Q&A: Ontario winemaker Jay Johnston, who skipped out on the tech industry for a life in the vineyard

Q&A: Ontario winemaker Jay Johnston, who skipped out on the tech industry for a life in the vineyard

A glass of Canadian pinot noir changed the course of Jay Johnston’s life. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but it did inspire him to drop out of the software industry and enrol in winemaking school. While he’s had plenty of experience working with favoured Niagara grapes like chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir, this is his first time crafting a wine made with 100 per cent malbec. This robust red grape is better known as a component in the red wines of Bordeaux. It was used in Hidden Bench’s red blends up until this 2016 vintage, when Johnston and Hidden Bench owner Harald Thiel decided the crop was so good it was ready to go solo—and be featured in this month’s Toronto Life Wine Club box. We chatted with Johnston about his decision to become a winemaker, his fondness for German pilsner and his favourite pairing for sushi.

Toronto Life Wine Club

Did you want to be a winemaker when you were a kid?

Not at all! I had pro golfer ambitions. But there was always wine with dinner growing up in Montreal. My parents were OG foodies.

Why did you fall in love with wine?

I started to enjoy in university when we wanted to be a bit “fancy.” Then my watershed moment was a Canadian pinot noir in 2002. I had never thought about the making or growing of wine until that moment. Suddenly, it was all I could think about.

Hidden Bench is “terroir-driven” and “non-interventionist”—what do those terms mean?

Respecting the hard work done in the vineyard is what we try to do. We joke that if we didn’t do anything, the fruit would just sit on the crush pad. But in the “crafting” of the wine we try to let the fruit notes we taste the day we harvest shine in the glass for our customers—and for us.

What do you wish more people understood about winemaking?

That it’s a ton of hard work in the vineyard first, and then lots of cleaning in the winery. We propagate the romantic view of wine-growing, but it’s really a craft and trade.

Describe the malbec you’re making.

It’s packed full of ripe fruit and has a vibrancy to it. There’s a slight rustic nature, which we love. Not too jammy; but fresh crushed dark red berries.

If someone only likes big Napa cabs, will they like this malbec?

I think this wine can help people make the leap from California wines. It could be a gateway to Niagara reds for any naysayers.

What do you like to eat with your malbec?

It definitely can stand up to classic barbecue dishes, whether it’s a brisket or ribeye steak. I would also enjoy it with traditional French bistro dishes like cassoulet.

Besides Ontario wine, what else do you like to drink?

German pilsner! Bitburger, in particular—a friend of mine calls it “the riesling of beer.” I cut my teeth on French wines and love exploring the country through its terroirs.

Do you ever run out of wine at your house?

Never. It’s not permitted. Wine is food in our house.

What Canadian musician would you like to drink a glass of wine with?

Why have only one if I could enjoy a glass or two with the entire Broken Social Scene alumni? I listen to them more than any other Canadian band.

What was the last bottle of wine you bought for yourself to drink?

I’ve joined a couple of local wine subscriptions lately. I’m really enjoying the experience of allowing someone to curate my wines.

More Ontario winemakers

Outside of your own, who’s making the second (third, fourth, fifth) best wine in Ontario?

I think the Somewhereness collective is a great place to start. It includes Malivoire, Tawse, Flat Rock and Bachelder, and more. They’re all wine producers who know the importance of farming first.

What do you like to eat and drink more than anything?

Seafood and sushi are my desert island foods—paired with a blanc de blancs traditional method sparkling.

Besides winemaker, what else are you good at?

I’m not very good at it but I love cycling. Niagara has so many beautiful roads to ride.

Do you know any good wine jokes?

I don’t know any jokes really. But there is the old wine saying that “it takes a lot of good beer to make great wine.”

Which is better at the end of the night: a Fernet, a cold beer or more wine?

Depends on how the dinner party is going… more wine more often than not.

Favourite farm animal?

Has to be barn cats. I love cats.