Broken Stone Winery – Tim Kuepfer
The soil in Hillier where Tim Kuepfer has his vineyard is rocky, full of fractured limestone and perfect for grape growing. Tim wanted the name of his winery to feel rooted, down to earth and he liked the sound of Broken Stone. “Besides,” he says. “They say when you start a farm or a winery you become stone broke, so it was a good play on words, too.”
He and his wife Micheline were living in Toronto when she began longing for a small piece of paradise, a bit of land somewhere in the countryside. “We looked around Prince Edward County because it was popping up in the news as a nice place to live,” he recalls. “I’d been to Sandbanks before, seen how beautiful it was, so The County was on our shortlist. We looked at other places, but when I learned about the vineyards here that captured my imagination. I thought it could be fun to have some land, plant some vines, and I knew our kids would love it.”
So what is Tim’s background in farming? In winemaking? “Not much back then,” he says cheerfully. “I did once buy a winemaking kit, but I went off to college and my sister ended up making it. I just came back and drank it.” Tim is not a boastful man, in fact he’s engagingly self-deprecating.
“I knew wine was made from grapes and I knew I could grow grapes here,” he says. “Of course we dreamed about one day having a winery, but it didn’t feel like a serious idea. Not at first. I told Micheline if we do it, it’ll take at least 10 years.” And here they are, 10 years later doing it.
Tim’s previous life involved selling financial data to portfolio managers. “Nothing to do with wine,” he says, “other than everybody in the business drinking a lot of it.” If he was to make wine he had to learn to grow grapes, and to do that he had to learn how to farm. He learned.
“This operation is very much a family business,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of support from our family, and then new friends and neighbours became part of what we do. That old saying ‘It takes a village’ is definitely true with farming and winemaking. Our first collaboration was with Sally and Robert Peck at Sugarbush who tried to convince us NOT to start a winery, but when we wouldn’t listen they helped us a lot, lent us equipment, heck they gave us equipment. Our next door neighbours saw us struggling, trying to farm and would just pop up out of the grass to help. They kept an eye on me. I think they were making sure I didn’t injure myself. “ They met a lot of people along the way, in fact, to hear Tim tell it whenever there was a real need, somebody would show up. From a local farmer Cecil showing up at a moment of need and working for them for five years to Yvonne who now manages the tasting room, the right person would come along. “We had some tough times along with all the farmers, what with drought and harsh winters, but you muddle through,” he says. “No point stressing out and railing against the weather. You just have to roll with it.”
Tim farms his own seven and a half acres of vines, and this year By Chadseys Cairns let him manage five acres of theirs. “It’s a gentleman’s agreement,” he says. “As long as I look after the vines Richard and Vita let me use the grapes. Vines are expensive to maintain. If you leave them just one year, it sets them back a lot, and it’s amazing how labour intensive and care intensive they are.” Tim is grateful to have help from Amilcar a worker from Mexico, who this year brought his friend Maximiliano to join the team. “They’re very hard workers, and it’s a good trade, an honest exchange,” he says. “They’re happy to work hard here and we’re happy to pay good money for them to take back home.”
Tim makes several different wines to appeal to diverse tastes, but he admits he tilts toward dryer wines. “My real baby is Pinot Noir and I spend the most time on those vines,” he says. “Taking off shoots that are duds, extensive leaf pulling, a lot of fertilization, anything we can do to get the best quality fruit, because working hard in the vineyard makes the winemaking easy. If you start with a quality foundation, the product will be good – unless you screw it up,” he laughs. “I haven’t perfected it yet. I don’t think you ever do. It’s a craft.”
He likes County Chardonnays too, especially those from the Closson Ridge. “This little micro climate produces some really good Chardonnays, and Pinot Gris is pretty exciting in The County, too. I think it’s underappreciated. Our own Pinot Gris wine is salmon coloured and it’s flinty and fresh.”
Tim is candid about buying grapes from elsewhere. A lot of wineries do that in the beginning. “Especially after losing our whole crop in 2015,” he says grimly. “How do you manage that disaster? Without grapes you’re out of business. So we had to establish relationships with Niagara growers and we made a bunch of wines out of their grapes. They’re the ones that appealed to a broader range, partly because they were lower priced because they were easier and cheaper for us.”
Tim puts the facts upfront and makes clear which wines are from his property and which are not. He VQA’s all of his wines that qualify. Only his Marquette has not been VQA’d and they’re working on it. “It’s important to be VQA to give The County the identity it deserves, because we do have very distinct terroir. Even cider apples from different parts of The County have different qualities, it’s a lot to do with the minerality.” Some scientific studies claim it’s not possible for the character of soil to come through in wines, but Tim disagrees. “Ask any wine consumer whether grapes grown on different soils taste different and they’ll say absolutely. Our Hillier Clay Loam is the worst possible soil to farm,” he says, “apart from maybe bare rock! In Spring it’s just muck that sticks to everything. They say you have to get to the soil when it’s just right, but that’s like one day,” he laughs. “The sun comes out and it turns into concrete, and of course it’s full of rocks, but somehow it makes good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.” On the other hand it has good drainage and holds a lot of water and nutrients. When he started working the vines at By Chadsey’s Cairns, he discovered their soil is sandy. “I dug into it and said what the heck have you got here? It’s so soft! But sand has its own challenges. Nutrients drain out of it and it doesn’t support equipment well. You learn to work with what you’ve got. We’ve fertilized and let weeds grow as cover crop and I’ll spread manure and compost when I can find affordable secondhand equipment. It’s expensive, but in the big picture, soil is what it’s all about.”
County grape growers do a lot of hilling up and de-hilling which can dry out the soil. Tim uses soft polyester felt row covers on some of his vines. “It’s easy to work with and did a good protection job this winter,” he says. “But it was a milder winter.” He sighs. “We’ll just have to see.”
Broken Stone Winery is seeing more visitors these days and Tim jokes he had to find somewhere to put them. “We bought a tent which contained them for a while,” he says wryly. “Then we built a pergola which is fun. Gets them outdoors – our tasting room is pretty small – and gives shelter.” He is not going after restaurant business, but owners who have come in and tasted his wines have ordered supplies to serve. “I have a small business consultant who’s pushing me to go talk to every restaurant,” he grumbles. “And I say I’ll do that when I’m ready. Most County winemakers have to be –of-all-trades, only a lucky few have professionals to do specific tasks. That’s why it’s so important to have good help.”
Eventually he’d like the business to be able to run without him, so that if he goes away for a time it won’t all fall apart. “I want to build something that’s here to stay, something for people to enjoy for a long time. The County needs strong small businesses to sustain year round employment. That’s a big leap from where we are now, but that’s what we’re aiming at.”
Situated on Closson Road, Tim’s place attracts a lot of cyclists. “Closson Cycles sends people here, and we get a lot of Sip and Cycle people, and now there’s these walking winery tours,” he says admiringly. “I guess it’s not that far between locations, and we all cross-promote and support each other around here.”
So 10 years ago they found their little piece of paradise and have been working hard on it ever since. His dream of seeing his kids frolic in the fields didn’t work out quite how he imagined. “Micheline actually still works in Toronto,” he says. “The kids were finishing school, now the older ones are moving out, but we come together here on weekends, and this year Ellie, our youngest, finishes grade eight and will join me in The County full time and go to high school here.
Every day of those 10 years has been worth it to Tim, and Broken Stone Winery is poised to break into the big time. “But not too big,” he grins.
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