it was a wine tour. We toured around, I ended up at Norman Hardie Winery and met Norm, and I also met some people who called themselves the Cellar Rats. They were a ragtag bunch of volunteers who came on weekends to help in the cellar or tasting room, pour at events, help during harvest. So from then I came with friends for the next seven years as a cellar rat. I spent almost every weekend and vacation here, learning about producing wine in PEC. In 2015, I left my day job and moved here full-time.”
What was your day job?
“My background is in financial technology, banking and technology startups. And by the way, it is great to see the technology startup scene happening here! I found work doing licensee sales for The Grange, and then in 2017 the opportunity to join PECWA presented itself. I truly believe in The County as a wine region. I love the work, I love living here and I love the people I get to work with. We are unique in the world. Nobody else buries their vines in winter – they think we’re crazy. The County has huge potential. It will expand and improve as vines get older and more complex. And we are exploring new techniques, things like geo-textiles to protect vines in winter and spring. New people are coming all the time, planting, investing, experimenting. Our challenges are not deterring people. They think it’s worth the risk.”
“I think my experience is an asset for PECWA. I understand start-ups and small businesses. I understand planning, seeking new markets and new partners. We are looking to expand the reach of PEC in Ontario and abroad and we are getting international recognition. County wines are in the U.S., the U.K. and other Provinces. We are still tiny, even here in Ontario we’re just a small percentage of wines sold, but we are mostly VQA so that stamp of quality is there. People are experimenting with other wine styles like pét-nat and orange wines and hybrid plant varieties like Marquette, Frontenac, very hardy hybrids that do well in super cool climates. County wines are known for their acid and minerality that comes from a cool climate and limestone soil”
“Speaking of Hillier, grapes are an interesting addition to the historic agriculture of Prince Edward County. Vineyards are flourishing in areas that were not so great for traditional commodity crops (corn, wheat, soybeans) in rocky, stony, dry soil.
“PECWA is growing because County wine is growing, and now we are partnering with Ontario-wide organizations. Even newer wineries like Terra Estates see the benefit of working with PECWA. New vineyards are being planted and in three or four years we will have a lot more PECWA members.”
For start-ups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.