It’s a brisk, chilly morning, the fresh fallen snow blanketing the empty parking lot and tidy vineyards surrounding the winery. But it’s bright, sunny, and all things considered, a glorious day to be out and about tasting Icewine.
I have been in this parking lot a few times. I have peered into the windows of the darkened tasting room to the left and the trophy room to the right. I have rung the bell many times, just as the note on the window instructs visitors to do. It has always made me curious. Is anyone home?
Royal DeMaria is the most curious of wineries in Niagara. The owner, Joseph DeMaria, shot to superstardom on the strength of a litany (and I mean a boatload!) of international wine awards and trophies, in particular for his Chardonnay Icewine 2000. His Icewines, which are all he makes, have achieved a level of recognition, at least outside Canada, that others can only dream of. International magazines, newspapers and the internet have all spread the word that something very exciting is happening at his unique winery, and for those willing to pay the price (we’ll get to that, but how does $250,000 for a half bottle sound?), you, too, can taste a piece of the dream.
So, I wonder, why isn’t his place crawling with wine lovers seeking this sweet nectar of the Gods? Why are there no footsteps in the snow leading to the hustle and bustle of an international tasting room that smells of apricot jam and buckwheat honey?
It is a question many ask. But the answer is not so simple.
Let’s go back a bit.
Joseph DeMaria is a hairdresser by trade. He had a successful business in Toronto, but after tasting a Niagara Icewine back in 1991, he was bitten by the wine bug.
DeMaria bought a winery licence in 1994 and purchased his 25-acre property, at the time with 15 acres planted to Vidal and Riesling grapes, in Beamsville, Ontario.
The initial idea was to sell bulk Icewine to the Asian market. He struck a deal to sell his juice in 1997, but the Asian market tanked in 1998, and DeMaria, who had no idea how to actually make wine, was left with a dilemma — sell the juice at a major loss, or keep it and try his hand at winemaking.
He chose the latter, bought a book on how to make wine, and went about the tricky business of turning 5,000 litres of grape juice into Vidal Icewine. To listen to his partner, Charlene Stephenson, tell it, DeMaria, “missed a part in the book” and thought his first effort at making Icewine was all for naught. “Joseph thought ‘If I don’t do this, I don’t think we can make it,’ ” said Stephenson. As legend would have it, DeMaria made a “blind correction” to the Vidal Icewine and saved the batch of wine and his budding business. But not only that — he inadvertently stumbled on the secret to the Royal DeMaria recipe. That correction produced a wine, in Stephenson’s words, that was less viscous, with more natural acidity and balance than other Niagara sweeties.
That first revolutionary wine went on to win five international awards, and Royal DeMaria has continued to make every Icewine on the property in the same “secret” way. A secret, by the way, that he’s not about to share with the industry. “As much as I’d love to tell you, it’s our trademark,” he says as we sit and chat in at his kitchen table in his home above the winery on this chilly late-winter day. “We keep it (the recipe) to ourselves.”
He says what makes his Icewines a cut above the others, and why they fetch such phenomenal prices on the international market, is the balance. “You don’t get the cloying effect. The wines are always balanced and not as syrupy and always elegant,” DeMaria explains. “Our trademark is more refined, elegant, robust and higher-quality Icewines.” Now, about those prices.
Royal DeMaria uses a pure and simple concept for pricing: supply and demand. All his wines, up to 24 different varieties in three tiers — Winter Harvest (non-VQA and the least expensive), Estate (which becomes the Collector’s Series as wines are awarded prizes) and Billy Myers (the cream of the crop) — are made in tiny quantities. As the awards trickle in and supplies dwindle, the price increases.
Even on release, some of DeMaria’s wines sell for two or three times the next highest price per bottle of any other Niagara wine, Icewine or otherwise.
The wine that put DeMaria on the map, the one that landed him on the front page of the local papers and was repeated in hundreds of newspapers (even the Wine Spectator), was his 2000 Chardonnay Icewine. After it reeled in its fifth consecutive gold medal from Les Citadelles du Vin at VinExpo in Bordeaux from 2002 to 2006 and was deemed one of the top 10 Chardonnays in the world at Chardonnay-du-Monde in France — winning top wine three years in a row — the original price of the wine, $75, started climbing exponentially. Within a year it was selling for $150, then $2,000.
The last bottle sold was in 2006, to a Saudi prince who paid $30,000 for a half bottle after a shadowy deal conducted in Central Park in New York City by representatives for both parties. “People were saying we were the Versace of wine,” laughs DeMaria. “No one had done this before, increased the prices,” he added.
There are 18 bottles left. DeMaria puts a price of $250,000 on the next bottle, and the price will go up until the last bottle sells for $500,000. That’s a half million dollars for one half-bottle of Canadian Icewine — by far the most expensive price ever placed on a bottle of wine. Even more than a 1947 Château Cheval Blanc, thought to be the greatest wine ever made, which sold at auction for $304,375.
Does DeMaria expect to sell even one more bottle?
“It depends on how crazy someone is to pay that much,” he says, displaying a big, mischievous smile. “It’s all about having it.” I am not sure if I should be taking him seriously. Does he truly believe that someone will ever pay $500,000 for a bottle of wine that people know so little about? DeMaria says there are those in this world that will pay any amount of money for the very best of anything, the kind of people “with the world’s biggest yachts with gold toilets. Yes, it will happen.”
I have not tasted the Chardonnay 2000, the wine that laid the golden egg, and the wine that could potentially (using DeMaria’s math) bring in $4.5 million when it’s all said and done. Think about that. It’s mind-boggling. Here is a wine that, for the most part, flew under the radar in Canada, did not place well at any major domestic wine competition judged before the most qualified Icewine judges in the world, yet goes on to win five times in a row in international competitions.
I put the numbers to Tony Aspler, Canada’s foremost wine critic, judge and the man who runs the Ontario Wine Awards. Aspler, like most people I spoke to for this story, has never tried the DeMaria Chardonnay Icewine 2000. No DeMaria wine has won at the Ontario Wine Awards competition, even though many of his wines have been submitted.
Aspler says DeMaria “either has a lot of chutzpah or he’s a complete nut” for selling wines at those prices. “Or he’s a marketing genius,” he adds after a long pause.
Aspler believes that DeMaria has created a lot of animosity in Ontario for his “Barnum and Bailey” approach to selling wine. “Wine is expensive enough without jacking up the price to sell one bottle,” he says.
DeMaria vehemently disagrees with that. “It’s brought a lot of attention to Niagara,” he says. “We should be working together, moving forward. If we work together, we grow together.”
DeMaria says it has been a strained relationship with his winemaking brethren in Niagara who just don’t understand his pricing strategies because they go against the grain of the way most do business. “It’s a love-hate relationship,” he says. “Should they put a cape on me? No. But if I were American, I’d be a superstar.”
In the trophy room at the Royal DeMaria winery, Charlene Stephenson is showing off a glittery array of some 300 awards and prizes Royal DeMaria wines have garnered. The room is adorned with medallions, glass trophies, plaques, certificates and awards of all shapes and sizes, some much more prestigious than others, but nonetheless some very important and legitimate hardware. They share space with bottles that are all decked out with multiple stick-on awards, including a six-pack of wines Queen Elizabeth requested from DeMaria during her Jubilee visit to Canada in 2002, which, by the way, you can purchase for $275,000.
Next door to the trophy room is the tasting bar, a sparsely adorned enclave with newspaper clippings of DeMaria’s achievements hung on the walls. On a blackboard is the shocking pricelist of the wines both for current releases and those that have been raking in awards and climbing dramatically in price as the recognition flows in.
Talk about sticker shock. Forgetting for a moment the one that sticks out above all the others — the $250,000 Chardonnay 2000 — there’s also the “world’s first” Meritage Icewine 2002 on sale for $18,000, Pinot Gris 2000 for $13,000, Winter Harvest Muscat Ottonel 2002 for $11,000, Gamay 2000 for $9,000 and on down the list.
Even newer vintages are staggeringly expensive: Winter Harvest (remember, this is a wine that failed to get the VQA stamp of approval) Malbec 2006 for $750, Winter Harvest Petit Verdot 2006 $650, and on and on.
Stephenson starts pulling out the current release and sets up seven glasses. She pours tiny amounts into chunky flute style glassware and I begin tasting. The Riesling 2008 ($75) shows citrus, honey, tangerine and spice; the Gewürztraminer 2008 ($90) is varietally correct with spicy lychee and honey; the Winter Harvest Chardonnay 2007 ($219) shows fleshy pear and is rich and textured in the mouth; the Cabernet Franc 2008 ($90) shows raspberry and strawberry fruit; and the rest of the wines are, well, so-so. The eight wines are decent but all had a bit of a soupy-musk taste, which I will chalk up to improperly washed glasses. But at these prices, I was expecting to have my socks knocked off. I’m sorry, but they just weren’t.
I had been trying to track down the hard-to-reach DeMaria for a while. I sent out the odd probing tweet wondering aloud about the wines made at DeMaria and if anyone had tried them before. As a result, I received an email from, well, let’s just call him John (he’s a fairly big wine collector in Toronto and didn’t want his name used). He wanted to get together and share a bottle of Royal DeMaria Gewürztraminer 2000 he had bought in 2002 for $65.
John is from Toronto but spent time in California in the high-tech business before moving back about a decade ago. Royal DeMaria’s wines appealed to him and his wife because he had heard about the awards they were winning and had an “affinity for family-oriented wineries.” John and his wife are fans of Royal DeMaria, but were certainly surprised when I told them their $65 bottle had grown to $8,000.
We met at a downtown Toronto restaurant and happily tasted the well-aged treasure. The wine, simply put, was stunning, a beautiful example of the variety as it ages. It was rich, layered and lush with super-concentrated peach compote, tertiary caramel notes and exotic spices. And it has retained some of that freshness that DeMaria claims is his trademark. It is a gorgeous wine at its original price of $65, heck even $100.
But the question remains: is half a bottle of Niagara Icewine worth $8,000? Or $30,000? Or $250,000?
To a great many people, that’s just a really silly question.