Andrzej Lipinski: The Accidental Winemaker
At this year’s Ontario Wine Awards, presented in May, the big winner was Big Head Wines. Winemaker/owner Andrzej Lipinski walked off with five gold medals for Best Dry White Varietal (RAW Chenin Blanc 2017), Gewurztraminer 2018, Stainless Steel Chardonnay 2017, RAW Syrah 2007 and Special Select Late Harvest Riesling 2016.
Surprisingly, he didn’t win the Appassimento category, because Lipinsky is Ontario’s go-to guy when it comes to this time-honoured Veneto method of drying the grapes before fermentation. He has made wines in this style for several Ontario wineries, including The Foreign Affair, Colenari and Burning Kiln.
Andrzej Lipinski was a car mechanic in his native Poland before he emigrated to Canada in 1989. His first job was in construction and, fortuitously, he got to work for John Howard, the then-owner of Vineland Estates, helping to rebuild that property’s historic carriage house that had been destroyed by fire in 1993.
Lipinski stayed on at Vineland Estates as a cellar hand, learning winemaking on the job under Brian Schmidt. By 1996, he had worked his way up to assistant winemaker. The first wine he made himself was a 1998 Chardonnay from the Rosomel vineyard. This wine was designated a Reserve by Vineland Estates and was entered into Vinitaly’s competition in Verona the following year. It took home a Double Gold Award. Originally released at $45, once it had won such a prestigious prize, the price jumped to $95; at that time, it was the most expensive home-grown wine in Canada.
Lipinski struck out on his own in 2002, making wine for Legends, DeSousa, Fielding and Megalomaniac before settling at The Foreign Affair. The proprietor of The Foreign Affair, Len Crispo, was a great admirer of the Quintarelli Amarones. He challenged Lipinski to produce an appassimento wine from Cabernet Franc. Lipinski made six barrels in 2006 but he wanted to go to Italy to see how the Italian producers dried their grapes. After a visit to the Veneto region with Len Crispo the following year, he told his boss: “Make a statement. If you want to be different and to stand out in Niagara, do all your wines appassimento.” Even partially drying Riesling.
Crispo listened to his advice. The local industry began to take notice and then everybody got into the apassimento act.
Other Ontario wineries began to court Lipinski, and eventually he left The Foreign Affair to make his wines at Colenari, Organised Crime, Cornerstone and Burning Kiln.
Ultimately, he decided to open his own winery. “My kids were working in Alberta. Jakob was managing a steak house there. I called them and said you guys are coming back – we’re opening a winery. Jakob said what are we going to call it? I said, ‘Maybe Lipinski’ and he said, ‘Polish people don’t make wine.'”
When his son was in elementary school, the kids called him “Big Head”. The name stuck in high school and in the kitchen where he worked. So Big Head it became.
The process started in 2012 as a virtual winery, using the facilities at Cornerstone Estate Winery in Beamsville. In 2015, Lipinski got his license for Big Head Wines. In that first vintage, he made 2,600 cases. By 2017 that number had risen to 24,000.
Lipinski, a gifted, intuitive winemaker, is a compulsive experimenter. He makes 41 different wines. “I don’t know what to give up,” he explains.
His latest project is a new custom-built 9,000 square-foot winery in Niagara to be called Eukarya. Eighteen of the 38 acres are planted to Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. It remains to be seen how many more gold medals Andrzej Lipinski will win in future wine competitions. I’d put my money on him.