Nestled in between Ottawa and Montreal is Vankleek Hill Vineyard, a hidden gem run by new owners Teresa Bressan and Scott Lambert.
Years ago the couple was hunting for a property with the idea to do Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) but were drawn to the vineyard instead.
Standing at the entrance to the vineyard it’s easy to understand the appeal. Greeting you as you enter is an imposing piece of local art. A large painted Raven—part of the popsilos project—looms tall over the 55 acre property.
For the entrepreneurial couple whose main goal was to be together working outdoors, the vineyard checked off all the right boxes and more. The potential in taking over and improving an existing business was also appealing.
They took ownership in 2018 and spent their first year restoring the crops and rebranding the business.
Their physical and marketing efforts have paid off, turning the Vankleek Hill Vineyard in their first year and in spite of a global pandemic, into the United Counties of Prescott & Russell's hotspot location of the summer.
A Place Like Home
In September my wife and I made the trip to see the Vineyard and to taste their wines for ourselves.
When we arrive we first enter a small storefront where we happily browse through a range of local products and an assortment of the vineyard’s wines. As we browse a young sales associate proudly describes to us a selection of their wines.
It’s about this time that owner Teresa steps into the store and greets us. She is immediately disarming and welcoming. She’d tell you being Italian, making people comfortable just comes naturally to her.
And sure enough, in no time at all, she’s offering us a glass of Chardonnay and any awkwardness on our part quickly dissipates as she guides us outside and seats us around a fire.
We’re met by Dawn and Doug, local ex-pats from South Africa. Teresa makes the introductions and once she knows we’re comfortable, attends to her clients.
Maybe it’s the settings or just their nature but Dawn and Doug appear to be in no hurry. They lean into the conversation (like good listeners do) and are completely invested in the ongoing conversation.
At this point, we’ve been here no more than 20 minutes and already it feels familiar. It’s hard to feel anything but content while sitting in a vineyard, with the sun shining down and a glass of Chardonnay in hand.
Around us, people must feel the same. Spread out across the property groups are sitting around tables, wine in hand, laughing, smiling and having a good time.
As closing hour approaches, no one shows any signs of winding down. Content in their temporary oasis no one wants to leave.
Ripe With Potential
Scott is the owner and president of a commercial lighting business but these days you’re more likely to find him dressed in plaid and working the production side of Vankleek Hill Vineyard.
Since taking ownership of the vineyard he’s been hard at work planning new varieties of wine. With the consultation of a viticulturist from the Niagara region, Scott hopes to have 12-20 varieties—enough he hopes to give everybody a taste of what they like.
When it comes to wine, one thing to keep in mind Scott says is that flavour may change from batch to batch. Grapes I learn, never quite taste the same.
It’s why each new batch of wines that the Vineyard produces is considered a project with its own number. That number printed on every bottle the vineyard produces is a reminder of its handcrafted nature. In this way, Scott says, he’s helping people to find the fun in trying new things.
On the day of our visit, as the last of the visitors leave, and with a little nudging from Teresa, Scott offers to take us out on their side-by-side for a tour of their property.
We hop into the small all-terrain vehicle and Scott soon has us deftly manoeuvring over the terrain. As we make our way across the property, he anticipates each turn or dip as though locked in muscle memory.
It’s an intimacy with the land that comes from daily toil. Over the year since purchasing the vineyard, he and his family painstakingly worked the land pruning the vines and clearing fields the previous owners had left to waste.
We pass through seemingly endless fields of vines, a row of beehives (dormant for now) and deep woods of Black Spruce, Ash and White Pine.
Every stretch we pass feels ripe with potential. As he drives Scott fills us in on the couple’s plans.
They are planning new varieties of grapes, fruit orchards (apples or pears), a large garden to bring to market, and together they hope to convert much of the land to walking paths and cross country skiing in the winter.
Teresa who is the sales and marketing genius behind Vankleek Hill Vineyard paints a vivid portrait of the latter. She envisions people fresh from a winter walk in the woods (on foot or in snowshoes), returning to warm themselves by their own little fire equipped with bundles of wood, S’mores kits and of course, wine for the adults.
Whether you are talking with Teresa or Scott it is clear that the couple is ambitious and excited about the vineyard’s future. Just how soon they can make it all a reality is hard to tell. There are lots of things demanding their attention and only so many things they can decide to do at a time.
Of course, there’s also a global pandemic to contend with.
A Year Like No Other
The first year of a new business is trying in normal circumstances, but exponentially more so when you throw in a pandemic. But while other businesses have closed their doors, business at Vankleek Hill Vineyard has been good.
The vineyard provided the community with a much-needed release and distraction from reality.
And so they came, locals mostly, to sit spread out across the property, enjoying themselves with wine and good company while feasting on locally-sourced charcuterie boards made on the premises.
It’s an overwhelming feeling Teresa shares, “on the one hand, we were humbled and grateful to be so welcomed by the community yet the success was also hard to digest at times knowing that some businesses had to close their doors.”
Looking over their first-year earnings the couple has no way of knowing how much of their success is a result of the pandemic or whether they would have done that much better without it.
One thing is abundantly clear, it’s been a year like no other.
It’s the evening and Scott and Teresa have yet to stop and eat. It’s been a busy and full day at the vineyard and the two have been on a constant move.
People imagine Teresa and Scott casually strolling their property hand-in-hand but Teresa shares that the reality of running a vineyard is far less idyllic than it sounds.
In some ways the couple is coping with their success, trying as they go to find the right work/life balance. While they are grateful and appreciative of the business, managing their ambitions and the vineyard leaves little time for rest or for enjoying the fruits of their labour.
With the workday decidedly over, Dawn and Doug return to the vineyard to join Teresa and Scott for a late dinner ordered from a local restaurant. Teresa and Scott, welcoming to the end, invite us to join. Eager to return to our kids at home we decline but a return visit is already in mind.
The couple’s business motto is to bring families and the community together over wine. As we drive away and the silo recedes into darkness it’s impossible not to reflect upon the meaning of that and feel the potential and magic of the Vankleek Hill Vineyard. It’s clear to see that the couple are invested in their community and the community, in turn, has welcomed them into the fold.
Tomorrow the sun will rise over the vineyard, the couple will awake to start the workday surrounded by abundance: acres of grapes on the vine, a community and a family together under a home they made.