I still remember my first time I met Sue-Ann Staff. It was the autumn of 2001 and I had just been bestowed the position of Niagara correspondent for Tidings. As part of my newfound duties, I was at Pillitteri Estate Winery tasting through her portfolio of impressive 1998 and 1999 reds, whites and stickies. As the tasting progressed, our conversation extended into the realm of food. I quickly discovered that SAS (as I like to call her) was a lover of foie gras. As fate would have it, I had just driven back from Montreal with an ice chest full of Quebecois goodies, including a lobe of grade A duck liver. Thirty minutes later we were eating seared duck goodness with one of her Icewines. Needless to say, a bond was created that day.
Eleven years and a whole slew of awards and accolades later, including the honour of being the first female to win Winemaker of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards, SAS gave me a chance to catch up with her for a little Q and A as she enjoyed a rare day off at her winery/family home in Vineland. Unfortunately, there was no duck love to be had.
ES: When did you realize you wanted to be a winemaker?
SAS: When I was 16. From that point onwards, my schooling was very focused on anything to do with grapes, wines and the Canadian wine industry.
ES: Which wineries have you worked for Niagara?
SAS: I started my winemaking career at Pillitteri Estates Winery where I completed the challenging 1996 vintage. I then vinified all the wines from 1997 to 2005. I was wooed away from Pillitteri by the 20 Bees startup, producing the 2006 and 2007 vintages there. After the original management of 20 Bees fell into demise, I promptly went back home to my family’s century old vineyard, so as to start my own winery. The first vintage was 2008. Upon starting Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery, I was also pleasantly coerced into vinifying the wines for Megalomaniac (John Howard Cellars of Distinction). Overseeing production for the two wineries for the past three and a half years has been challenging, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
ES: What would you want to be if you weren’t a winemaker?
SAS: Easy: a gin master or a chocolatier, in that order. It’s about making something delicious that makes people happy!
ES: What is your favourite grape?
SAS: Shiraz, since I named my cat after it! I love a dry, rich, aged Shiraz from either Australia or the Northern Rhône. If your teeth are not as black as my cat when the bottle is done, it was unworthy.
ES: What are your favourite grapes to grow red and white in Ontario? Why?
SAS: For red it is Cabernet Franc, which I believe is highly under-appreciated. It is the most suitable Bordeaux red for our climate (winter hardy, ripens well in cooler years) and when ripe and appropriately cropped, it is stellar. For white, it is Riesling … 100 per cent Riesling, without a doubt. Good luck getting me to change my mind! Its versatility makes it a dream to vinify. Its reflection of the terroir is literally a mirror image. You can’t fake Riesling. It either has the benefit of being grown on a great site or it doesn’t. Niagara’s Twenty Valley was created for Riesling.
ES: To date, what is your favourite wine that you have made? Why?
SAS: Oh, this question tears me apart … to pick one! Ouch, I can’t. I have to pick three.
a) 1997 Cabernet Franc from Pillitteri Estates. This wine launched the concept that there were great reds at Pillitteri and that I was a quality winemaker. It won “Best Limited Edition Red” at Cuvée and I overheard principals from a competing winery say, “Pillitteri? They don’t make good reds. Did Sue-Ann make that?” I thought to myself, “Ha! We’re on to something! Wait until they see what is in barrel — the 1998 Bordeaux reds.” They went on to become the top three rated reds in Canada.
b) 2009 Robert’s Block Riesling from Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery, solely because it was evidence that my strength not only lies with producing great reds and Icewine. This wine was scored 90 or greater by every writer that reviewed it and sold out in a flash. I’m reluctant to launch the 2011 — I want to keep it!
c) 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Proprietor’s Reserve from Megalomaniac. You’ll have to wait for it but … yikes! When I taste it, I truly think, “Did I make this?” It is a masculine, muscular monster.
ES: What wine region would you like to visit and why?
SAS: The new favourite is Saint-Émilion. Due to me consulting for Megalomaniac (John Howard Cellars of Distinction), I am also able to liaise with its sister property, Château La Confession in Saint-Émilion, co-owned by Mr. Howard and the Janiouex family. Touring the wineries of the right bank with them is purely a luxurious treat.
ES: What are your opinions in regards to future of the Ontario wine industry?
SAS: It has a very strong future. Our customers are our greatest strength. They believe in the wines and champion them to their circles of friends and colleagues. It is extremely satisfying. However, I am concerned about several new startup wineries. If you are not fully committed to producing 100% quality, cannot offer something new, interesting and fabulous to the wine community that hasn’t already been done, are not keen to figure out why an apple blossoms, why wheat is planted in the fall, or how to grow great tulip bulbs, then you should buy a cottage in Muskoka instead of growing grapes and opening a winery.
ES: What projects/new wines are in the pipeline for SAS Winery and JHCD?
SAS: Both wineries are up for additions this year. The retail here at Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery will be expanded with patios constructed all around the kitchen wing. This will provide for an outdoor bar and group seating/tastings in appropriate weather. At Megalomaniac, we are bursting at the seams, and are anticipating a fabulous upper level, complete with retail shop, laboratory and additional production space. I can’t wait for both. A repertoire of new wines makes it all very exciting.
ES: What is your greatest food and wine moment?
SAS: Sadly, it was by myself, in the south of France. It was a large serving of the best duck ravioli with the richest foie gras sauce imaginable. Oh my God! I ate every crumb. The wine was a fabulous 1999 Pomerol. Complete blissful gluttony.
ES: What else do you like, besides foie gras?
SAS: Chocolate! (Is that a food? Who cares!)
ES: What are your thoughts on beer?
SAS: An ice cold Bud Light on a hot summer day is as far as I go. I am not the typical winemaker that follows the rule, “To make a lot of good wine, you have to drink a lot of great beer.”
ES: Favourite actor?
SAS: George Clooney — he is delicious.
ES: Favourite TV show?
SAS: The Amazing Race! How do I get on it? And who do I partner with?
ES: Favourite Movie?
SAS: The Sound of Music and Top Gun (what a contrast!)
ES: When not at work, what do you do to unwind?
SAS: I literally have had very little time to unwind in the last three and a half years. To rectify that, I’m off to Panama, Peru and Bolivia in a few months to walk the Inca Trail, follow the Amazon River and take in some sun rays (and get eaten alive by mosquitoes, I hear). I do like to sneak off to the slopes and a golf course here and there.
ES: Describe your ideal man?
SAS: Unwed and childless … still! My ideal man doesn’t have dirty laundry, doesn’t want to share closet space and wants me to drive his yellow convertible Corvette. Giggle.