John Marynissen – A Great Man
The Ontario wine industry has lost one of its pioneers just when the Icewine was ready for picking. John Marynissen, a grape grower in the Niagara Peninsula for 55 years, died at the age of 84 on January 2nd after a protracted illness that had hospitalized him.
John immigrated to Canada from Holland in 1952 and got a job picking fruit in Niagara Falls. A year later he and his wife Adriana purchased a farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which already had a small labrusca vineyard. But John had ambitions to grow the noble grapes of Europe. Against all the accepted wisdom he planted Cabernet Sauvignon in 1978 — the year he was elected Ontario’s Grape King.
This was the first Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in Canada. John made wine from these grapes using carbonic maceration, and I recall tasting one of his bottlings with Ken Douglas (then a lawyer and award-winning home winemaker, now a lawyer and co-owner of 13th Street Winery). We were sitting in John’s living room on the farm and he brought up a series of wines from his basement — Chardonnay, Riesling and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. It was terrific, just one of a string of first-class wines in his amateur portfolio.
At his funeral Ken Douglas recalled that John was part of an informal wine group called The Wine Guild. Its members, all local wine enthusiasts, would get together to taste wines they had made themselves and others they had purchased. In those years John Marynissen and the Eddy Gurniskas were both were winning chestfuls of medals for their homemade wines at local, national and international competitions. One of John’s biggest triumphs, as an amateur, was winning Best Estate Bottled Wine at the American Wine Society’s competition in Pittsburgh in 1989 for his 1987 Riesling. A year later, his 1989 Chardonnay took the Konstantin Frank Award for the Best Vinifera Wine at the Society’s competition in Philadelphia.
Ken Douglas persuaded both men to go commercial and start up their own wineries. In 1991, Eddy opened Lakeview Cellars and John opened Marynissen Estates. Since then, Marynissen Estates has gained an admirable reputation for its concentrated, fruit-driven red wines. According to Ken Douglas, John’s 1995 Merlot made from Misk Vineyard fruit, “is still probably the best Merlot ever made in the province.”
In 2001, John handed over the day-to-day operations of the winery to his daughter Sandra and her husband, Glen Muir, but he still kept a fatherly eye on the vineyard and winemaking practices.
At his funeral, the St. Vincent de Paul Church was packed with winemakers and winery executives who came to pay their respects to the man who confounded the critics (this one included) by producing red wines of such great quality. Donald Ziraldo, co-founder of Inniskillin and a near neighbour, reminisced with me about John. “What I remember best about him is his obsession with Cabernet Sauvignon,” said Donald. “At that time, everyone was telling us it would never grow here, it’s too cold … but he babysat those grapevines and he was able to grow them.”
In the eulogy for her father, Sandra Marynissen reminded us of his zest for life, his passion for fishing and for the accordion. “What made his wines so good was his passion, his passion for life, for wine and for his family. In the last stages of his life it was his passion for wine and for his family that kept him going.”
If I were to write his epitaph it would be: “Here lies John Marynissen, a man of the soil and one of the great unsung heroes of the Canadian wine industry. He was the first to show that Ontario could produce world-class red wine when others doubted it could be done.”