Q&A: Ontario winemaker Kelly Mason on juggling four different vineyards and why a 2004 BMW is her go-to farm vehicle

Q&A: Ontario winemaker Kelly Mason on juggling four different vineyards and why a 2004 BMW is her go-to farm vehicle

Kelly Mason is one busy winemaker. She’s often out the door in her John Deere cap by 5:45 a.m., pruning and tying her own five-acre plot of pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet franc vines before tending grapes at Niagara’s Domaine Queylus (where she works with the famous Thomas Bachelder) and the Farm, a boutique pinot noir specialist. She also makes the wine at Honsberger Estate Winery, a small family-run farm near Jordan known for its extremely small-batch rosé, one of three bottles included in September’s Toronto Life Wine Club box. We talked with Mason about her round-the-clock schedule, how she compresses her “weekend” into just five hours, and what makes pink wines like her rosé so irresistible.

Toronto Life Wine Club

Rosé is riding a wave. What’s special about it?

People are starting to gravitate towards a drier style. If you drink a sweet rosé, you can maybe have one glass and it’s sweet and cloying and you don’t really want another one. And it doesn’t pair with food. But people who are drinking the drier style are starting to realize that it’s amazing with food.

Describe your rosé to me in your own words.

For me, a wine has to smell good, have a really nice nose and be enticing. I taste melon with cantaloupe notes and strawberry—the white part, when the top part is under-ripe. But in a good way. And cotton candy notes. It leads you to think it’s going to be sweet, and that’s what I love, but as soon as you taste it, there’s lots of acidity for balance.

The colour is quite striking.

I love the colour. There’s very little skin contact, so you get very little colour. I try to make it really light. In 2013, that was not the trend to make a Provençale light-styled rosé in Ontario. I was really lucky that the family stood beside the wine, even though our colour was so light compared to other Ontario producers. I think that might be the only time in my life I’ve been ahead of the curve. [Laughs.]

Mason, right, with Honsberger Estate Winery’s Barb Honsberger Condotta, centre, and Britney Condotta.

What would be the most perfect food to pair with your rose?

The Honsberger “Papa” pizza. It has salami and sopressata, and I think rosé goes really well with charcuterie. When I can eat an entire Honsberger pizza and drink a bottle of rosé, it’s a good day. That doesn’t happen all the time, but I’ll do it now and then. And then you’re not allowed a slice of pizza or anything. It’s mine and I’ve earned it.

What chef would you love to have cook for you and your rosé?

Michael Stadtländer. Eigensinn Farm has been on my bucket list forever.

What’s a typical day like?

I run around between three vineyards on 70-plus acres, moving around all the time. And I do all the manual work on my own vineyard. So that takes up my Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes before work, I’ll start in the morning really early, say quarter to six and then go until 8:15, head to my job and then back on my vineyard in the evening from 5 to 9 pm. I like not being in an office. We have the ability to always be active. Whether you’re in the cellar or the vineyard, you’re constantly moving around. You don’t have to be chained to a desk, which would drive me crazy. And you get to do something from the beginning to the end. From the growing to the winemaking, at all three places, which is awesome.

What do you like to drink?

Bubbles. Anything that’s got bubbles in it. As long as it’s not sweet. Nothing sweet. So brut. And I drink a lot of Dillon’s Rose Gin. And tonic. Sometimes no tonic. Because I work pretty much seven days a week right now. My weekend is three o’clock on Sunday. That’s when I stop. So from 3 o’clock on Sunday, there’s no work. And that’s the ritual: at 3 o’clock, on the vineyard, with a gin and tonic. That’s my Friday night on Sunday afternoon: Friday, Saturday and Sunday condensed into five hours on Sunday.

More Ontario winemakers

What’s the best thing about being a winemaker?

My wine allocation. [Laughs.] Winemakers trade with each other. Believe it or not, you get tired of drinking your own wine. Most of the times you don’t want to. By the time you’ve spent two years plus making that bottle—yes, it’s exciting to taste it when it’s first in the bottle—but then I want to try someone else’s cab franc or I want to try a different pinot.

Who’s making great wine in Ontario?

Oh, there’s so many. And that’s the cool thing. Ontario has made such a great shift in the last 10 years and is really getting recognition on a global scale. So, that’s awesome. Of course, Thomas Bachelder—the Bachelder wines are fantastic. Five Rows, they make some great wine: the sauvignon blanc if you can get it before it’s sold out. And their syrah and pinot noir. Hidden Bench makes great wine. Everyone needs to try the wines made by Derek Barnett at Meldville. If I can start naming bottles, I love the Marsanne from Kew. And I’ve always loved Shiraz Mottiar’s Courtney Gamay from Malivoire. And any small-lot wine by Emma Garner of Thirty Bench.

Other than wine, what do winemakers talk about?

The weather. Non-stop weather. It’s really boring if you’re not in the industry.

What’s your favourite farm animal?

I like birds of prey. So they can eat the other birds that are on my farm eating my grapes.

What does a winemaker carry in the trunk of her car?

There’s pruners, a Sawzall, duct tape, hand wipes, a ratchet strap, sunscreen, an extra set of clothes. I have Blundstones, rubber boots and flipflops, so I have options depending on how hot it is. And my John Deere baseball cap. There’s also a bottle of Dillon’s Rose Gin in there right now.

(Photo by Kelly Mason)

And what kind of car do you drive?

I drive a BMW. But wait: It’s the only car I’ve ever bought and I bought it in 2004. It’s so old. It’s a 325 coupe and it’s in good shape. But it’s very embarrassing at any fancy valet events in Toronto because it’s usually covered in mud and there’s stuff all over the seats. It’s not good if I have to get dressed up for some winemaker’s event. I call it my farm vehicle. But next time I’m getting a pickup truck.