“Years back, while tending my family farm, I had a revelation,” said Sue-Ann Staff, the accomplished winemaker…“I loved the farm life. This is my Paris, my Australia, my South Africa, my freedom. So, I dress the part and enjoy life through the rose-coloured glass of the fancy farm girl. The farm is a metaphor, the attire an approach. The reality? There is a fancy farm girl in all of us.”
These marketing words are behind the winery’s new Fancy Farm Girl label – available in 60+LCBO locations as one of the “Wines to Watch” – but they also capture the very essence of Sue-Ann, who has received more than 450 national and international wine awards and has twice been recognized as one of the world’s top four “Women in Wine” by the International Wine and Spirits Society in London, England.
“The best day for me is when I start out in steel-toed work boots and ripped jeans, get up to my elbows in the vineyards or tank room, and then head home, shower, pop on a gala dress and go to pour wine at a splashy event. I love the contrast, the diversity, the glamour. But my roots are in the farm,” matter-of-factly states Sue-Ann.
And those roots run deep. The Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery is located in Jordan, along the Niagara Escarpment, on land that has been owned by her family for seven generations. The last five generations have grown grapes, making it one of the oldest commercial vineyards in Canada (perhaps even the oldest). When Sue-Ann was growing up, it was also the largest privately owned fruit farm in Canada, with more than 800 acres of grapes, most of which were destined for the industrial Jordan Wines.
As early as the age of seven, she began spending time in the vineyard with her grandmother, who managed the crews that were tying and thinning the vines. By 13, she was driving tractors and cultivators. “We had over 30 varieties of grapes and we were one of the first to plant Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay, and Baco Noir. Grapes were a big part of our lives and a big discussion around the dinner table every night.”
Sue-Ann is the first member of the family to become a winemaker, a career she decided to pursue when she was 16 years old. “My grandfather was very much of the mindset that we were farmers first (photo of his tractor at right). As well, the whole estate winery thing didn’t exist at the time. Wineries were factories and they processed wine, so it was a totally different feel back then.”
Today at her winery, she manages 104 acres of land, 35 of which are devoted to grape vines and, of those, 70 percent to Riesling. Until now, however, focusing on her own vineyard has been a part-time job or, as she describes it, “an expensive hobby”. All of that is about to change.
From the time she completed her studies (first with a double major in horticulture and bio-technology from the University of Guelph, followed by a graduate degree in winemaking from the University of Adelaide in South Australia), Sue-Ann has been paying the bills by using her talents to help advance other wineries. She worked for 10 years as the winemaker at Pillitteri Estate Winery (where she won many awards for her icewine) and then worked for the original management team at 20 Bees Winery, until it went into receivership. That was a turning point in her life.
“I was 37 at the time and had a cat, of course” she laughs. “I thought if I can’t start a winery now and support a cat, it will never happen.”
She launched the Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery in 2008 and opened it to the public in 2009. About the same time, John Howard (of John Howard Cellars of Distinction) invited her to be the winemaker forMegalomaniac in nearby Vineland. This position would include liaising with its sister property – Château La Confession – in St. Emillion, Bordeaux, France. “With the travel, it sounded pretty enticing,” she says.
The reality is that more than 50 percent of her time was spent at Megalomaniac, while her own winery took back seat for the past six years.
Sue-Ann recently made the decision to alter her course. Beginning this April, she will refocus 100% of her attention on her own winery. “I’ve given a lot at Megalomaniac and we’ve grown quite a bit and have done well too. I’m sad to leave that behind, but at the same time my own winery hasn’t really taken off and it needs to. If I’m going to do this, I need to get two feet behind it & give it my all.”
“It’s exciting, it’s scary, it’s sad (to be leaving Megalomanic), it’s happy.” Mostly, though, she sounds excited about taking her winery to a new level.
Among her plans, she wants to increase production to 10,000 cases and export some of her ice wines. She earned the reputation of being the “Ice Queen” when she was at Pillitteri and laughs that, “at least I hope they were talking about the wine!” She is also anticipating that her new Fancy Farm Girl label does well at the LCBO over the next couple of months, so it will be considered for inclusion in the general listing, which would represent a huge step for her. Give it a try – the Savvy Team were impressed with both the ‘Frivolous White’ and ‘Flamboyant Red’. At $14.95 – she’s giving it away!
Sue-Ann is also looking forward to increasing her focus on hosting special events on the estate property, an area of her business that has been growing rapidly for her over the last several years. A 4000-square foot tent, complete with chandeliers and a dance floor, overlooking a two-acre pond, plays centre role in weddings and other events, including a recent Family Day party, where the pond was transformed into a large skating rink. “It’s fun having people come in and enjoy the property. It’s a special place in the world.”
The large picturesque Victorian farm house on the estate is where Sue-Ann lives as well as the winery, It is the same home that belonged to her grandparents and in where she spent a lot of time as a youngster. This homestead now hosts many visitors casually in the kitchen. It has undergone extensive renovations – “it’s done up a bit more fancy than the average farmhouse” – and today plays a double role as the winery’s retail space. “People love it – they think it’s fantastic – but sometimes I just want to make a grilled cheese sandwich,” she laughs. “So, I would like to get my kitchen back.” Part of her four-year plan is to move the retail shop to a different building.
By the time you crack the seal on one of Sue-Ann’s wines in your Savvy Selections, Sue-Ann will be in Düsseldorf, Germany for “Prowein” – the largest wine trade show in the world. This marks a milestone as this visit will be the first international show where the only wine that Sue-Ann will be showcasing is the wine from her winery.
Good luck, Sue-Ann, and best wishes on the next chapter of your winemaking career!