Q&A: Ontario winemaker Emma Garner on winery pranks, llamas and the merits of mescal

Q&A: Ontario winemaker Emma Garner on winery pranks, llamas and the merits of mescal

Toronto Life Wine Club

Thirty Bench winemaker Emma Garner scored a big win last year when her cabernet franc took best in show at the prestigious Decanter Magazine awards, beating out wineries from the likes of France, Italy and Spain. Garner’s small-lot merlot, which was featured in February’s Toronto Life Wine Club delivery, is an equally impressive wine. The native of Fergus, Ontario, tells about how her merlot came to be, along with her penchant for a glass of mescal after a long day, and a longing for a crisp glass of rosé once the weather warms up a bit.

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Your merlot is really lovely. Describe it for me.

It has a fruit forward palate that exudes red berry and cherry, not to mention spice from the oak. It also has a cool cocoa powder/black cherry finish that lingers on the palate. I really love the tension that is present in this wine. It is tightly wound and needs a few years to become more approachable.

What’s a great food pairing?

A delicious Beaufort or Pont l’Évêque cheese. Or perhaps some charcuterie or Mediterranean lamb burgers. It must be getting close to dinnertime somewhere!

Do you feel that merlot does particularly well in Niagara?

I think merlot can perform well in Niagara. It requires a shorter growing season than cab sauv, and can typically hit optimal ripeness. Unfortunately, due to its sensitivity to cold temperatures it can get pretty beaten up during winters. So the crop load is usually lowered, or the vines sustain substantial damage and require replanting.

Your wines have won international recognition and awards. What does that mean to you?

I am thrilled that we can compete and perform well on the international stage. Ontario is such a young region that doesn’t have the same credentials as some of the other wine regions. So, when we win competitions where we are pitted against the world, it makes me appreciate how much potential our area holds and how we are just beginning to realize it. It also makes me so proud of all the effort that goes into making our wines, from our amazing vineyard team to cellar crew; it truly is a testament to everything that everyone contributes throughout the entire winemaking process.

Where is your favourite place in the world to drink wine?

I was fortunate enough to go to Italy this summer with my husband. I could certainly spend some more time drinking wine in Tuscany.

Why did you become a winemaker?

I love a challenge. Making wine may seem romantic and fairly routine, however it’s quite the opposite. It is constantly stimulating, thought-provoking, humbling and fulfilling. I have to say, there is never a dull moment.

Do you decant wines when serving at home?

From time to time I will decant wines. I usually decant them if they are very young and need some air or if I’m digging deep in the cellar and pulling a really old bottle that has some sediment.

Where in the world would you most love to make wine?

I would love to learn more about riesling and spend some time in the Mosel.

People often perceive the wine world as stuffy or snobby. But winemakers can be goofy too, right?

Absolutely. I am a big supporter of harvest hijinks. Everyone works so hard at harvest its fun to pull the odd prank, as long as no one gets hurt! My favourite to this day is coming into my office one morning only to find it filled with thousands of Stelvin [screwcap] closures…

As spring is around the corner (we hope!) what kinds of wines are you looking forward to drinking when the warmth returns?

I can’t wait to start to see the release of some fresh rosés! Perfect for patio sipping with some grilled meats and cheeses.

What’s the hardest part of your job and how do you unwind?

Hardest part of my job would be the balance of competing priorities. My day contains such a diverse array of things to complete that it sometimes can be all encompassing. I unwind with a glass of mescal and chatting with my husband, or an epic board game battle with my kids.

What’s your favourite wine and food pairing?

I love Parmigiano Reggiano with a big bold Barolo. Yum!

What’s your favourite farm animal?

Llamas. They always keep me wondering where they are going to spit next.