Three Dog Winery – John and Sacha Squair

Three Dog 2A lot of great things have happened to John and Sacha Squair since the day in 1998 when they bought land in The County. The barn burning down three days later was not one of them. Unfazed, they just camped out on their 100 acres on Fish Lake Road on their weekend visits from Bowmanville. They planted a small vineyard. Some years they made wine for themselves, some years they sold the fruit, and some years the raccoons and turkeys got it all. Today the land is home to flourishing vineyards and Three Dog Winery.

“We had a 10-year plan to retire here,” says Sacha. “Well that accelerated, the more time we spent here, so it was a lot sooner when we said ‘Screw it. We’re moving!’ Asked if he has advice for others thinking of moving to The County John doesn’t hesitate. “Do it! I wish we’d done it even sooner.”

Three Dog Winery is Sophiasburg’s first winery, but likely not its last. Fish Lake Rd. is a long way from Hillier and Waupoos where the first County wineries were established, but as John points out “It’s warmer here. We live in Wellington and we can find 10 degrees difference between there and here. The lilacs bloom much earlier here. Less lake effect, I guess.”

They first came to The County in 1996 returning early, in the rain, from a camping trip. “We saw Prince Edward County on the map, sticking out into the lake, so we took a detour,” says Sacha. “We fell in love with it and started looking for property right there and then. We looked for two years.”

“There were no wineries here then,” says John. “I was an amateur winemaker and I wanted a south slope and I wanted a hill.” On his 100 acres he got both and more – 15 acres of maple sugar bush, old oak trees and pine trees, too.

So there they were, the only building on the land gone, camping every weekend, planting and tending grapes and doing everything by hand with just a garden tractor with a tiller attachment. After roughing it for a couple of years, they bought a little old converted church in Rosehall. “It was meant to be just somewhere to shower and sleep after working in the vineyard,” says Sacha, but with a home, however humble, in the County, living in the County sounded better and better. Sacha says if the drive from Rosehall (west of Wellington) to their vineyards on Fish Lake Rd (north of Picton) sounds like a long way, “It’s a piece of cake compared to commuting in Toronto!” After commuting for 10 years from Bowmanville to their jobs in Pickering and Markham, driving quiet County roads feels like leisure time, but Sacha cautions, “I always tell people be prepared to do a lot of driving here. It’s an easy place but a big place.”

Sacha was executive director for a non-profit and John a supervisor for Miller, handling recycling and waste for York region when they decided to pack it in and move to The County. “We quit our jobs. We didn’t know what we were going to do, we just knew we had to be here.” Without a mortgage, their life changed dramatically. Sacha began to teach yoga in their old church and, more recently, at sessions in the Drake Devonshire and sometimes out in the Three Dog vineyards. With their feet firmly planted in The County, their vision of the future changed, too.
3-Grounds There came a transition point in their lives when they decided to ratchet it up from growing two acres of grapes for themselves to building a winery because, “It was time to do something different.,” says Sacha. “John doesn’t like me telling this story because it’s about us turning 50.” John interjects “Hey speak for yourself. You turned 50, I’m still 30.” They decided to go for it and plant the three additional acres they needed to apply for a winery license.

“We invited people on Facebook to come help us plant, and 150 responded,” says Sacha. “It was a horrible soaking wet day in June. We thought nobody would turn up. But cars started arriving at 7 a.m. and more than 100 people came.

We fed them all. “Our friend Mike from Seed to Sausage cooked, another friend made salads, a friend from Bread and Butter Bakery in Kingston brought desserts and buns.” In their years in the County they had met a lot of people “in the business.” It’s said, and it’s true, that like-minded people meet each other pretty fast in Prince Edward County. On planting day, friends like County Cider, Karlo Estates, Lighthall Vineyards, Rosehall Run and Beaus Beer, brought plenty of beverages.

At the same time, they had launched an Indie Go Go campaign, and a film crew was coming at 10:30 to catch the action. The planters were working so fast Sacha feared there would be no action left to film. “They were going as fast as automatic planting machines,” she recalls. “So at 9:30 a.m. I stopped them. I said slow down, sit down, have a glass of wine. Still, we were finished by 11:30.”

John, standing on top of his old tractor Alice shouting instructions, was brought to tears by it all, got choked up and had to climb down. Two thirds of the crowd came as strangers but left as friends. Many are still involved and loyal customers. They raised $10,000 to get the foundations in. Farm Credit then saw they were serious and stepped up with continuing assistance.

Three Dog Winery opened in 2014, with a soft opening first for Fish Lake Road neighbours. “They had seen us come and go in the vineyard, but because we don’t live there, we didn’t know them all. So we really wanted them to be first to see the operation.”
John Squair makes easy drinking, everyday, affordable wines, and, because they’re a little off the beaten winery track, he says they try a little harder to offer more.

“Some of our friends in the business say we’re lucky to be out here, because people are more inclined to stay a little longer, sit and relax with a glass of wine or wander around instead of rushing off to the next winery on their list.” Three Dog features live music every weekend with local and regional musicians, and September long weekend will again feature their terrific Booze Blues and BBQs festival. There are even special Dog Days, when visitors are encouraged to bring their dogs for long walkies.

“Prince Edward County gets into your blood,” says John. “You just have to come here more than once and, I tell you, it gets in your blood.” What advice would he give people thinking of moving here? “Do it!” he says. “I wish we’d done it even sooner.”

Sacha agrees. “People can reinvent themselves here, or, if that’s not what they want, just make their life simpler. All the things we used to spend our money on, we just don’t any more. We don’t buy stuff to impress people. It’s not about status symbols here. I’d say one of the most critical things is to be friends with your neighbours. You don’t ignore them like you do in the city. We lived in the city seven years and only knew the people on either side of us. It’s so different here.”

John adds “It can be a little unnerving (as local writer Steve Campbell cautions in his tongue-in-cheek County Handbook) because everybody knows you or knows about you. Don’t be shocked to come home and find a pile of vegetables sitting on your counter or piled on your doorstep. Your TV’s not gone, you’ve just acquired a bunch of food.”

When they moved into their old church in December after a huge snowstorm, a neighbour they had not yet met came and cleared the driveway. “That was Mel,” John recalls fondly. They laugh about their first year with a woodstove when they were burning wood way too fast, but then “… a pile of wood just appeared stacked on our porch.” Rural folks consider that normal behaviour, but it was amazing to John and Sacha.

“Even after 13 years, we still occasionally find a bag of vegetables hanging on our door. We’re not too sure who leaves them, it could be Mary because Mel has passed away.” John may be lying about being 30, but they both come across as youthful, eager and ready for more. “We’re outgrowing this space already and hope to build a new production building in a couple of years,” says Sacha. They’re just doing it.

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